When I was a new follower of Jesus, I loved sermons and couldn’t get enough of them. I knew that I didn’t really know much about what it means to follow Jesus, and since I was a slow reader, I much preferred to listen to sermons than to read the many books people recommended to me. So, I started listening to preachers on my city’s local Christian radio station (this was in the days before podcasts). The preachers to whom I gravitated were ones who tended to preach through books of the Bible. The reason I loved those kinds of sermons was that the preachers walked me through the Bible in a way that made what the Bible says seem plain as day. In addition, I gained an appreciation for the fact that by listening to sermons that walked me through different books of the Bible, I understood to some extent how all sixty-six books of the Bible form a cohesive whole, even though they were written by several human authors spanning thousands of years. I thought that one day I might do the same thing as a pastor.
Then I became a youth pastor.
Now that you see where I’m going with this, let me hit the pause button and tell you what I’m not about to say. I won’t tell you that I don’t think teenagers are capable of hearing messages that walk them through entire books of Bible at a time. I know that’s not true, because I’ve done it and seen teenagers gain an appreciation of God’s word because of it. One year I led our high school ministry verse-by-verse through the first eight chapters of the Gospel of Mark. This summer, our youth ministry staff is preparing four messages on the entire book of Habakkuk to go along with a sermon series our lead pastor has planned. I know teenagers can handle it–some of them even love it and ask for it when we haven’t done it for a while.
What I am about to tell you is why I believe that teaching topically works best for youth ministry. Now, understand that when I refer to topical teaching, I’m not talking about a hap-hazard approach to preparing messages where you decide on Wednesday morning what topic you’re going to speak about at youth group Wednesday night. That’s not teaching topically–that’s being lazy. Just because you’re not preaching through books of the Bible all the time does not mean that you are teaching topically. When I refer to topical teaching, I am talking about a well-planned approach to preparing your messages that allows the Word of God to speak powerfully to real and important issues teenagers face on a regular basis. It’s not the approach I use 100% of the time, but it’s definitely the one I use the majority of the time. Here’s why I think it’s the way to go:
The purpose of a sermon or a message is Bible action, not Bible study.
I know that many will disagree with me on this–I certainly would have until just a couple of years ago. We can be so passionate about filling students up with as much Scripture as possible that we make it nearly impossible for them to know what to do with it. Again, I’m not saying that teenagers can’t handle a ton of Scripture. I’m saying that when we focus only on transferring information (even GREAT information like the Bible), we often forget to help them be doers of the Word and not just hearers (James 1:22). And before I move on, I’ll concede that there are people who can preach through books of the Bible verse-by-verse and do a great job emphasizing real, life-changing application. I just know I’m not one of ’em and that they are the exception rather than the rule.
Teenagers are begging you to answer their questions.
Really. If you don’t believe me, hand a sheet of paper to every teenager at your next youth group, and tell them they have five minutes to write down as many questions they can think of that they would love to have answered about God, faith, and life. You’ll likely end up with far more unique questions than people in the room. Use this fact as an opportunity to invite your teenagers to open up the Bible and bring their questions to God. No, you can’t (and shouldn’t) address every question or felt need in a message, but you can use issues that are important to them as a starting point to submitting to God and his Word as a group.
There are topics that you need to address head-on with teenagers.
While I have known many intelligent and capable teenagers, here’s one thing I have learned in over ten years of speaking in front of teenagers: because of where they are developmentally, you have to connect the dots for them and make your point crystal clear. You may be a better communicator than I am, but for me, I know that if I want the teenagers I serve to really understand the gift of sexuality and its destructive power when mishandled, I can’t just speak about it in passing on my way through 1 Corinthians. I need to do a series on it every single year. This past fall, we did perhaps the most powerful series I’ve been a part of as a youth pastor when we spent six weeks unpacking secrets about ourselves we hope no one will every find out about. I would not have been able to do that if I was committed to preaching through a book from start to finish.
Teenagers should be diving deep into Bible study elsewhere.
One reason some folks love to teach through books of the Bible or have a teaching plan where a teenager will be taught an overview of the entire Bible over the course of three or four years is because they want to build a firm foundation of faith in their students. That’s a wonderful goal. However, helping teenagers become biblically literate doesn’t need to just happen in youth group. Maybe your lead pastor preaches verse-by-verse through books of the Bible and you want your teenagers to benefit from that kind of teaching; make every effort to get your teenagers to the main worship service. Maybe you recognize that your teenagers don’t have a basic handle on how to read and study the Bible on their own; train your small group leaders to teach some of those basic skills in their groups. For students who have parents who are plugged in at your church, help those parents lead their teeangers in Bible study. When you realize that it’s not entirely up to you to make sure your teenagers know the Bible, you are freed up to tackle issues that teenagers are trying to figure out how to navigate as followers of Jesus.
What do think? Agree? Disagree? Not Sure?