Why I Choose to Teach Topically in Youth Ministry

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?

Four Things That Should Be in Your Next Message

If your ministry role requires you to speak, preach, or teach on a regular basis, you probably find yourself speaking on a wide variety of topics. Whether you’re a small group leader, a Bible study teacher, or a pastor who speaks in the same venue every week, it can be hard to know what to include in your message or lesson each week. After all, you have a limited amount of time to say what you have to say, and if you’re like me, you often prepare more content than you’re able to deliver. So what should you keep, and what should you leave out? I can’t help you with the specifics of your particular message for this coming weekend, but here are four things I believe should be a part of it:

Your message is nothing if it isn’t true. Many communicators can be engaging or captivating on the spot, but it takes hard work during your sermon or lesson prep to ensure that what you’re saying is true. You don’t need to be a full-fledged biblical scholar, but make sure you take the time to handle carefully issues such as context, word meanings, and historical background. There are times when we think a passage means one thing, but after some study we find that it actually means another thing.

If the lesson or message you’re communicating is worth anything, you should care about whether or not people hear it. Don’t be afraid to let your tone, body language, and facial expressions know that you believe that what you’re saying matters. Keep in mind, you don’t have to yell to convey passion. You just need to let a little bit of emotion shine through. If you care about what you’re saying, others will be more likely to listen.

You’re not perfect. You’re not sinless. And you sure don’t have following Jesus down to a T. So when you’re speaking on a tough topic or pushing your audience in a direction that’s not entirely comfortable for them, have some compassion. Share about some of your struggles, or let them know that you’re in the same boat as them. Remember, you’re a sinner, trying to point other sinners toward redemption.

Next Steps
Since you’ve spent what might be a considerable amount of your week preparing your lesson or message, it might be crystal clear to you what you’d like your audience to do next with the content you’re presenting. However, the application is not nearly as clear to everyone else who is hearing your message for the first time and who only have one shot to take it all in. Make it simple, make it clear, and don’t be afraid to overstate the obvious. And if you have to cut out some content to spend enough time explaining to your audience how to live out what they’re hearing, that’s okay. It’s better to have someone understand how to put a biblical principle into practice than know the Greek root of a word they won’t remember in a few days anyway.

Three Questions to Ask Before Your Next Sermon, Message, or Small Group

Whether you’ve preached hundreds of sermons to thousands of people or you lead a small group of seventh grade boys, it’s easy to get in a rut when it comes to preaching, teaching, or leading a discussion. Maybe you’re feeling like you’re not having as much of an impact as you used to, or perhaps you’ve noticed that people aren’t really engaged or connecting when you’re speaking or trying to lead a discussion. Or maybe you haven’t noticed that all of your messages seem to sound just about the same (believe me, the people who are listening to you have noticed!). To keep things fresh, here are three questions to ask yourself as you prepare your next sermon, message, or small group discussion:

Have I learned anything?
Communicators–small group leaders, senior pastors, and everyone in between–are more likely to communicate with passion and clarity when they are learning as they prepare. If you can prepare a thirty-minute sermon without learning anything new that you can apply to your own life, you probably won’t have much in the way of life-altering truth to share with those you’re speaking to.

Do I believe it?
Before you get mad at me for accusing you of not trusting the Bible or breaking at least three articles in your church’s statement of faith, answer this question: Have you ever had to preach a sermon that your head believed was true, but that you just couldn’t get any passion for? Sure, your head might believe the content of what you’ve prepared to say, but you may not own it. Whether people can articulate it or not, they can tell when you don’t really believe what you’re saying. So own it. If there’s something you’re not sure of in a passage or that you struggle with, say that. Don’t pretend like everything you’re talking about is a neat and tidy set of obvious beliefs you figured out ages ago and have never wrestled with.

Does it matter?
Great theological thinking and funny stories don’t mean a thing if you don’t help your group or audience understand why what you have to say matters to their life. Look, I know you’re armed with a New Testament dictionary and some great Bible software. By all means, put it to good use (see the first question on this list). But if you’re not helping people be doers of the word and not just hearers, then you’re just creating really smart hypocrites who deceive themselves (see James 1:22). Let me just put it this way: if because of time you have to choose between explaining the Greek root of a word or giving a great application to your message, choose the latter. Every time.

Fun Video Opening for an Easter Lesson

Note: This is an opener that we’re going to use as an introduction to our Easter message in our student ministry this week (we’ll be teaching out of 1 Corinthians 15). Feel free to use it if you like it!

What would you do with $500,000? Buy a new house? Cruise around town in your dream car? Give it to someone or a cause that you know could use the money more than you? Whatever you would do with that money, I think it’s safe that things would be different–whether for you or whoever you share the money with–in some way, right?

With that in mind, watch this video:
Warning: there is a muffled but somewhat recognizable swear word at 0:15 of the video, but it’s during the introduction, which isn’t really crucial to the video itself. You’ll want to queue the video up the video at 0 minutes, 18 seconds, or edit the word out yourself. You can use this link to start the video right at 0:18 if you like: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bI7AUgp5fPI&t=0m18s

Question: Is that guy going to get the half million dollars? Of course not! Why? Because he didn’t actually make the shot. Now, he thought he made the shot. He was ecstatic! Of course, if there was a real contest and he had really made the blindfolded half court shot, his life would very likely change, depending on what he would do with the money. But he didn’t really make the shot, no matter how sincerely he thought he did.

Here’s the point: Easter Sunday is the day that Christians around the world celebrate the fact that Jesus rose again from the dead after dying on the cross a few days earlier. But here’s what we are going to focus on today: Either the event really happened, or it didn’t. If it didn’t happen, this whole Jesus thing is no more than a sham, right? But if it did happen–if Jesus really DID rise from the dead–it changes EVERYTHING.

Four Free Apologetics Teaching Resources (For Youth Workers Who Don’t Think They Can Teach on Apologetics)

I consider apologetics to be a necessary part of any youth pastor’s teaching rotation. Most teenagers are in a stage of development where they are coming to the realization that countless worldviews exist, yet they often aren’t equipped to think critically and investigate worldviews in a logical way. Teaching apologetics isn’t about winning an argument, but rather about helping teenagers to 1) Do some digging and investigate the evidence for a biblical worldview and 2) lovingly and intelligently interact with others who do not share their worldview. As Mack Stiles puts it in Speaking of Jesus (IVP, 1995), “No one was ever argued into the Kingdom; but no one ever entered the Kingdom without a reason.”

I wish all youth workers had a good handle on some basic apologetics topics, but I know that isn’t always the case. Many youth workers know that they should teach on apologetics, but they don’t because they don’t feel like they know enough about apologetics themselves. Everybody has to start somewhere, and a lack of confidence shouldn’t keep you from exposing the teenagers you serve to apologetics.

With that in mind, what follows a list of free resources that you can use to teach on apologetics in your youth ministry. However, let me first offer a few notes of warning:

  1. These resources aren’t meant to be a substitute for your own study of apologetics or an invitation to be lazy; they are simply meant to provide a starting point if you don’t know where to begin when it comes to teaching on apologetics.
  2. Most of these resources are best for students who will be engaged and motivated to learn in a small group setting. As much as I believe that apologetics should be at least introduced to all teenagers in your church, I wouldn’t just choose one of the resources below and hit the “play” button at your next youth group expecting that everyone will be engaged.
  3. Remember, these are free resources. There are also a lot of great apologetics resources out there that are for sale. I may post on those some time in the future, but the purpose of this post is to point to free resources that are a great first step.

The Veritas Forum (www.veritas.org)
The Veritas Forum hosts lectures, forums, and debates at college campuses, primarily in the United States. On their website, they state that “We host university events that engage students and faculty in discussions about life’s hardest questions and the relevance of Jesus Christ to all of life.” Hundreds (perhaps thousands at this point) of audio and video recordings of forums are archived on the Veritas website (www.veritas.org). Yes, the vast majority of the talks are over an hour, so you may need to make popcorn or show only part of a forum. However, the content is solid, and while it is very high level thinking, it’s accessible to high school students. If you’d like to look through some shorter clips as more of an illustration or teaching aid, check out their YouTube channel.

Sean McDowell (www.seanmcdowell.org)
There are several great apologetics videos on Sean McDowell’s site, but like the Veritas videos, most are over an hour long. However, it feels like Sean’s videos are more accessible to high school students, and it might be a great place to start.

Video of William Lane Craig Speaking to High Schoolers About Jesus’ Resurrection
William Lane Craig is probably my favorite apologist because of the clarity with which he speaks on complicated issues (not to mention he is from my dad’s home town of Keokuk, Iowa). This is a great introduction to the evidence for Jesus’ miraculous resurrection from the dead, a cornerstone of the Gospel. You can find the talk on YouTube here, but I’ll also embed it here:

This site is full of plenty of audio and video resources on various apologetics topics. One of my favorites (though it’s just audio and not video) is Tim Keller’s message on “How Can There Be Just One True Religion?” Not only is Tim Keller a great speaker, but the topic is one that I think most teenagers wrestle with.

Are there any FREE Resources you would add to the list?

Two things Teenagers Need to Hear About Jesus from Their Youth Pastor

Over the course of a ministry year, it’s difficult to know as a youth worker what topics should be taught and discussed in large group gatherings and in small groups. Which books of the Bible should you focus on? Are there any topics that are at the forefront of teenagers’ lives that you really need to make sure you talk about? How do you decide when you’re preparing a message what content to include and what gets sent to the cutting room floor? No matter what you decide what you’ll cover, there are two things that the teenagers you work with need to hear from their youth pastor:

1) Jesus changed my life.
This next week as you prepare your message for youth group or get ready to lead your small group, don’t forget that one of the most powerful things you can share is how Jesus changed your life. Many of the people in the New Testament who helped people know Jesus did so because they passionately told others about how Jesus had changed them. (For examples, see Mark 5:1-20, John 4:1-42, and 1 Corinthians 15:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:15-16.) You may be surprised at how much the students you work with long to hear about how you came to know Jesus, and how he continues to change your life. They want to know that this whole Jesus thing “works” and that by the power of the Holy Spirit, people can change and can be used in amazing ways by God.

If you’ve never taken the time to tell the teenagers you work with how you came to know Jesus and how he continues to work in your life, you need to make a point of doing so as soon as possible. A pastor or youth worker who’s great at teaching the Bible yet never shares any of his personal story might simply look like a perfect person who can’t possibly know what it’s like to live in the real world. There have been many periods when I have been so focused on doing a good job exegeting a passage or coming at a topic from every biblical angle possible that I forgot to simply share how Jesus had changed my life (and continues to do so). Yes, by all means, teach and preach from the Bible. But don’t be so focused on delivering a great message or lesson that you don’t reveal how Jesus brought you from death to life. Because that’s exactly what Jesus is in the business of doing, and teenagers need to know that he can do it for them, too.

2) Following Jesus is hard.
When you tell teenagers how Jesus saved you, don’t stop at the point where you first believed. You and I may never have met, but I know enough about following Jesus that your road has been filled with disappointments, difficulties, heart ache, and plenty of falling down and getting up again. Don’t hide that part of your walk with Jesus from the teenagers you work with. There are certainly healthy and unhealthy ways to share about your struggles, but don’t make it seem that you have it all together and that following Jesus is a walk in the park.

Teenagers need to hear that following Jesus is hard, and that it is worth it. Don’t be afraid to share ways that following Jesus has been hard for you. Include in your messages times where you have been confused at what God is doing in your life. Perhaps there was a time when you had a difficult time working up the courage to tell a friend about Jesus or when you said completely the wrong thing in a conversation about Jesus with someone who was seeking. If you are speaking on tragedy, tell about a time when you were hurt by a tragedy in your own life. And where appropriate, share how you have struggled with sin in your walk with Jesus. The Bible is very clear on this fact: Following Jesus is difficult for many reasons, but it is worth it.

If you cover those two things, the teenagers you work with are likely to understand that Jesus saves sinful, imperfect people like you, and that a life of following Jesus can be a long, difficult, but joyfully rewarding road.

Top Videos from 2012

Credit: Stockerre (Creative Commons)

I usually share a “Video of the Week” on this blog every Friday, plus a few other videos here and there when I just can’t wait until Friday to post. Yesterday, I shared the ten most popular posts from 2012; here are the five most popular videos posted on this blog from 2012:

5) Video of the Week: Mr Bean in Church (January 13th)

4) A YouTube Phenomenon: Teens ask, “Am I ugly or pretty?” (March 6th)

3) Anthony Starego, Autistic Kicker (November 30th)

2) CNN Story on the Passion Conference and Ending Slavery (January 6th)

1) Andy Stanley on Christian vs. Disciple (March 30th)

Video of the Week: Mark Driscoll, "Serving is Awesome"

In light of my post this week on finding people to serve in youth ministry, I thought this was a great video to share. I love Driscoll’s language about treating the church like a hotel and not a home, and I think it’s a great picture to use when teaching or preaching on the importance of serving within the church body:

Sermon by Stuart McCallister: By All Possible Means

Stuart McCallister of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries is an annual favorite at our church. No matter how many times he visits, he is always challenging and convicting, preaching on the importance of apologetics and the biblical mandate to reach people for Christ by all possible means. Here’s the sermon he preached this past Sunday:

“By All Possible Means”_Sept. 9, 2012 from The Heights Community on Vimeo.