7 preaching tips to effectively reach gen z
Chris li | JULY 18, 2019 | 5 MIN READ
Every time I go up to the pulpit (which is just a music stand), I try to swing for the fences. Sometimes a sermon connects with students but other times, I feel like I strikeout. Why?
I believe that teenagers have changed and research proves it. Gen Z is defined by Barna as anyone born from 1999-2015, and they are like no generation that has come before them. This means a sermon given a few years ago may not be as effective today.
Over the past couple of years, I have learned (often by painful mistakes) more about how to effectively reach this new generation. Through careful observation, here are some tips that can hopefully help you preach to Gen Z more effectively.
Tip #1: Be Prepared by Guarding Your Time
We are all busy. We have classes, jobs, friendships, families, and financial responsibilities. On top of that, the youth pastor is often the one who preaches and teaches more than anyone else. Sadly, when life gets busy (and it always does), sometimes our sermon preparation is the first to go.
Kids and teens can always tell if we are ready or not. We do not need to blow their minds or start a revival every time we preach, but we must set time aside to prepare adequately. It takes time to exegete, study, pray, organize, outline, edit, revise, and memorize. The less time I put into sermon preparation, the longer my sermons usually goes and no one likes long sermons — especially teenagers.
Tip #2: Be Relevant by Using Specifics
The Bible is timeless, relatable and practical, but it is the job of the preacher to help bring that to life. So we need to connect Scripture to our kids’ reality by using specifics and details.
In Preaching, Timothy Keller writes, “A sermon is a place to wake people up to the realities they have assented to with the mind but have not grasped with the heart.” In other words, preaching is a call to bring down abstract Christian phrases from the clouds to the ground.
We can tell students to prioritize koinonia, but it might be more relatable to challenge them to miss soccer tournaments or dance competitions that might fall on Sunday mornings. We can tell teenagers to stop sinning, but it might be more real for them when we talk about the temptations of copying homework between classes, gossiping in group chats, or being addicted to porn. We can tell children to be more generous, but it might be more relevant to ask if they really need another pair of Yeezys or that venti Caramel Frappuccino.
Specific details may appear to be unnecessary but they help to ground theology for students. The formula for coming up with specifics is a little bit of imagination, observation and conversation, so make sure you are spending enough time with your students.
Tip #3: Be Vulnerable by Getting Real
The age of Instagram has primed teenagers to impress others and put on a show. It seems silly but I confess that there are times when I want to impress teenagers with my preaching.
Teens and kids may be fixated with wanting to impress each other, but we can model a different way as we preach vulnerably. Brene Brown says, “Vulnerability is winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control of the outcome.” So show not just the wins but the losses. We ought to be personal, transparent, and honest. Not just the good but also the bad — especially the ugly.
Paul wrote, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” As we share, it invites them to do so as well. As we open up about temptation, failure, sin and brokenness, we are shattering their expectations of the perfect pastor but we are showing them a perfect Savior. If we are not vulnerable, we may care about our reputation far more than we do our congregation.
Our people are broken and they need to see that we are too. Craig Groeschel says, “We might impress people with our strengths, but we connect with people through our weaknesses.” It may not be easy to do from the pulpit but have the courage to be vulnerable.
Tip #4: Be Interesting by Using Imagination
Trends, slang, and whatever is cool — it comes and goes. I have nothing against these things, but I cannot keep up nor do I want to. There are other ways to capture the interest of students.
Rankin Wilbourne says, “Imagination is necessary to know and enjoy God.” It is not just for children and not limited to make-believe and fairy tales. Imagination is putting an image to something that is not immediately visible to our eyes.
One reason why Jesus was the most interesting preacher is because he engaged the imagination. Jesus used images, pictures, metaphors, parables, stories and narratives. Scriptures speaks of God as a cloud, a light, a fire, a rock, the King, living water, bread, the vine, the gate, a Father, a Lion and a Lamb.
As a youth pastor, I was encouraged by our staff and students to be creative with the using jokes, movies, stories, songs, props, and anything else to help point people to Jesus. Although these things can hijack and distract from the text, but they can also captivate and highlight Jesus. These are all tools that can be used carefully and wisely.
Preaching to youth is a constant reminder that what is interesting to me is not interesting to them. The content can be solid but if it is not delivered in an interesting way, what good is it? I am not saying we need to capture their attention by any means necessary, but students need to pay attention to hear what is being said. A great way to know if your sermon is interesting is to look at your congregation — their level of interest will be written on their faces.
Tip #5: Be Clear through Collaboration
I thought that the sermon process consisted of locking yourself in a room with commentaries. But after I gave my first sermon in preaching class, none of my classmates could articulate what the main idea was. Even though everything was crystal clear to me, everyone else was in a fog. I realized that being clear is incredibly difficult and if other preachers cannot find my points, how can my students?
Clarity for the congregation begins with clarity for the preacher. So the more, the merrier. The path to clarity often includes commentaries, research, sermons, books and constant feedback from others. Often when I get another set of eyes (typically another preacher on staff) or I talk through the message with someone (usually my wife), it can help sharpen my thoughts.
Clarity rarely comes in isolation but is cultivated in collaboration and sharpened through preparation. Feedback can hurt my pride, but it almost always improves the sermon.
In addition, we need to tell people that we need and appreciate their comments. It can be awkward and scary for people to tell you what they think when they aren’t prompted, so initiate by asking them.
Tip #6: Be Passionate through Prayer
Although it may not be popular or your personality to get fired up, many passages of Scripture are deeply intense and emotional. It’s not always calm and quiet or serene and tame. The Gospel is serious, abrasive, ridiculous and scandalous. Forgiveness, grace, the cross are stories of deep emotion and vivid violence. To communicate God’s truth, our preaching voice should mirror the tone of the text. To find the tone, we must soak in the text and thoroughly pray it out so that it permeates out of us passionately.
Charles Spurgeon once said, “If sinners be damned, at least let them leap to Hell over our dead bodies. And if they perish, let them perish with our arms wrapped about their knees, imploring them to stay. If Hell must be filled, let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go unwarned and unprayed for.”
This is a picture of passion but it looks different for everyone. A passionate preacher does not need to pace back and forth, yell or cry to be passionate.
Passion comes from compassion for the people which is God given. As Martyn Lloyd Jones said, “To love to preach is one thing, to love those to whom we preach is quite another. The trouble with some of us is that we love preaching, but we are not always careful to make sure that we love the people to whom we are actually preaching. If you lack this element of compassion for the people you will also lack the pathos which is a very vital element in all true preaching.”
When I lack passion, I lack love, and I probably need to spend more time in prayer for the people. We must study our minds full and pray our hearts hot so that we can speak God’s Word.
Tip #7: Be Faithful by Preaching Christ
What students need more than preparation, clarity, vulnerability, relevance and passion is Jesus. These elements are tips to communicate the message, but Jesus is always the content of the message. At the end of the day, it is Christ alone who can both save, sanctify and sustain. So preach the gospel faithfully.
The Gospel is good news. The Gospel is the story that puts into context who Jesus is. Ultimately, the students need Christ. Every word, sentence, paragraph and sermon should work together to set up and highlight the person and work of Jesus Christ. Regardless of the occasion, the location, the congregation or generation, the preacher must not cease preaching about who Jesus is and what He has done (Acts 5:42). If it gets redundant and repetitive for us or our listeners, then perhaps that says something more about us than them.
Tim Keller in Preaching writes, “Unless we preach Jesus rather than a set of ‘morals of the story’ or timeless principles or good advice, people will never truly understand, love, or obey the Word of God.” We preach faithfully and biblically when we preach Jesus. So regardless of who we are preaching to, let us preach Christ.
Chris Li has been doing youth ministry for the last 5 years and got his M.Div. from Talbot School of Theology. He and his wife, Jessica, live in Orange County where he serves as the Director of Student Ministry at Living Hope Community Church in Brea, CA.