How to Preach to Gen Z Students
This article by Rooted friend Chris Li was originally planned as a workshop at our 2020 conference. But in the spirit of flexibility, and until we can all be together again, we bring you Chris’s wisdom to you in written form instead! We are offering six workshops, three plenaries, and a panel discussion (as well as various other treats and surprises) through our Rooted Micro Conferences on September 24. We hope you’ll join us!
Preaching to teenagers can be rough. After a sermon, I’ve been roasted by middle school students who are half my age. I’ve seen an entire row of students nod off before I finished my introduction. I even remember a high school student sighing out loud, then just getting up and walking out in the middle of the message.
Teenagers are critical. Teenagers have short attention spans. Teenagers have no filter. But teenagers are also in a critical season of their lives, when they need wisdom, comfort, encouragement, truth, and hope. When they actually show up and give us an hour of their attention, what do we share with them? How can we reach them? How can we faithfully preach Jesus to youth?
Preach God’s Word
God’s Word must be preached (2 Tim. 4:2). Scripture is divinely inspired. His Word alone is powerful to pierce the soul (Heb. 4:12), bring completion (2 Tim. 3:16-17), and give salvation (Rom. 10:14). Only God can accomplish these things through the Word. But do we really preach the Word or do we give counterfeit replacements? We need to be weary of the difference.
Distracting Them With Something Else
Instead of preaching God’s Word, we can distract students with a motivational talk, commentary factoids, a personal story, or spiritual rules. The Bible should motivate us to live for Jesus, personal stories can help connect theology to reality, and spiritual rules are important. But in the midst of this, does God’s Word shine through? Will they walk away remembering the text or your story? If we as preachers believe that our words are more inspirational or interesting than Scripture, our pride has led us astray and we will lead our students astray too.
Using the Bible as a Springboard
Another danger is using the Bible as a springboard for the preacher to share what they have been learning, their political opinions, or personal convictions as biblical truth. The preacher must be able to separate themselves from the text. God may be convicting and teaching us one thing, but God may also want you to speak on something entirely different on Sunday. Preachers need to know the difference between their soapbox and the pulpit. Have a conversation, write an article or record a podcast, but don’t twist God’s Word to fit your agenda.
Being Tone Deaf to the Text
Every preacher has different strengths. Some are insightful counselors, some are theological teachers, some are vision-casters (and so on). There’s nothing wrong with how God has wired and gifted us. But each book has a genre, every text has a tone, every story has a pace. As we exegete His Word, we ought to capture and match that tone in our sermon, no matter who we are. If you’re preaching through Mark, it should feel like a fast paced story. If you’re preaching through Romans, it should be heavy in logic and doctrine. If you’re preaching through the Psalms, it should be heartfelt and emotional. Maybe more important than finding our preaching style, we ought to search for the tone of each text.
Preach to Your Students
Preaching takes preparation. Throughout the week, most of the commentaries we read are written by well-researched scholars and theologians. Some of us prepare by listening to other gifted pastors for inspiration or a quote. Many of us have taken classes on preaching where peers and professors put our sermons under a microscope. We all prepare our sermons differently, but who do you have in mind as you prepare? Who are you writing your sermon for?
I’ve been speaking weekly to youth students for 8 years, and I still need to remind myself that my sermon is not for D.A. Carson or John Stott; my sermon is not for pastors who attended the 2014 Gospel Coalition Conference; my sermon is not for my peers or former preaching professors; my sermon is not to boost my ego or build my platform. My sermon is for the students that God has placed in our ministry.
So how do we preach to youth students? Before we open our mouths, we need to open our ears. Yes, this means actually doing the work of building relationships and having conversations with our teenagers throughout the week. What have they been doing? How have they been feeling? What’s been happening at home? I still catch myself answering questions that my students don’t care about and that means I haven’t done my homework of listening to them. Tim Keller would call people of different occupations from his church and talk through his sermon with them to get their thoughts and ideas. Perhaps we could take a page out of his playbook.
As much as we study the text, we need to study our students. Talking to teenagers can be horrifying or maybe it’s just me, but just checking in on them and being genuinely curious goes a long way. Ask them about what games they play, what shows they watch or why they like TikTok so much. How does this help us? When we read Scripture and when they read Scripture, we are seeing different things. We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are. So the more we understand our students, the more we are able to anticipate objections, speak specifically about what they are going through, and give examples that they can resonate with.
Preach the Gospel
If we believe that Jesus Christ is who He says He is, that He has fulfilled all the laws and commandments (Matt. 5:17), and that all promises find their yes and amen in Jesus (2 Cor. 1:20), then why would we not explicitly preach Christ and the gospel?
Okay God loves us – but how? God has a plan – what plan? We can be forgiven – why? We should follow Jesus – how come? So many of us preach unfinished sermons where we give lessons and spiritual rules without explicitly sharing Jesus, the crucified Savior, our risen Lord, the coming King. In my humble opinion, what is equally insufficient is to throw the gospel on at the end just because. In our preaching, if the gospel truly is of first importance (1 Cor. 15:3) then Jesus should shine through, grace should be amazing, and the cross should reign at the center.
I remember going to a Lecrae concert in Los Angeles, and when he got to one part in his song, he got on the highest podium and screamed, “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!” as all the lights flashed and confetti blasted. He called the crowd to worship along with him. The concert was great but I don’t really remember anything else from the concert except that moment. As we preach, I think our sermons are supposed to leave a similar impression.
Recently a lead pastor encouraged me as he said, “I realized all my favorite preachers did youth ministry. Youth pastors have to be clear, relevant, interesting, and evangelistic. It’s hard work.” Amen. If you have the opportunity to preach to youth, what a privilege. Let’s do it faithfully by preaching the Word, preaching to our students, and preaching Christ.