Which Matters Most: Form or Content?


As a youth pastor, the most important thing I do is pray for my students and their families. The next most important thing I do is teach teenagers the Word of God. Over the last year, my ministry has gone through a significant shift, which has led to the need for a re-examination of my teaching and preaching methods. Honestly, it has been a much bumpier and more difficult process than I expected. This season has reminded me that more goes into good preaching and teaching than good content. 

If you read this blog, then you are probably among those who eschew light and shallow teachings. You have committed yourself to preach the Word and faithfully proclaim the gospel of grace instead of pursuing mere behavior modification. That is wonderful! But I suspect too many in our camp overlook the importance of form and delivery. 

In our desire to avoid the youth pastor stereotypes, we need to be aware of the temptation on the other extreme: youth workers who think they are seminary professors. I am afraid I know this temptation all too well. If I had to choose an extreme, I would choose to be biblically faithful over being a charismatic speaker; but too often, I give myself permission to overlook the importance of crafting my message into a form that is clear, compelling, and firmly rooted in the daily realities in which my students live.  

Preaching & Teaching Are Different Tasks

Before moving on, it is necessary to remember the difference between preaching and teaching. Most of us who are in small or medium sized churches are the only paid youth worker, and this means most of the teaching falls to us. This also means we are likely to teach in different settings on a regular basis. Some of those settings call for teaching, and others call for preaching. We need to be careful that we are presenting the Word of God in the right form for each ministry opportunity.

Teaching is quite broad and can take on many different forms and styles. It can be interactive and dramatic, high on dialogue, or strictly lecture. Whatever form it takes, the purpose is to communicate information. More than just the “big idea” of the Scripture passage is taught: biblical context, historical background, parallel passages, and other exegetical considerations are often included. Because the information we are teaching is the Word of God, we desire to see transformation as a result. But, the primary goal is educational. 

Preaching, on the other hand, is a declaration and a call for repentance. I’ve heard many sermons that would not fit this definition of preaching because they were actually lectures intended to teach. There is no preaching without teaching, because we need to say something. We must declare the Word of God and explain it before we call for repentance and transformation; but if we do not move towards the call for repentance then we have not preached, we have only taught. 

Personally, I preach in my ministry’s weekly youth group meetings and periodically during the church’s gathered worship; and I teach during Sunday School and mid-week Bible Study. It is important for me to distinguish which ministries call for teaching and which require preaching. The preparation is different, and while Scripture is always central, it takes on a different form to fit the specific ministry context. 

Why Form is as Important as Content

If we have completed our exegesis without giving thought to crafting the Word into good form for our ministry context, then we are like an artist who has prepared the clay without forming it into anything useful. Artists need good clay, but it is useless until it has been skillfully formed. You may be the greatest biblical scholar of all time, but if you cannot communicate what you have learned in a way that your audience can understand, then you simply should not preach. 

Stories, metaphors and examples from current events serve as wonderful tools for teaching and preaching. We only need to look at Jesus’ example. While some argue that parables are an example of Jesus using commonly known examples to help people understand, Scripture says he told parables in order to confuse (Matthew 13:11-17). Even in hearing this, it is clear that he told stories and used his surroundings to communicate what he wanted to convey. 

Some of the most helpful preaching advice I received in seminary came not in my preaching classes, but in a class on Revelation when the professor told us, “Let your exegesis be like your underwear while you preach. I’m going to trust you have it on, I don’t need to see it!” He went on to express his frustration when preachers feel the need to prove how much exegesis they have done on the text. If the preacher cannot teach the passage in simple terms, connect it to the gospel, and draw out the pastoral call for faithful repentance then the preacher either A) does not understand the text or B) does not understand their audience. 

Your teaching and preaching content may be faithful to the Word of God, but if they are not delivered in a way your group can receive, then your messages may be faithless to your students. It is for this reason that I am increasingly convinced that form is every bit as important as content. 

The Essential Element of Communication

We have all had conversations with people where they heard something we did not say. They heard the words we spoke, but interpreted them so differently we might as well have been having different conversations. Communication means that people hear and understand what we intend for them to hear and understand. If the message they receive is something other than what we are trying to send, then we have failed at communication. 

Communication can be thwarted in two very simple ways: The listener has tuned out, or the speaker is speaking the wrong language. Ministry is Spirit-led and the Holy Spirit produces the fruit, not a perfectly crafted sermon. That being said, we are irresponsible and lazy if we cast all the blame on our listeners’ hard hearts if we have not presented the Word of God in a way that clearly and compellingly proclaims our need of God and the hope of the gospel. 

We all want to be faithful teachers and preachers. We must handle rightly the Word of God, but we must also organize our thoughts and present them in a way that is understandable to the teenagers God has entrusted to us. I remember learning in seminary, “No sermon ever failed because of a good outline.” Sermons may fail for a thousand other reasons, but that is surely not one of them. As pastors, we are not showmen, and we do not rely on persuasive words. We rely on the power of God. That, however, is no excuse to neglect the form our message will take. 

Important Questions to Ask During Preparation

  • What is the big idea of this passage? 
  • How does this Scripture fit into the overall narrative of Salvation History (Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation)? 
  • Does this text focus on Law (“do this” or “don’t do this” commands) or Gospel (promises of God and the work of Christ)? How can I teach this passage in a way that clearly connects it to the Gospel? 
  • What is the mood (joy, sorrow, praise, rebuke, etc.) of this passage? How can I communicate this message in a way that reflects the appropriate mood?
  • What questions would my students ask about this passage? What words or ideas would need definition and clarification?
  • What values and ideas does this passage challenge that my students might hold? 
  • How should today’s teenager live and think differently because of this teaching? ( Be as concrete as possible—not to give a one-size-fits-all application, but to give an example of how God’s Word transforms our lives.) 
  • Are there any examples I can use from today’s culture to show either the need for or the fruit of this message? 
  • How will I engage and interact with students during this teaching/preaching that will help them understand the message more effectively? 

God Uses Jars of Clay

I am incredibly thankful God uses jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7), and does not toss them into the trash. If God insisted on delivering the gospel only through beautiful goblets, then he surely would find no use for me. There have been many times when I thought the sermon went well, only to hear from my youth leaders and students that they did not understand what I was saying. At other times, while sulking in my complete failure, I have been thanked for saying exactly what that person needed to hear. God is faithful. Indeed, his Word does not return empty: it will accomplish everything God has declared for it to do. 

Join us for Rooted 2015, an intimate youth ministry conference, where we will explore how the good news of God coming to mankind in the person of Jesus Christ offers student ministers and teenagers, hope, healing and connectedness.  


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