Preaching to Millennials
When we first moved to Thailand, I would sometimes get frustrated when trying to purchase items in local shops. I didn't know Thai and the shop-keepers usually didn't know English. Invariably, I would speak my language louder and slower so they would surely get it. Most of the time, they didn't understand and I would get more and more frustrated. The problem—we spoke different languages.
Millennials represent an age grouping of 16-34-year-olds (give or take a few years, depending on who you read). Their preferred language of communication is often different than what the rest of the population uses. Yet, those of us not in the millennial age grouping often continue to preach in a "language" that millennials struggle to fully understand or relate to. Just like in my Thailand example, both sides get frustrated because of the language difference.
Millennials hold many values, but seven core values that are common to many millennials are diversity, collaboration, authenticity, entrepreneurship, holistic integration, community, and open-source (I recommend that you watch Geoff Kullman's excellent presentation of these values here – MinistryLift members can access this resource for free).
Considering these seven core values, how can we effectively preach to millennials? Let me offer ten suggestions related to sermon preparation and delivery (most of these apply to other generations as well).
1. Walk closely with Jesus
Whether it's millennials or anyone else, people notice and respond to preachers who are connected to Christ. It's one thing to speak about something we're vaguely familiar with; it's quite another to speak about something that flows from a renovated life. Millennials are particularly good at spotting the real goods.
2. Collaborate with millennials and others to discern sermon topics and content
Millennials love to be a part of setting direction for virtually anything. Capitalize on this desire by enlisting their help to discern sermon topics and content. Even if you or the church leadership team chooses a series focus (e.g. discerning your God-given calling), seek the input of millennials as to the questions/concerns they have related to the main topic. Millennials are more likely to engage with a sermon when they have contributed to it in some way.
3. Acknowledge and explore diverse perspectives
We all have our biases and our sermons (and any other form of communication) will always have a certain tilt. Millennials appreciate it when we go outside our usual way of looking at things and include different perspectives. In addition, be open about theological tensions. For example, I once heard a sermon on hell that clearly outlined a biblical position on the physical reality of eternal punishment, but also addressed arguments against this interpretation of Scripture.
4. Tackle tough questions
One of the reasons that young adults leave the church is because church leaders avoid addressing tough questions (see Hemorrhaging Faith blog). A few years ago, our church did a series called "Hard Questions" that addressed topics like the creation/evolution debate and a Christian view and response to homosexuality. It was a great way of exploring a biblical perspective on several hot topics.
5. Go deep in Scripture
Contrary to what some might think, millennials want to get into the heart of Scripture. Don't be afraid to go deep with a particular passage or topic. Millennials tend to be broad-minded and appreciate hearing how various Scriptures add to one's understanding about a particular topic (and how other biblical themes might intersect with the topic at hand).
6. Weave story and metaphor into your content
What do we do when we get together with friends? We often swap stories. It's a primary way of communicating in many cultures. Preachers would do well to weave engaging stories throughout their sermons as a way of tapping into this well-accepted way of communicating.
7. Incorporate relevant and appropriate media
Where do we often go when we're not sure how to fix something? YouTube is often my first stop. In most cases, I've found that someone has made a video that shows me exactly how to solve my problem. We live in a media age and so it makes sense to include meaningful media elements in our sermons.
8. Share personal struggles
Be real in the pulpit. Share deeply how you have struggled with and applied the truths you are sharing. When we come across as having everything together, some people may get discouraged because they know they cannot live up to their perception of our perfection. It's much easier to follow the example of someone who struggles just like us.
9. Facilitate reflection and interaction around key ideas
It's important that we give people a chance to think and apply what the Holy Spirit might be saying to them. This could be as simple as giving people a one-minute opportunity at the end of the sermon to identify what God wants them to take away from the message. In addition, millennials love exploring truth in community. Facilitating interaction during the sermon (e.g. meeting around tables for discussion) or after a sermon (e.g. small group discussions about sermon content) can provide a context where the Holy Spirit can apply truth in a deeper way in people's lives.
10. Adopt a relational approach
Preachers who come across as lawyers or salespeople do not usually gain much of an audience with millennials. Be friendly. Speak conversationally. Love people through your words and actions.
Even though I've focused on preaching to millennials in this article, these suggestions are also important for older and younger generations (some to a lesser degree than others). Of course, preaching is not adequate in and of itself to make disciples in a maximum way. However, it is an important element in Developing a Strategic Pathway for Discipleship in Your Church (preaching is simply one element of 11).
Randy Wollf is the Director of MinistryLift and Associate Professor of Practical Theology and Leadership Studies at MB Seminary.
>>> Looking for your next step? You can learn more about ministering to millennials here or discipleship here. If you're specifically looking for preaching resources, MinistryLift members can watch a series of workshops here.
Note: biblical teaching, as described in this blog, is the sixth component of 11 essential elements of discipleship. You can read about each element here.