“A Prodigal Preaching Story: Paul, Eutychus, and Bored-to-Death Youth” Part II

SCENE 2. The Windowsill, Third Floor.
A Language Apart and a Long Way Down

When I read this text with young people in mind–or bring it into play with them, as Lash says–this is what I hear: If you can’t speak the language, and you can’t have an open conversation about that, you sit at the margins, perched on the windowsill; and until somebody notices, the only way off the windowsill may be to fall out the window.

As I have written elsewhere, I teach a course at Columbia Seminary called “Preaching and Youth.”i  The first time I taught it, I asked the students to begin by surveying the youth in their congregations, to find out what they thought about preaching and worship. Overwhelmingly, the students reported answers like the following:

What’s the most important part of the worship service for adults? The sermon.

What’s the most important part for youth? The benediction.ii

How would youth describe the preaching in their churches? Boring. Irrelevant to their lives. Might as well be rated X: for adults only. 

While these answers were painful to hear, they weren’t nearly as painful, in my view, as what came next. When asked to give us their ideas about preaching and worship, or what advice they might offer a pastor if they were ever consulted, the youth said amazingly insightful things–adding that no one had ever asked their opinions about anything having to do with preaching and worship before.

Once we invited them to talk, they flooded us with ideas, and good ones; after all, they’d been sitting in church for years, perched on a windowsill over in a corner, listening to hundreds of sermons. Yet no one ever asked them to reflect on what they were hearing. No adult had ever even brought up the subject of preaching with them at all! The young people just assumed that preaching was like sex: one of those topics you can’t bring up with adults because it makes them so uncomfortable and they never give you a straight answer, anyway; so you do most of your learning on the streets and in the pew, waiting for that moment of initiation into the mysteries, when all things are revealed and you cross the threshold to full-fledged adulthood.

When this text (Acts 20:7-12) is brought into play through interpretive performance in the context of the congregation, the first thing that must be said is that there are kids sitting on the windowsill, over on the margins of the room, who know that preaching is central to the community, but not intended for them. They are falling asleep, and it is past midnight; vespers has turned into a lock-in. It is a bizarre scene, worthy of the Coen Brothers or at least the Marx Brothers, but since no one names it as such, our youth think that this is normal: that preaching is for grown-ups, that “long” is the only adjective to describe a sermon, that the windowsill is the place for youth, and that if they zone out or doze off during the lecture–which is very easy to do, as any student in the back row knows–it is of no consequence to the rest of us. They know the rules for sermons (no talking, fidgeting, pinching, fussing), but not the art of listening, of entering the world of a sermon; that is a much more difficult and subtle process that requires spiritual mentoring and companionship.

When I was in college, I was compelled by distribution requirements to leave the world of humanities from time to time so that I might become a more well-rounded person. One spring I dragged my feet up Science Hill to a computer-programming course, which ostensibly had been geared for the mathematically challenged. Bear in mind that this was the early 1980s, when everyone still used typewriters. The instructor was a graduate student straight out of A Beautiful Mind: he not only spoke another language, he appeared to have come from another galaxy. I have never been so lost. Every week I sat in that classroom thinking, There is something wrong with me for not understanding what is going on here: I don’t speak this language, I don’t know how to speak this language, no one is helping me to learn to speak this language, everyone around me clearly knows how to speak this language, so if I don’t, it must be my fault. And unless I learn fast…the only way out of this course is either to flunk it or drop it.

What has happened in many of our churches is that our youth sit there during the sermon, and think, There is something wrong with us for not understanding what is going on here: we don’t speak this language, we don’t know how to learn to speak this language, no one is helping us learn to speak this language, all the adults around us clearly know how to speak this language, so if we don’t, it must be our fault; we must not be real members of the church. And unless we learn fast…the only way off this windowsill is to quit coming to church. 

It is doubtful, of course, that anyone means for this to happen. As we have noted, most churches genuinely value their youth, attempt to minister to them in some way, and consider it a vitally important ministry, maybe even as important as preaching. No, the problem isn’t a lack of good intentions–at least, not always. The problem, as I have written elsewhere, is separation.iii 

In the congregation, youth ministry and preaching ministry are rarely seen as having anything to do with one another: they have separate staff, separate theologies, separate goals.  In the academy, only a very few scholars are writing about youth and preaching (virtually none of them homileticians), sending the message to seminarians and churches that this is not an issue worthy of serious time and study. Simply talking about preaching and youth creates a theological disconnect, challenging our assumptions about what good preaching is and what good youth ministry is.iv  Youth hear these mixed messages, and interpret them to mean that their place during the sermon is over on the windowsill. As one teenager told our seminary class, “In our congregation, there’s a children’s sermon and an adult’s sermon. But there isn’t anything for us.”

So we have a problem. Whether we know it or not, whether we mean to or not, we have separated preaching and youth, both literally and figuratively, in the church, and in the academy. We have separated them into distinct ministries, and then we have not talked about it, so that our silence perpetuates the problem and maintains a mute, marginal caste of Christians in our own churches.v 

Paul may be fascinating for the adults in the front row, but it is well past midnight and he doesn’t look like he’s going to quit any time soon; and over on the windowsill, at the edge of the room, young Eutychus is yawning. A sleepy teenager teetering on a third floor window ledge is an accident waiting to happen.

Why does no one notice? Why does no one speak up to question the safety of this teenager on the margins? Why does no one make a move either to interrupt the sermon or to change the precarious location of a young listener? And when Eutychus falls–which seems inevitable, given the context–and is picked up dead, what will these churchgoers say about the youth who was literally bored to death by a preacher? What will the preacher say to the boy’s parents, who thought that because their son was at church, he was safe?

Used with permission: Florence, Anna Carter, “A Prodigal Preaching Story: Paul, Eutychus, and Bored-to-Death Youth.” Theology Today 64.2 (2007): 233-243.

iSee Anna Carter Florence, “Preaching to the Exiles Who Live at Home: Youth, Testimony, and a Homiletic of ‘True Speech'” in Journal for Preachers (24/1, Advent 2000), 23-29.

iiOther responses included the children’s sermon, which youth reported that they could actually follow; the prayer of confession, which they found to be the most spiritually nourishing; or the music, if it included songs and anthems they liked.

iiiSee Florence, “Preaching to the Exiles Who Live at Home.”

ivFor example: what is the theological message in a youth ministry that tries to offer authentic worship experiences for young people, yet must create alternative worship services in order to do so? What is the theological message in a preaching ministry that targets particular age groups or stages of development (typically adults), yet professes to preach a gospel of grace for the whole family of God?

vMichael Warren, in Youth, Gospel, Liberation (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), argues that the “systemic inarticulateness” threatening teenagers pushes them to a place beyond silence: “they are mute,” he writes (14). Warren urges congregations to empower their youth to articulate their life experience, stating that this is imperative if we are to break the cycle of silence and nurture “their capacity for a public life” (12).