Preaching and Worship for Children, Youth and Families

Our family has a habit of going out for lunch Sundays after worship. More often than not, we end up discussing that day’s worship.

One particular day my 13 year-old daughter reported, “What a boring sermon. I mean he kept going on and on, talking about nothing. I’m not sure he even had a point.” Now that might have been overly harsh, but I wonder how often adults, or even church leaders, take into account what young people think about worship, and in particular the sermon. I am fortunate to worship with my two adolescent daughters on a regular basis, and often we talk about the weekly sermon. It is great to be in a congregation with vibrant worship. But my daughters believe sermons are just for the adults, and not for them. What about you? Who do you believe preaching is for? And to whom are you preaching?

According to the National Study of Youth and Religion, two-thirds of the young people believe in God and are open to faith and religion. One third of those surveyed regularly participated in religious activities, such as worship. Yet among those two-thirds, only eight percent of teens actually believe faith makes a difference in their daily life. For most teens, faith is nothing more than a backdrop in their life. (Smith)

Worship is central to shaping, forming, and defining Christian’s life together. And preaching has a central role within worship. What role does preaching have in the faith formation of young people?

Anna Carter Florence alerts the church to the scene in Acts 20. Here Paul is preaching to the assembly gathered and a young man, Eutychus, falls asleep, falls out the window, and dies. Using this story, Florence names a reality – preachers need to see young people as active members of the body, not as distractions or casual observers. She says, “We have separated preaching and youth, both literally and figuratively, in the church and in the academy” (Florence, 239). Kenda Creasy Dean rifts on Florence’s point saying, “Teenagers naturally assume that the church’s story is not for them” (Dean, 45). Yet, “[a]s young people take part  in proclaiming the good news of Christ’s salvation, rather than watch from a remote corner in the back of the room as others proclaim it, they become God’s witnesses — participants, not onlookers, in God’s story” (46-47).

There are days when they hear it, like last week. The sermon began with a story of a person from the congregation who visited another country in the midst of political turmoil. The pastor talked about the fear this person experienced and then connected that situation to the text for the day. “When was the last time you experienced fear?” the preacher asked. “And what did you do?” As the pastor was preaching, I looked around and people were engaged, they were listening, my daughters included. And on our way home, I heard, “Wow, what a situation. I wonder what I would have done.” That story captured their imagination, drew them into the text, and challenged them to think about their own life. Fear is something adult’s experience, but it is also something adolescents experience.

Young people are open to hearing about God. Are we willing to speak to them? The Exemplary Youth Ministry Study discovered that vibrant and alive worship made a difference in helping young people grow a mature Christian faith. It is true that young people need ministries with their peers, but they also need to find themselves among all of God’s people. They need to hear the gospel proclaimed to the whole body of Christ in a way that they can relate to and that connects with their daily life. Preaching to connect with young people does not mean using fancy gimmicks or relying on the most current mass media. Preaching to young people means taking them seriously, it means knowing about their life experiences, and speaking the gospel into that reality. Said differently, preaching offers the opportunity to give young people handles for moving their faith from the background of their lives into the forefront of daily living.

Sometimes I wish the pastors at our congregation could join us for lunch on the Sundays they preach. If they did, they would hear about the times when their preaching nailed it and when it flew right over the heads of two teenagers. But more than that, they would hear about what issues of faith surface for curious and opinionated women of faith, whose questions are real, complex, and matter.

So, as you write your next sermon, picture young people in your congregation. Or read the local paper and discover what is happening within the areas schools. Or better yet, invite some young people out for lunch and ask them what they wonder about. Adolescents are a curious sort, trying to figure out if and how faith matters in their lives. Preaching offers an opportunity to speak into their curiosity and ignite a faith that matters.

Dean, Kenda Creasy, ed. OMG: A Youth Ministry Handbook. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010.

Florence, Anna Carter. “A Prodigal Preaching Story and Bored-to-Death Youth,” Theology Today 64 (July 2007), 233-243.

Smith, Christian with Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. See also: National Study of Youth and Religion.