How Should I Preach To Millennials?

(Including thoughts from the sermons of RC Sproul)

Holy God, most lovely of all things, turn our hearts to You. Fill us with love for You, that we may fill others with love for You. Use us to spread Your word, to welcome the lost home, to strengthen Your flock, to feed Your lambs. Create in us pure, holy hearts that love You above our own glory. In Jesus’ abundant name, the only name able to produce these things in our hearts, Amen.

It is my opinion that this generation of young adults, the millennials (and when I use that term, I mean those born between 1985-ish and 1995-ish), are currently the most strategic people group in the world for the Church to target for evangelism. Now why do I say that? It’s because this current generation of young adults is the most global generation the world has ever seen. I think I could pluck a millennial out of China, Brazil, the UK, Washington State, Ukraine and the Ivory Coast, and they would all have a lot more in common than they would have had in any generation in the past. Facebook, the common news outlets, general interconnectedness and the ease of international travel--all of these folks share a common millennial culture these days. So it’s critical that the Church knows how to engage this international culture and win it to Christ.

Now, as you listen to my thoughts, remember that this people group will only be the ‘most’ strategic people group for a few more years. And then what? Well, then the next generation will be the ‘most’ strategic. So as you listen to this, join me in praying that God would raise up young evangelical preachers and teachers for the next generation, so that the Church can truly fill the world with God’s word.

But as for the millennials, of whom I am one, I’ve got six points to make. Here’s the first: Be brief.

When you preach to anyone below thirty-five years old, be brief. Here’s a bucket of ice water: Odds are really high that they’re only going to remember the last fifteen minutes of your sermon. Right? And why is that? Because all day every day in the rest of their lives, their attention is divided by phone screens and emails and kids crying and texts. All of our lives are like that.

And you know what? That’s not bad. Don’t look at that and be discouraged. It shouldn’t be discouraging. Why? Because you don’t need more than fifteen minutes. You don’t need more than fifteen minutes for the Holy Spirit to come over them and prick them with a deep need and longing to know Him--if you need more than fifteen minutes to do that, then skip down to point number six.

Use the brevity of your sermons as a great reason to skip all that academic junk and get straight to real-life application. That’s all that matters anyway, for the majority of people that Christ came to save.

On that note, here’s my second point: Use stories.

You know what people like? Movies. You know what people don’t like? Dictionaries. It’s just human nature.

When you get up on a podium and all you deal with is the matter at hand, no metaphors, no examples, no stories, no parables at all, you’re a dictionary. You’re just spitting knowledge. People are getting definitions from you, but not application. And that’s what stories are all about: Application. Teaching without application, without stories, is wasted time.

For instance, I think my generation hears the word ‘obedience’ and they think of the concept of obedience, obeying a law, obeying a street sign. They do not think of specific moments in their life when they should obey, like when they want to lie to make their life easier, or when they want to lust to be more comfortable physically, or when they want to gossip to enjoy the fact that their life or their personality is better than someone else’s in some way.

Okay, now look at that last sentence. I used lying and told when people lie, I used lust and told when people lust, I used gossip and told when people gossip. Those are three stories, you with me? Stories don’t have to be long--they’re just specific examples given with enough detail that the audience can build a situation around them and place themselves there. They’re critical so that your hearers can take what you teach and do it.

And that brings us to my third point: Talk stupid.

I mean that. Talk really, really stupid. If you listen to this teaching and go out and write a sermon with a bunch of four-syllable words in it that you don’t dumb down at all, I’m gonna slap you hard.

This is real, listen to me, I really do this: If I write a paragraph and there are more than two three-or-more-syllable abstract concepts in it, words like ‘sanctification’ or ‘righteousness’ or ‘faithfulness’, that I can’t figure out how to simplify, I rewrite the paragraph from another angle. It’s a worthless paragraph. It doesn’t have any value for the people Jesus came to save--the weak, the uneducated, the poor in this life. Who else are you trying to reach other than the ones Jesus chose? Write everything that you write in order to convince children, because you know that you also are a child.

The grossest misuse of intellect is to stand on a podium and try to string together a bunch of syllables so you sound ‘polished’ or ‘professional’ or ‘competent’ or ‘intellectual.’ Your audience needs God, not a better speaker--if gifted oration could bring about faith, Jesus would never have died on the cross. He wouldn’t have needed to. But God is the only One that makes God in people, not your words. Therefore let your words be few, let them deal with real life and not your own intellect, and let them clearly show how the Way looks in day-to-day living.

Now, I have to qualify this a little because you need to know your audience and cater your message to them. If Princeton Theological Seminary invites you to speak, obviously they can handle a few four-syllable words. But then again, I would have no idea about that, because they would never, ever invite me to speak, ever. Can you imagine? It’d be awful. I’d be up there like, “Me Ug. Ug love Jesus. Ug want you love Jesus,” and they’d all leave after a minute. Actually that’d be funny--hey Princeton, let’s set this up! Send all the unpopular profs to the lecture and I’ll torture them for a while.

Fourth point: Write your own stuff.

The second grossest misuse of intellect is to quote reputable sources and rely on those quotations for your sermon. And I want to be clear--it’s not bad to quote great thinkers who agree with you. Not bad at all. But it’s bad to deprive the Church of critical thinking because of spoonfed theology or because you’re scared to be wrong, so you just kinda lean on stuff you’ve heard before.

That sentence was too complicated, so here it is again: Think and write original material. Demand that of yourself. Do the research, buy the concordances, learn the verb tenses in Greek, read a lot of theology, and then make up original ways to apply the Gospel to our world today with your own wording so that the Church can benefit.

Charles Spurgeon is great, he really is. But did he own a cell phone? Did he know how frustrating long car rides with a one-year-old can be? George Mueller was an awesome dude--but how many lustful TV ads did he have to protect himself from? We need new quotes from thinkers today, to apply the Gospel to our modern lives. The Church will benefit from these things, even if sometimes we screw up and we have to repent.

You know, it really is scary that we may teach wrong doctrine at some point--I’m terrified of that. But what do we do? Do we stop writing original, unique stuff because we’re scared? No. We pray, “Lord, lead me into your truth and grow my love for You in truth,” and then we research and research and research and read and read and read, and we find a team to bounce our material off of, you with me? We find proofreaders who know their theology well to check and see if we’re right with us. And we trust God to protect us from His judgment.

And also, we get ready and we stay ready to repent--because eventually, something we teach is going to be wrong. Guaranteed. I know you’re perfectly right, guys, and I know your theology is perfect now, I’m sure it is, absolutely. I know you know all truth. But it’s gonna happen--we’re gonna screw up. When we realize that we’ve messed up, we need to repent publicly, state specifically where our error is, change our doctrine to match truth, and explain what change in our thinking needs to happen to our flock to apply the change in their lives (in other words, show your hearers how to apply the new doctrine correctly, show them how to change their behavior).

And remember this: Take a long time with the theological review. Be careful. Jesus says scary things about teachers who are wrong.

For everything that I write, I write it on day one, review it on day two (after I’ve slept), review it on day three (after I’ve slept), and review it on day four (after I’ve slept). Then on day four, I send it to a teammate, who also reviews it. Then we come together every Tuesday to have our theological review, and those meetings can be anywhere from two or three to six or seven hours. That’s normal. We’re going through stuff hard.

It just takes that long to get it right. Period. It takes a long time. It’s really hard, because in preaching, it doesn’t matter what you say--it matters what they hear. So you can’t ever make sin seem fun, for instance. If you say something like, “Sin tries to trick us by telling us how fun it is,” well, listen to that sentence, you’ve just said sin is fun on some level. You see that? That’s the kind of statement that your hearers can use to justify sin in their life if they remember it, and Satan may just remind them of it. A better way to say that would be, “Sin tries to trick us by promising us rest and peace,” because I think my generation is less likely to recklessly pursue rest and peace. So we’re totally anal about what you hear in our writing. That’s what it takes when you write your own material, as I think every preacher should do.

Point number five: Doctrines which have no clear exegesis in Scripture get a maximum of five words.

I’ll say it again: Doctrines which have no clear exegesis in Scripture get a maximum of five words. Five words, guys. I mean it. Don’t make me find you.

How many churches have you seen split because of end times theories or whatever? That’s a dumb problem for a church to split over. Here’s the cold, hard truth: Those churches didn’t split because of a theological difference. They split because their members forgot how to set their minds on the Spirit. They forgot what it was like to walk in the Spirit every day in fullness and humility, set on fire by the love of God and eager to radically obey the Bible, because they were too busy being smarter than each other.

I feel strongly that if you present doctrine which is not meant to be used, like a historical teaching on the Protestant Reformation or some theological nuance on a minor technical point that doesn’t affect anything in real life, the majority of my generation is gone. Totally zoned out. We’re looking at you, but we’re watching “The Walking Dead” in our minds, because it’s more interesting.

Okay, sixth and final point, by far the most important point, if you don’t hear any other point I hope you hear this one: Be holy.

Yeah, you knew this was coming, right? If your life isn’t full of the love of Jesus, your preaching is gonna suck bad. It’s gonna be as boring as the keynote speech of the American Mute Association’s annual Thanksgiving brunch. No one will be changed. No one will be moved. You’ll waste people’s time.

I’m not entirely 100% sure about this, but I think it’s true: The central point in all Christian preaching is heart change, not behavior change. Think about that. Heart change, not behavior change. I don’t just want you to read your Bible more—I want you to long for the Presence of God to come over you, and have that deep, intense desire to experience Him cause you to read the Bible more. I don’t just want you to take a prayer hour, I want you to thirst for the waters of God, and have that thirst propel you to prayer.

But God has designed humanity in such a way that the inner heart of each of us is hidden. You can’t touch my soul. I can’t touch your soul. It’s off limits. Only God can touch people in their hearts, and therefore you must be in constant communication with God in order to speak the words of God to His people and for Him to produce real life change, real heart change in millennials. That’s the only way to change somebody’s heart—God must come to them. You can do that, that can happen through you, if God wills it, and if your life is holy and you are totally obsessed with the love of Jesus.

Now, this point is related to a belief that I have, and here it is: I believe the Gospel could sweep through my millennial generation like it has never swept through any other generation in history. And why? Because millennials are dominated by the pursuit of pleasure. You with me now? Think about that. Millennials do everything that they do all day long in order to be entertained, or to eat good food, or to feel safe and secure, or to make more money, or to be liked, or whatever, and they do these things because the results please their flesh. They seek pleasure in their flesh in every single decision they make. I know this because I am one of these and I struggle with this mindset.

If you’re living a fake Christian life, but you’re standing on a podium in front of a church body preaching the Gospel, that’s about the least pleasing moment that a millennial could possibly have. Fakeness, falsity, is anathema to millennials, because all day long we’re lied to by 24-hour news networks and politicians and exposed to a million competing views on social media that obviously can’t all be true. So if we see somebody in a position of power lie, that’s a huge, huge black mark against them. All that weariness and fear of having more Twitter headlines shout ‘SEA LEVELS RISING TO DESTROY THE EARTH’, ‘MILLENNIAL GENERATION GETS LOWEST TEST SCORES IN HISTORY’, ‘APPLE AND GOOGLE ARE TAKING OVER ASIA AND YOUR BRAIN’, when we don’t even know if any of that’s true or not, gets transferred to you.

But Jesus is not a commodity to be sold, and Jesus is not false. Jesus’ Gospel to us is based on joy, is based on us delighting in the eternal Presence of God--and that’s why a true, earnest, honest Gospel message is going to rip through my generation like a tidal wave. No pleasure of the flesh can stand up to the pleasure of God. It just doesn’t happen. God is a million times more wonderful than anything else on Earth, a million times more pleasing, a million times more hopeful! It is a billion times more satisfying to feel eternal joy than it is to sit in your empty flesh watching a YouTube video, and millennials will see that if we preach it and beg God to move them. (2 Corinthians 2:17)

But holiness, mastery of the flesh, a mind absolutely set on the Spirit, is critical if you want to touch millennials.

Join me in begging God to be holy. Let’s be ravenously, head-over-heels in love with God, eager to be touched by Him again today--and pray for today’s millennials, that we may taste and see and rejoice together that God is good.

#millennials #evangelism #preaching

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