Speech or Sermon? Preaching at a Graduation or Baccalaureate

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I don’t need to tell you that preaching and “giving a speech” are not the same thing. However when it comes to speaking to young graduates, it is tempting to fall into the trap of giving a motivational speech or a congratulatory speech rather than a sermon. After all, you want them to leave feeling inspired and congratulated, not “preached at!”

I have worked with teens and college aged students for years and have most recently been working as an adjunct professor for Asbury University, so I spend lots of time with this age group and I want to tell you something: they do not need motivated by your sermon. They are excited about the future and they have every reason to believe that anything that they want to do is possible. This is the gift of youth—possibilities are endless and dreams and goals are not that hard to reach. You and I were the same way! Young people don’t need to be congratulated and inspired by you; they will get lots of that. Your sermon has the unique ability to remind them of the basic truths about a Christian life and the path that lies ahead of them. For some graduates, your sermon will be the first time they have heard this and we don’t know how long it will be until they hear another sermon.

I believe that what young graduates need from a sermon are three simple truths:

Truth #1: The path is never as straight or easy as we think it will be, but God is always with us on the path.

Truth #2: The path is not a circle that leads back to your personal happiness, but rather, the path is a bridge that transforms you from the person you are into the person God has called you to be.

Truth #3: It is easy to get discouraged and lose your way on the path but God’s love and forgiving heart will always guide you back when you need.

While we can find lots of motivational life stories of contemporary people that illustrate these truths, I would encourage you to consider using the life story of at least one Bible character as the core scripture for your sermon.

Several characters whose lives illustrate these truths, come to mind:

  • Joseph and his journey to Egypt: A tremendous story of transformation on a path that was not either easy or straight.
  • Moses leading the people to the Promised Land: It was not a straight or easy path and he became discouraged more than once!
  • David and his path to becoming King: Not a straight path. Not easy! And boy did he lose his way with Bathsheba!
  • Jesus: His path led him to the cross. Not an easy path.
  • Paul and his journeys: Not straight, not easy and transformative!

In fact, I cannot think of a single story in the Bible where the path was easy or straight, did not lead to transformation, or where God ever gave up. Even Jonah is saved and transformed while he runs away from his path.

When asked to preach at a special event, especially a graduation, we sometimes shy away from using a Biblical story as the foundation fearing that the students will not be moved by it. I would invite you to consider using a story of a Bible character and trust that the story will speak to them. By preaching from the Bible, by telling the stories of those who model the journey God calls us to be on, we not only create inspiring graduation sermons, but we will also remind the students that when they find the path difficult or rough, they can find the hope they can find the hope, assurance, and guidance they seek by turning to the Scriptures.

For some graduates, this will be the first Bible story they have heard. For others, who have heard these stories since childhood, perhaps through your sermon, they will realize that these stories that they learned during their childhood years become more and more relevant the further down the path they travel.

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