The first step to preaching to Millennials is…don’t tell them you read an article about preaching to them! I’ve been preaching to Millennials my whole ministry, and in fact, I am one (barely!), and the first thing you need to know about preaching to us is there is no formula because above all else, Millennials want:
I think everyone wants an authentic preacher, but especially Millennials. They can smell a cheesy and inauthentic preacher from a mile away. What I mean is preach in your own voice and don’t try to be someone else, and definitely, without a doubt, whatever you do…
2. Don’t tell preacher stories
You know what preacher stories are, right? These are the stories that you get from preaching websites or books that everyone knows you got from a preaching website or book. They are usually incredible stories, but they are also usually well used and not personal. Millennials would much rather hear a personal story, or a story of someone you know, than an inspirational story they could, and probably have already read or seen a video about on the internet. Remember, they can google anything in your sermon WHILE YOU’RE PREACHING, so never take credit for something that isn’t yours, and definitely never tell someone else’s story as if it were your own.
Having said all of that, here are three exceptions: 1. If you tell them in advance that this is a preacher story. It works because it disarms them. It lets them know that you know that this is a preacher story, and it’s not what you normally do, but it was too good not to use at this point in the sermon. 2. If the joke is really funny. Some jokes are so funny and good that it will work and make them laugh even if they’ve heard it before and know it’s a preacher story/joke. These kind of jokes are the exception, not the rule. 3. If it’s a real, biographical story that you have honestly read or have been inspired by in the past, and it’s not just something you got because you googled “cool Christian stories about faith” or whatever it was.
3. Be vulnerable
Nothing will capture the attention of a Millennial like you admitting your weaknesses and struggles, or telling a deeply personal story about your past or your insecurities, etc. A general rule I live by (and many Millennials like me do as well) is that people will only be as open and vulnerable with you as you are with them. So, if you want them to go deep with you in the sermon, then you have to be willing to go there first and open up. When our Lead Pastor really opens up and decides to be vulnerable with a story about his struggles or insecurities, you can feel everyone in the room leaning in and deeply listening. Those are the moments when you can hear a pin drop, but for some reason many preachers aren’t willing to go there. Don’t be the hero in every story. You don’t have to tell a sob story every week; that’s not what I’m saying, but you do need to find some way to open up and be vulnerable. I promise you, you’ll hear more about that story from people than you have any preacher story you’ve ever told!
4. Go deep and use the Bible
This may seem like a no-brainer, but Millennials don’t really know the Bible that well and they want to be taught. They want deeper answers and deeper truths. What they don’t want is “how to” sermons. They don’t want “5 ways to make your life better”. Millennials are looking for you to go to the scripture and explain it to them.
In my conversations with Millennials who are trying to figure out whether to stay in church, they almost always mention that they don’t feel challenged enough intellectually, and they long for deeper conversations. This was backed up by something I recently heard at a conference about Millennials that 6 out of the top 10 reasons Millennials are leaving the Church have something to do with not being challenged enough intellectually or biblically.
The culture is offering them things like TED talks, and blogs, and a 24 hour news cycle with talking heads giving an opinion on everything, and they can google a video on how to explain anything they want explained to them. What they need from us as preachers is for us to do what we’ve been trained in seminary to do: break down the scripture and give them the Gospel Truth.
One tip to teaching the Bible to Millennials: Explain everything and don’t speak “Christian-ese”. I tell them where to turn in the Bible and give them time to turn there (even if it feels like no one is turning there). I tell them they can look on their smartphone or tablet as well. I tell them the context of the scripture. I never assume people know who anyone is – in the Bible or on our staff, so I always explain who people are (including my wife – I will always say “Christy, my wife”) so that no one feels like an outsider. And I explain words like: holiness = set apart; repent = turn around and not wanting that life anymore; Christian = follower of Jesus; gospel = good news about Jesus or the message of Jesus; gospels = the biographies of Jesus, etc…
5. Tackle social issues in Biblical, but not simplistic ways
Again, the culture is telling them what to believe and think about everything, what they want from us (and they really do want this, this is not just me projecting this on to them) is an explanation of what the Bible says about that issue. Don’t be afraid to tackle social hot topics. I don’t preach whole sermons on them, but I will use them as examples in my sermons, and people will always comment on that topic more than anything else I talked about.
However, when you tackle these issues, make sure you aren’t condemning, you are teaching. The last thing Millennials want to hear is another angry preacher yelling at fill in the blank group that can’t talk back to them at that moment. What they do want to hear is a real, Biblical teaching that also handles the nuance of how to love people and still be in relationship with them.
6. Challenge them in big and practical ways
You’ve probably heard this before, but Millennials want to be a part of a cause that’s bigger than them. They want big, they want to be a part of a cause, so give them the full Gospel. Tell them about final judgment, tell them about the Great Commission, tell them about our call to those who can’t help themselves, tell them about the Kingdom of God, tell them about an infinite God!!! BUT, as much as they want a big cause, Millennials are also dreamers who sometimes don’t know how to get started, and so they tend to flounder and dream more than actually getting busy. They like the idea of a big challenge, but what they need are practical steps. So ALWAYS include a practical next step in your sermon. Tell them the small thing they can do that gets them started, and make sure someone is following up with them if they ever turn something in!