Expositional preaching for high school students? Are you crazy?
Expositional preaching—moving sequentially through a book of the Bible, seeking to discover the main point of the text, and making that the main point of the message—can’t work for high school students . . . can it? Don’t they need something more attention-grabbing, flashy, and topical?
Responding to this thinking, which dominates youth ministry circles, I’ve come up with a list: Top Reasons for Expository Preaching in High School Ministry. I should note that my conviction regarding expository preaching extends to the whole church. I am here simply expanding that conviction to include the smaller gatherings of the church’s young people. So why expositional preaching for high school students?
1. They can handle it.
Adults in the church have pitifully underestimated the capacity of young people to grasp biblical truth revealed in the very structure of the biblical text. This failure has led us to summarize the message of biblical texts. We water down each passage and mold it into easily digested morsels that the students can take home and apply. In short, we do all the work for students in our teaching. We move from observation to exegesis to exposition to application to “kiddie-size” translation all in course of preaching from one text.
In so doing we have stripped our young people of the opportunity to think with us as we take them through the logic of a text. First, we observe how the writer has carefully put it together. Then we lead listeners to the main point that the passage’s author sought to get across to his original readers. High school students can follow that kind of careful exegesis. We simply haven’t invited them to try it.
2. It helps them learn to read the Bible.
While topical teaching can be helpful at certain times, a steady and unbalanced diet of it undermines students’ understanding of God’s Word. God’s Word does not come to us in one-sentence blurbs, laid out under various topical headings, like an extended concordance. God’s Word comes to us in stories, parables, poetry, prophecy, and song. Students who have been fed a constant stream of messages on “What the Bible Has to Say About Relationships” will be in for a nasty surprise when they open up the book of Leviticus. We youth leaders have a blessed responsibility and opportunity to teach students how to read, receive, and understand the Bible as it is put together in the way that God ordained: book by book and chapter by chapter.
3. It protects us.
A commitment to expositional preaching protects youth ministers from students and from ourselves. Unless we commit to preach through a book of the Bible, we have two choices. We can poll the students and hear what they want to learn. They’ll likely mention relationships, sex, dancing, or maybe even free will and predestination. Or we can teach a topic of our own choosing. Both of these options could be much more closely linked to a human agenda than to God’s agenda. Only by elevating the Word of God in our teaching, letting each passage along the way dictate what we teach our students, do we ensure that we consistently and faithfully teach the revealed Word and will of God for students’ benefit.
4. It makes you a model, not a celebrity.
It will not be difficult for a witty, good-looking, fashionably dressed youth pastor to entertain a group of high school students with dating stories and relationship advice as part of a catchy series on “Guys, Girls, and SEX!” The question is what such a pastor has modeled for the students. They may learn truth from a biblically based topical series. But do they learn how to handle the Bible for themselves? Or do they learn to cling to their pastor for the answers? In faithful, clear, and interesting expositional preaching, a youth pastor has the opportunity to demonstrate and model to his students how to approach, understand, teach, and apply the Bible. Then they can actually begin doing exactly that for themselves.
In other words, a biblical goal for a sermon to youth might be to teach a passage carefully and faithfully, so that students listening say to themselves: I see what he did! I could get that from this passage! This model shapes the way the students do devotions, listen to sermons, and one day teach Sunday school and lead Bible studies on their own. As youth pastors discipline ourselves to teach the Bible in this way to our students, we take what we have learned and pass it on to faithful Christians who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim. 2:2).