This post is part of the series on Preaching for youth. Growing up in church, I have heard hundreds, thousands, of sermons over the years. Some were extraordinary, some were good and some were mediocre. But there’s one thing I heard time and again, especially when people were preaching for youth, and that’s this: preaching the rules instead of the relationship.
When we prepare a sermon, we (hopefully) determine a key message that we want to stress. A lot of these key messages are about something we either should or shouldn’t do as a child of God. We want to stress that people should trust God, should pray or should tithe. We want to make clear that you shouldn’t tell white lies, disrespect your parents or have sex before marriage. In short: Our key messages are about rules.
In itself, that’s not a problem. We are called to become more and more like Christ, to change and grow mature as Christians. And we need sermons and talks to teach us, to instruct and exhort us, to do just that. But we need the relationship first.
If a teen doesn’t have a personal relationship with God, it really doesn’t matter all that much if he ‘behaves’ or not. Sure, it’s still better if he didn’t sleep with anyone, because that can cause a whole lotta problems regardless of spiritual issues. But just ‘playing by the rules’ won’t get him anywhere. On the contrary, if we only preach the rules, he might just deduce that good behavior will get you to heaven. And we all (hopefully) know that’s a lie.
You have to preach the relationship first and then the rules, especially when preaching for youth. Even when they’ve gone to church all their lives, it doesn’t mean they know the gospel, that they understand it.
I grew up in a Baptist church and was baptized at an early age. Even though I understood the gospel in the sense of Jesus dying for my sins, I didn’t get the bigger concept of God’s grace till much later on. I knew good works wouldn’t get me a spot in heaven, but I didn’t fully understand that I didn’t have to perform or be a good girl to please God, that His grace and love were there no matter what I did. For much of my teenage years, I was focused on the rules, not the relationship (even though I had one with God).
How to put the relationship first
What does it look like to focus on the relationship instead of the rules? Does that mean you shouldn’t tell students what God wants them to do, what a Christ-like life and character look like? No, it doesn’t mean that at all. It simply means that you put the relationship with God first in whatever you preach on, and then let the rules flow from that. It means you try to figure out where your students are in their spiritual journey and then walk next to them, together with them, toward the next point. Here’s what that could look like in practice:
- Always explain the gospel, no matter what your topic is. I always reserve about five minutes of my sermon to explain the concept of God’s love, holiness and grace, resulting in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
- Whatever your topic is, stress God’s love and forgiveness. Let students know that God gives second, third and fourth chances, and that He will never grow tired of them and that He will always love them, no matter how bad they mess up. Students need to feel there’s room for failure.
- Let your sermons be filled with grace and love. Never condemn the sinner, just the sin. Make sure students know that God loved them before they did anything to deserve that love, that He loved them when they were still sinners. Let them see themselves through God’s eyes.
- When preaching on things students should do to maintain or deepen their relationship with God, stress the relational aspects. I have heard I don’t know how many sermons as a teen on the necessity of reading my Bible and praying, without ever realizing it wasn’t something I ‘had to do’ in order to get into God’s favor, but something I should ‘want to do’ to deepen my relationship with God.
- If your sermon topic is a ‘rule,’ for instance the ‘tell no white lies’ rule, explain why they should obey this rule. They need to really know that there is no relation between them sticking to the rules and ‘getting saved.’ That is something you’ll need to keep stressing again and again, that we are saved by grace alone and that nothing they can ever do can contribute.
- Be honest with your students. As Christians, we’re often very good at saying the right things, showing the right attitude when others are around. Students can get the idea that everyone is doing just peachy and that they are the only ones failing at being a ‘good Christian.’ You know they’re not because, you and I, we mess up just as badly as them. Be honest about your own struggles whenever possible and appropriate, and teach them how to deal with their own mistakes.
- Create an atmosphere where there is room to say, ‘I don’t know yet.’ I’ve been in churches and youth groups where anyone who had the guts to say he had doubts about God, Christianity, the gospel or whatever was immediately attacked. If you want the relationship to matter more than the rules, create room for doubt, for honest questions, for discussion. Give students time and room to walk their own spiritual journey and not someone else’s.
So here’s my question to you: Are you preaching the rules or the relationship? What could you do to focus on the relationship more?