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Teaching Millennials: Be Application-Minded

hand-holding-bible-studyingI am a graduate of a Southern Baptist seminary. As you may know, Southern Baptists are very fond of expository preaching. We are so fond of this particular method of preaching that it is the only method in which I have received training, either formally or informally. Our fondness for expository preaching is so pervasive that I was taught that even if I were to decide to preach a topical sermon, I should do so in an expository fashion.

Now, I have nothing against expository sermons. When done well, they are incredibly informative and challenging. Many of the churches with whom I have associated feel the same way. In fact, most insist that a “good” sermon must be expository. One church was scandalized when I mentioned during a presentation on reaching Millennials that I had heard some pretty awful expository sermons and would have preferred the preacher try another format that fit his personality better. They asked in disbelief, “What makes an expository sermon bad?”

A bad expository sermon is similar to a bad Bible study, lecture or presentation. Preachers and Bible study leaders may feel the need to justify their work by finding obscure facts, relationships or tangential information. The speaker/teacher can spend so much time on the question “What?” that “So what?” is neglected. Put another way, a bad expository sermon “can’t see the forest for the trees.” For Millennials, this is a particularly egregious sin that will result in our tuning out and playing a game on our smartphones.

Information is good and those who teach the Bible, be that from a pulpit, a couch or in a Starbucks should know plenty of background information, supporting texts, theological nuance, original language usage, etc. in order to effectively teach God’s Word. Forgetting Millennials, with whom the problem is magnified, our society is increasingly inundated with information that most of us don’t have the know-how or the time to be expected to sort through. When we come to learn about God from a pastor, small-group leader or mentor, we don’t need to know that you’re smart and have done your homework. We need to know what our faith has to do with our life.

Ministry leaders would do well to spend significant time on the “So what?” of their sermons/lessons. In concrete terms, we should demonstrate what a particular passage has to do with how life is lived day to day and in special circumstances. Emphasize how followers of Christ are to live in present-day contexts in light of ancient, revealed truths.

One great way to do this is to apply faith to cultural realities. A word of caution: Another great way to get Millennials to tune you out and walk away for good is to spend an inordinate amount of time decrying culture. We like culture. We live in it and want to know how to be influences for Christ within culture. And isn’t participating in and redeeming culture Jesus’ way? Yes, we know that not all elements of culture are good and sometimes we need reminding of the hazards of culture, but Millennials are typically optimistic about where society is heading. You don’t have to agree with that assessment, and you may be legitimately concerned about the moral decline of the country, the increase of socialism, the secular nature of the education system or a million other causes – and you are free to express them. But doing so from your platform will cause a disconnect with young listeners. Find a way to graciously express concerns without lambasting large segments of society. Present an informed, concise argument and we’ll hear you.

But the better course is to focus on what individuals can do day to day and how your particular audience can interact with culture in order to influence it for Christ. Millennial believers long to make an impact on their surroundings with their faith, from a place of service, love and compassion. Spend significant time walking us through what a truth looks like in practice, while giving us concrete application, and you’ll find your desired effect is achieved much more quickly.

Benjie Shaw is the campus minister at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis. Connect with him by e-mail at bshaw@tnbaptist.org and follow him on Twitter @benjie_shaw.