You’ve probably had nights at youth group when your message seems to be connecting with your students—and then things fall apart faster than a middle school dating relationship. I was teaching a while back and things were going well, until a student sitting up front shamelessly held up his phone, looked into it to fix his hair, and then took a snapchat selfie. I was dumbfounded and my students were distracted.
Whether or not you have had a student take a mid-message selfie, teaching God’s Word in a way that engages students is hard work. Thankfully, we can trust the sovereignty of God, who will use our commitment to faithfully teach his Word (even in the lives of those students who don’t seem to pay attention). As youth ministers, we are called to invest time, effort, and prayer in order to teach students the gospel—the good news that God rescues sinners through the person and work of Jesus. So how can we prepare to teach messages that are both faithful to the text and engaging to students?
There is certainly more than one way to prepare for Bible teaching, but I’ve found a particular rhythm that works well for me. Here are four steps to include in your own weekly preparation.
Step 1: Internalize
The week before I teach, usually on a Thrusday, I start by printing out the text I’m teaching with several spaces under each verse. For longer passages of Scripture, I’ll combine a few verses before having a space. I spend the next hour or so studying and observing the text, writing down anything that comes to mind under each verse. I note the context, possible illustrations, what stands out, questions, applications/relevance for my students, etc. During this time, I also pray for my students by name, asking God to help me develop a message that will affect them personally. We must not forget that our only hope is for God to grant us illumination of the text and to use our teaching to mature and equip our students.
While commentaries by trusted scholars should certainly play a role in your message prep, I would encourage you to wait to engage them. This first step might feel like a waste of time when you know there are brilliant commentators who have already studied the text. But remember, God has called you to shepherd your students through the teaching of God’s Word, not a commentator who doesn’t know your students’ names. The goal isn’t to regurgitate a scholar’s thoughts. Rather you want to study the text for yourself and let it shape you so that you begin to develop a personal and passionate message.
You don’t have to begin exactly like I do, but I would encourage you to start by praying and internalizing the text for yourself in some way, rather than immediately pulling out commentaries.
Step 2: Outline
A few years ago, a man approached me after church and said: “I hope you dum it down when you teach students.” To the contrary, my conviction is that we should raise the bar. Our students can handle theological depth through expository Bible teaching. At the same time, I believe we should teach with simplicity and clarity. We want to engage the unique life stages and maturity levels of our youth groups.
If we’re going to teach with simplicity and clarity, we need structure. This leads me to develop a clear outline. I typically begin this part of the process on Monday before teaching midweek. Through studying commentaries, reading and listening to anything related to the text, and considering my own observations, my goal is to develop one main idea that is derived from the text. Preaching professor Haddon Robinson writes: “Ideally, each sermon is the explanation, interpretation, or application of a single dominate idea supported by other ideas, all drawn from one passage or several passages of Scripture.”1
We should always ask for the Holy Spirit’s guidance in discovering God’s intended meaning for this passage, rather than engineering our own meaning to suit our purposes. Ask yourself why the text was written and why it’s important for your students.
As I develop an outline, I divide the text/main idea into two to three points and put three questions under each point: “What?” “So what?” “Now what?” I type those three questions under each point to help me teach with clarity and structure as I explain the meaning, the relevance, and how they should live in light of the text.
A question I ask myself when I’m answering the “so what?” is: What objections are teenagers hearing from culture about the truth of this passage or verse? As youth ministers, we demonstrate that the text is personally relevant to students by explaining how a biblical worldview is more trustworthy and compelling than the worldview they’re receiving from culture.
I also try to illustrate each of the main points with stories or examples my students will easily understand, which helps to clarify the meaning of the text. When I find illustrations to use, I make sure they’re tied to the text. We should never tell stories just because. I also try to use ones that aren’t always about me and ones that don’t take a long time to include. If the majority of your message is spent telling stories, Scripture itself can get lost. And if you’re the hero of all of your illustrations, you may be distracting from Jesus, the true Hero of every message.
I keep a list of possible illustrations, from personal stories to anecdotes I’ve heard on the radio, on the note app on my phone. I often go back to that. I’ve also used Tony Evans’ Book of Illustrations as well as Sermon Starters for Student Ministry by Trevor Hamaker. Most of all, I ask God for help in illustrating the text well for the benefit of my students.
Step 3: Gospel
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2:2 what the central theme should be in our teaching: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” This doesn’t mean you only teach on the subject of the cross. It means that whether you’re teaching in Esther—a book that never mentions God’s name, or in Romans—in which Paul directly refers to God 153 times, the gospel should be the central theme that shines through your teaching. In this step, which I tend to complete on Tuesday (or the day before youth group), I try to find the redemptive themes throughout the text. How does this text point to or display the person and work of Jesus?
I clearly define the gospel and connect the text to Christ every time I teach because I want students to have a robust understanding of the storyline of Scripture, which reveals the gospel. Our teaching should help students understand that the Bible is primarily about God and his plan to a redeem a people for himself.
Step 4: Introduction and Closing
On Wednesday (or the day of youth group), I work out an introduction and closing that I pray will help students resonate with the text. While our exposition of the text is far more important than our humor and storytelling, I believe it is helpful to hook teenagers (or listeners of any age) with a story or illustration. In my introduction, I often ask a probing question to help them see their need for what God’s Word has to say. We should be quick to the text; still a good introduction sets up the relevance of the text, inclining students to listen.
I personally have a harder time with my closing than my introduction, but how we close is also important. Your closing should summarize the message while calling teenage listeners to respond to God’s voice. I’m not advocating we pray “the sinner’s prayer” or give an altar call each time. We should, however, invite students—both Christians and non-Christians—to respond to the message they have just heard. Practically, we must give them next steps to take in their relationship with Jesus. Ask yourself what the text says to Christians and non-Christians, to your students personally. Then weave these applications into your message.
In Tim Keller’s booklet, Preaching in a Secular Culture, he explains his flow of application:2
- Here is what the text says
- Here is how we must live in light of it
- But we simply cannot do it
- But there is One who did
- Now, through faith in him, you can begin to live this way
Your Students Need God’s Word
When I arrived at the church I’m currently serving, we didn’t have many students showing up at our midweek service. Sadly, I let our small attendance negatively impact the effort I put in to prepare my messages. I forgot that the effectiveness of God’s word never depends on how many students show up.
Since then, these steps have become a big part of my week. Still, I try to not let teaching prep consume my week. As youth ministers, we must also set aside time to invest in students and to enter their world. If they know we genuinely care for them, they’re much more likely to listen when we get up to teach.
Your students need God’s Word—and you are one of God’s chosen mouthpieces to deliver truth to them. No matter how big or small your audience is, prepare diligently and teach passionately because God’s Word never returns void.
1 Robinson, Haddon W. Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages. Third Ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2014), 17.
2 Timothy Keller, Preaching in a Secular Culture, (Gospel in Life, 2010), page 5, https://content.wtsbooks.com/shopify/pdf_links/Preaching.pdf.