Start with a Long-Term Strategy
I very rarely choose a book in isolation. Each year, I make sure my students get a healthy diet of Scripture. I want them to ingest a balanced biblical feast of epistles, gospels, Old Testament narrative, prophetic literature, and cultural topics. I generally plan the books and topics I will teach about six months in advance.
Know Your Students
My first step in choosing any book is to ask: What is the spiritual hunger my students are experiencing and what diet will best feed them? I chose Colossians because:
- I wanted to start the year with powerful gospel promises and affirmations — my students always need the gospel.
- I wanted another chance to teach and explain the “household codes” in Colossians 4 in light of the #Metoo movement and the cultural conversation about gender roles, patriarchy, and feminism.
- After praying, I sensed this was the direction the Lord wanted me to go.
- I wanted to show how the gospel responds to both vague “spirituality” and religious legalism (Colossians 2:6-23). I know, personally, students who would fall into both categories and that “spiritual but not religious” is a growing category among teens more broadly.
If you are new to the job or don’t know precisely what your student’s need, don’t worry. Choose your favorite book and trust that God’s Word is perfectly equipped to meet the needs of your students, even when you are not (2 Timothy 3:16). Here’s a sense of how I prepared and preached through the book of Colossians.
Pray, Read, and Pray (in that order)
The more I pray, the better my sermons are. They aren’t better oratorically or stylistically. They are better because I have met God in his Word and am slowly being transformed by Jesus. Teenagers especially need to see a pastor who is deeply dependent on Jesus, far more than a pastor who needs to be insightful or affirmed. Seeing their leader live out the gospel from their knees, frees them to do the same.
In my prayer, I ask the Lord to reveal himself to me personally, then I read through the whole of Colossians a few times underlining what stood out to me. During this time, I also take note of the natural divisions of the text (the little bold subheadings, paragraph breaks, or new chapters). In my sermon prep each week, I spend time reading through the book several times and then I pray through one of the text units.
I then use the words of Paul to populate prayers for myself, working through the whole of the passage, then I pray for my students. Here’s what I mean.
Colossians 1:3-4: “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints.”
Prayer for myself: “God, the Father of my savior Jesus Christ. Thank you for preserving my faith. I recognize I would have lost my faith without your influence. Thank you that you have given me love for the Christians in my life. I know my love would be cold and conditional if you hadn’t shown me Jesus.”
Prayer for my students: “Lord, you are the Father of my students’ savior, Jesus Christ. What an amazing work you have done in John, Joe, Sally, and Suzy. I am amazed by their perseverance through suffering, their ability to say no to temptation, and how they welcome any newcomer to the youth group. Thank you for the faithful students you have given me!”
Again, I cannot overemphasize the importance of prayer in my preparation. Most of my sermon illustrations’ “a ha” moments and insights come through sustained prayer and not academic commentaries.
Get a Sense for the Book as a Whole
While I am praying through the book I make sure I understand the general “flow” of the book in general. I cannot recommend The Bible Project highly enough in this regard. I also read the introductions to a few commentaries. Let me suggest:
Colossians and Philemon by David W. Pao.
Requires a little bit of Greek knowledge, but this series is quickly becoming one of my favorites.
The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon (PNTC) by Douglas J. Moo.
Can be a little technical but Moo is brilliant.
The Message of Colossians & Philemon (The Bible Speaks Today) by Dick Lucas
Consistently easy to read, devotionally powerful, and exegetically nuanced. I almost always order this for whatever book I’m preaching though.
Divide the Book into Preach-able Sections
I generally try to keep our sermon series a little shorter, 8-12 weeks being pretty average, so I divide the book according to that scheme. Although after making that division I often lengthen or shorten a passage based on my study, or the topic and theme I want to trace.
For example: I lengthened the sermon scope in Colossians 2:6-23 to cover two subheadings, because I saw a sustained pattern I wanted to address. Paul preaches the gospel as the solution to Jewish legalism, Colossian ‘mysticism’ in the first subheading, and then a form of “secular” legalism in the second. It made sense to treat them together. I also separated Colossians 3:1-17 into two sermons – there was too much to cover in one. And I didn’t preach Colossians 4:7-18 since it’s mostly various greetings and I believed we address the topics covered there already.
Start Preaching by Reading your Bible, and Praying.
Everyone says to delay commentaries and I will repeat the advice. Except to say that it’s often helpful for me to know the context, and main issues Paul is addressing before doing this step. (The Bible Project is a perfect tool for this.)
Learn to love and start worshiping the preeminent Jesus revealed in Colossians 1:15-23. Pray the text into your heart and over your students. Journal, takes notes in the margins of your Bible. Then, after you’ve met God in his word, learn about the grammar and sentence structure,