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Preaching for youth: how to be seeker-sensitive

This post is part of the series on Preaching for Youth. Yesterday we made clear what preaching seeker-sensitive is not. Today we’ll focus on what it does mean. How can you adapt your message to an audience that for the most part won’t be a committed Christian? Here’s what I do:

1. Depart from common ground

If you have many non-Christians in your audience, you’ll need to find common ground right at the introduction of your message. If you don’t emphasize that despite your differences you have something in common, you may lose their interest soon. The easiest way to find common ground is to tell a story, preferably a personal one, where you focus on an experience or emotion your audience can relate to.

Example: in a seeker-service about love I told the story of how I broke up with my first boyfriend. Heartbreak is something almost everyone can relate to.

2. Preach a varied gospel

Always, always preach the gospel, but don’t preach the same one every time. There are so many different ways in which to tell what God, what Jesus has done for us that we don’t need to use the same one every time. Here are some ideas:

  • focus on different aspects of God’s character and connect them with the Gospel e.g. love, righteousness, mercy
  • use the Old Testament Law to show why we need a Savior
  • teach on the old sacrifices that were needed and how they were a foreshadowing of what Christ would do
  • use the story of Adam and Eve as the very start of mankind’s descent into sin
  • concentrate on the concept of grace
  • approach the Gospel from ideas people have on heaven and how to get there

A wonderful example is the way Bill Hybels brought the gospel in his closing talk on the Power of Clarity at  the 2006 Willow Creek Leadership Summit (there’s no available video online unfortunately). He focused on the concept of substitutionary atonement. That doesn’t sound like a seeker-friendly approach, but we have used that actual speech in our small group a few times and it worked every time.

There are so many aspects to the Gospel, that we should preach it differently each time...without ever watering it down.

3. Show them Jesus

Whatever you preach on, always show your audience Jesus. That’s easy when you preach from the New Testament, but you can preach the gospel just as well from the Old Testament. Every story in the Old Testament is in some way a preview of what was to come, an announcement that one day things would be different, a assurance that God had a plan to not only save Israel, but all people. Show them God’s plan and show them Jesus.

And never, ever water down the gospel because you feel it may be more acceptable to people. Jesus Christ is the only Way to God and no one gets saved outside of Him. The Bible is crystal clear on salvation and we should be just as clear.

4. Use one or two passages

I find it works best if you use only one or two passages when preaching seeker-sensitive. There are two reasons for this: one is that your audience won’t know much about the Bible, meaning you would have to explain each passage in its context, which takes up a lot of time. If you focus on just one or two, you can more easily explain these. The second reason is that using many different passages often comes down to using single verses. Besides the fact that there’s a huge theological risk here for cutting and pasting our own (false) theology, I don’t think it does justice to the life-changing power of God’s Word. Using a whole passage in its context will speak more to people than ten different verses that mean nothing to them.

5. Explain the context

As I mentioned above, you should explain the context of every verse and passage you use. This means:

  • telling briefly from what Bible book you’re reading, who wrote it and when it was written (maybe even for whom)
  • telling something about the person who’s mentioned in the passage or who wrote the passage
  • explaining something about the situation the passage applies to
  • if necessary explain the broader context of this passage in the Bible book or in the Bible as a whole

6. Use normal language

I can’t stress this enough: non-Christians do not speak our church-language. They don’t know what salvation is, or justification. They have a different understanding of words like grace and mercy. So make sure to keep it simple and explain all necessary words. I’ve written about this in more detail in another post on the right language when preaching for youth.

7. Preach with love

If you can’t find compassion in your heart for the lost you’re speaking to, you shouldn’t preach at all. The gospel should never be brought with anger, condemnation, arrogance of self-righteousness. It should be brought with love.

Pray for your audience in your message preparation. Ask God to fill your heart with compassion and love so that it will radiate from everything you say and do.

What do you do when you want to adapt your message to a non-Christian audience? Any (other) tips you’d like to share?

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  1. […] In the next post in this series on Preaching for Youth we’ll have a look at how you can adapt your message to make it seeker-sensitive. […]

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