This post is part of the Preaching for youth series. If you want to captivate teens and students, you’re gonna have to get personal. In my sermons for youth, I’ve shown photo’s of my wedding, my baptism, my first boyfriend and my high school friends and have shared many personal stories. These kids know more about me in some ways than my best friends and family do, I’ve shared experiences with them that my mom doesn’t even know about (sorry mom)!
Why being personal is necessary
There are two important reasons why it’s important to get personal when preaching for teens or students. First of all, personal stories and memorabilia make a sermon interesting. Everybody loves a good story, especially if it’s told in the right way, and it’s a great way to spice up your sermon. And let’s be honest: old pictures are simply funny to look at, so that’s sure to get their attention. Entertainment works, what can I say.
And secondly, students need to know you before they’ll accept what you’re saying. Doug Fields wrote a post about the three questions an audience asks: Can I trust you, do you care about me and do you know what you’re talking about. Personal stories can help audiences answer the first and the last one.
People are likely to trust people who are like them, in which they recognize pieces of themselves. If you are willing to share your life with your students in your sermons, they will discover you are not that much different, even though you’re older (and maybe wiser). If they see that you’re real, they’ll start to trust you.
Personal stories can also help communicating the message that we know what we’re talking about. If I’m giving a sermon on depression and I share that I have been depressed myself, my message will have a much bigger impact. My audience will accept my message, because they have concluded that I know what I’m talking about.
How to find the right personal touch
One practical way to come up with a personal touch, either in the form of a picture, or a story, is to think about an emotion you want to share. Look at your key message, what is the corresponding emotion you can use to make it personal?
A couple of years ago we had a youth service on Valentine’s Day and we chose the theme ‘In the name of love’. The key message was that we should never confuse God’s love with human love, because His love is perfect. The emotion I wanted to use as an intro was ‘first love’, so I shared the story of my first boyfriend, including some fairly cheesy pictures. The students thought it was hilarious, but when I told them how my heart was broken after we broke up, they became quiet. They all knew how that felt. It was the perfect ‘emotional bridge’ to tell them about a God who will never break their heart.
Just to be clear: even though I have no problem in sharing other people’s personal stories, they don’t have the same effect as examples from your own life. And please, don’t ever tell someone else’s story like you’ve experienced it yourself! I’ve heard people do that, even with fairly common illustrations, and it’s counter productive in every sense.
When being personal isn’t right
You should never use personal stories just for the sake of it, and even worse: to draw attention to yourself. Everything you include in a sermon, including anything personal you share, has to support the point you’re making. If it doesn’t, skip it.
A second warning is that there’s a fine line between being personal and sharing too much. I vividly remember a sermon in which a fairly young pastor shared his problems with lust and sexual impurity. The level of details made me very uncomfortable. What you share should never make people cringe. Ask friends or other mature Christians for their opinion if you have any doubts whether what you want to share is appropriate.
It should also never hurt people, so be sure not to share anything in which other people were involved without their permission. I’ve shared things about my marriage for instance, but never without discussing it with my husband first. And when I’ve shared things that involved him, or others, I’ve always done so with respect.
A last thing to consider is this: the pulpit is not a place for therapy, or getting things off your chest. It’s usually wise not to share things you haven’t dealt with yet or talk about events that still manage to make you angry. I’ve heard a pastor speak about his former church for instance in a way that was really inappropriate. While it’s perfectly okay to share emotions, generally speaking anger, frustration and bitterness are emotions that have no place in a sermon.
Do you get personal in your sermons? How do you come up with good stories and examples?[Photo credit: EKG Technician Salary]