How "Not" to Preach to Millennials: Part One
It happens every week. The Sunday sermon is savagely critiqued over Sunday lunch and then completely forgotten by the next Sunday. Few sermons are memorable or transformative. Nonetheless, they remain at the center of most Protestant and evangelical services. A noted preacher is most often a gifted communicator. Today’s preachers must compete for attention with the online sermons of all the great preachers of our time as well as the TED Talks of the leading minds of our generation. The pressure on contemporary preachers is great and their weekly task daunting.
Preaching is not what I do week-to-week. I respect those whose calling involves this very public, challenging, and self-revelatory spiritual task. It is much easier to be the armchair critic than it is to give a compelling life-changing sermon. But if you’ve lived long enough and spend enough time in church, one does begin to get some opinions about what works and what gets the eye roll.
If the center of the typical evangelical service, the sermon, is off putting or perceived as irrelevant to millennials, then there is little chance that millennials will stay engaged. They will do brunch instead of church.
For starters, one should abandon the notion of preaching. Millennials do not like being preached at. It is viewed—at best—as presumptuous. It is not that they are unwilling to learn, but the preferred style is more informal and conversational. In the parlance of Marshall McLuhan, contemporary audiences prefer a cool medium rather than hot. Multi-directional communication is preferred over unidirectional. This is because relationships matter more than assumed authority.
I was recently asked by an evangelical seminarian whether my book about millennials, The New Copernicans, had implications for speaking to the next generation. I believe it does. In the next blog I will be outlining twelve implications from the new Copernican ethos for effective communication to the next generation. Here we'll discuss some background resources.
An effective sermon cannot be given in a paint-by-numbers kind of way, lest one remove the existential presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Contemporary suggestions and new methods do not a great sermon make. And yet most homiletics courses in seminary seem to omit the best resources on effective communication. Here are four books I would add to any course for reaching the next generation (besides my own, of course).
Jonah Berger, Contagious: Why Things Catch On (Simon & Schuster, 2013). Berger is a professor of marketing at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He has studied why some stories and rumors are more infectious, and what makes online content go viral. In this book he reveals the secret science behind word-of-mouth and social transformation.
Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (Random House, 2007). These two educators explore what makes communication memorable. When a high school teacher gives a test, to what extent is the teacher him or herself responsible for having made the material taught memorable? They write, “Many of us struggle with how to communicate ideas effectively, how to get our ideas to make a difference.” If this isn’t the burden of our preaching then I don’t know why we bother. They present six principles of sticky ideas.
Carmine Gallo, Talk Like TED: The Nine Public-Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds (St. Martin’s Press, 2014). If ideas are the currency of social change, then one must know how to communicate them effectively. TED Talks have redefined the elements and expectations of effective communication for millennial audiences. Gallo here provides a step-by-step method that makes it possible to create, design, and deliver sermons that are engaging, persuasive, and memorable.
Peter Enns, How the Bible Actually Works: In Which I Explain How an Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather than Answers—and Why That’s Great News (HarperOne, 2019). All new preachers and seminarians have been schooled in 2 Timothy 2:15, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” Every time we preach on a passage of Scripture, we are demonstrating how one is to “correctly handle the Bible.” For many the common approach is more indebted to the rationalistic tendencies of the Enlightenment filtered through the Fundamentalist inerrancy debates of the past, than it is to the pattern of Jesus or the original context. Enns show us how to take Scripture seriously without distorting what this means by an Enlightenment hermeneutic.
To these four books, one might add Carmine Gallo’s The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience and The Storyteller’s Secret: From TED Speakers to Business Legends, Why Some Ideas Catch on and Other’s Don’t; and Garr Reynolds’ The Naked Presenter: Delivering Powerful Presentations With or Without Slides.
My general point is that the public expectations of effective communication have changed. There are significant resources from business and media that are largely ignored by the church and seminary communities. For most preachers the Sunday sermon needs to be completely reframed. There will be more on this point in my next blog. But all young preachers would do well to start with these books.