Preaching to College Students

Many campus ministers rely primarily on guests to preach to and teach their students. This was the strategy during my college years, and many still use that strategy. Not all campus ministers are great preachers, nor do they feel like they have the time or capacity to focus on that particular ministry task, and with good reason. Campus Ministers have to be good at many things, including counseling, administration, money management, personnel supervision, facilities operations, church relations, food preparation, travel arrangements, and the list goes on. I believe that is it a mistake, however, to outsource biblical teaching exclusively to those who do not know your students or their context as well as you do. Simply because you are not the world’s greatest preacher does not mean that you can’t be the world’s most effective preacher for your context. I work for a university where annually we have dozens of guest speakers, preachers, teachers, and lecturers visit campus each year. Dollar for dollar, I think that our faculty, staff, and campus ministers communicate more effectively to our students than even the most entertaining or impressive guests. In other words, if what you’re going for is entertainment, then a guest is best. If what you want is impact, guests often (usually?) fall short. In a world of limited resources, therefore, I say you get more bang for your buck by anchoring your teaching/preaching schedule with people on your campus or on your staff, people who know and love your students better than anyone.

With that in mind, here are a few brief ideas on preaching to college students in a campus ministry context:

  1. Preach as often as you can, or as often as it makes sense in your environment. Don’t let the fact that you aren’t great at it or don’t love it keep you from being effective at it.
  2. Pay attention in speech class and preaching class. The technical details about presentation style, stage presence, eye contact, diction, pace, pronunciation, visual aids, etc. – these details matter. This is especially true in a world where students spend more time fact-to-face with screens than with live people.
  3. Know your audience. Know their life stage, social tendencies, emotional burdens, and intellectual curiosities. Know their language, their intelligence level, their average GPA and ACT scores, their music, their culture.
  4. Don’t assume that students have any degree of biblical literacy. Most do not. At the same time, don’t “dumb down” your content. Explain concepts confusing to someone who didn’t grow up in church, but don’t be pedantic.
  5. Challenge students. They expect to and want to learn. They don’t necessarily need to or expect to “feel better” after a message. Hit them between the eyes; say it like it is; throw down when necessary. Do this with humor and grace, the proverbial iron fist in the velvet glove.
  6. Be personal and missional. Let them learn a little about you and your struggles, without emotionally streaking. But stay focused on the mission, the Gospel message and its proclamation, what theologians call “Christo-centric” preaching.
  7. The sermon should be part of a process, not an isolated event. Invite others into the planning process. Give clear next steps. Use the sermon to lead an organization, to expose its flaws and your own. Use the momentum created by a challenging message to accomplish things far more important than the sermon itself. At the end of the day, the sermon is a means, not an end.

 

Leadership

Sermon Preparation

Finishing sermon preparation this morning has me thinking about the process from start to finish. If time is no issue (and it almost always is), here is the full process I follow, with very little commentary, when preparing a sermon:

  1. Select the text – or better yet, have someone, or a team, or a sermon series, or the lectionary select it for you. A text of between 15-20 verses is about all most people can handle in a single sermon.
  2. Read the text several times, thinking primarily about its application to you, the preacher/teacher. Here’s where prayer is most important, although it should take place at every step.
  3. Think about the audience, their place in life, their needs, where the text will bump up against them.
  4. Outline the text – A, B, C, i, ii, iii. Often you’ll get your main points from this step.
  5. Diagram complex sentences, research unclear meanings, consulting commentaries, cross-referencing other biblical texts.
  6. Construct a thesis statement – the main idea or argument of your message. This should generally be a simple sentence.
  7. Select 3-5 main points, then consolidate them to 2-3.
  8. Fill out each point for clarity, listenability, understandability. Here I sometimes ask my wife, kids, or colleagues if I’m making sense.
  9. Tweak for “fix and flow,” in other words, the fixed points that the listener needs to follow, and transitions between those points.
  10. Add analogies, stories, illustrations to explain important or complex principles.
  11. Memorize, practice, edit. Repeat.
  12. Preach, get feedback, critique.
Leadership

Responding to Criticism

“Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.”                                    – Galatians 1.10

Sometimes you’re going to make people angry, not because you do something wrong but because you do something right. People generally do not like change, even if the change is for the good. Ruffle feathers, touch a sore spot, topple a sacred cow, disrupt the status quo, and people will respond negatively.

In those moments, how will you respond? In the past, I’ve responded well and poorly, and here’s what I’ve learned:

  • The way people respond to a decision does not make that decision more or less correct.
  • Listen to your critics. They will usually teach you more than your fans.
  • You do not have a moral obligation to respond to every criticism. Sometimes the best response is no response at all.
  • Avoid the temptation to fire off an angry email response to a criticism. Email is permanent. Assume your response will be read by everyone, so have a trusted friend or colleague preview written responses before you send them.
  • Don’t obsess over what others think. You don’t need their approval. They cannot make you feel bad about yourself without your permission.
  • Ultimately, there’s one opinion that matters above all, and God regards you highly, even when you screw up.
Leadership