By Benjie Shaw
I am a graduate of a Southern Baptist seminary (New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, to be precise). In case you don’t know, Southern Baptists are very fond of expository preaching. We are so fond of this particular method of preaching that it is the only method in which I have received training, either formally or informally. Our fondness for expository preaching is so pervasive that I was taught that even if I were to decide to preach a topical sermon, I should do so in an expository fashion.
Now, I have nothing against expository sermons. When done well I think they are incredibly informative and challenging. Many of the churches with whom I have associated feel the same way. In fact, most insist that a “good” sermon must be expository in nature. One such church was scandalized when I mentioned during a presentation on reaching millennials that I had heard some pretty awful expository sermons in my day and would have preferred the preacher to try another format that fit his personality better. In their disbelief of my statement, I was pressed, “What makes an expository sermon bad?”
A bad expository sermon is similar to a bad Bible study, lecture or presentation. The speaker/teacher can spend so much time on the question of “What” that he/she neglects the “So what?” of the lesson/sermon. Put another way, a bad expository sermon “can’t see the forest for the trees.” For millennials this is a particularly egregious sin that will result in our tuning out and playing a few rounds of Trivia Crack on our smartphones. Preachers and Bible study leaders are particularly prone to this error because it is as if they feel the need to justify their work by finding obscure facts, relationships, or tangential information.
Information is good and those who teach the Bible, be that from a pulpit, from a couch, or from a Starbucks should know plenty of background information, supporting texts, theological nuance, original language usage, etc. in order to effectively teach God’s Word. Forgetting millennials, with whom the problem is magnified, our society is increasingly inundated with information that most of us don’t have the know-how or the time to be expected to sort through. When we come to learn about God from a pastor/small-group leader/mentor we don’t need to know that you’re smart and that you’ve done your homework. We need to know what our faith has to do with our life.
Ministry leaders would do well to spend significant time on the “So what?” of their sermons/lessons. In concrete terms, we should demonstrate what a particular passage has to do with how life is lived day to day and in special circumstances. Emphasize how followers of Christ are to live in present-day contexts in light of ancient, revealed truths.
One great way to do this is to apply faith to cultural realities. Before doing this, a word of caution is in order. Another great way to get millennials to tune you out and walk away for good is to spend an inordinate amount of time decrying culture. We like culture. We live in it and want to know how to be influences for Christ within culture. And isn’t participating in and redeeming culture Jesus’ way? Yes, we know that no all elements of culture are good and sometimes we need reminding of the hazards of culture, but millennials are typically optimistic about where society is heading. You don’t have to agree with that assessment and you may be legitimately concerned about the moral decline of the country, the increase of socialism, the secular nature of the education system, or a million other pet causes and you are free to express them. But doing so from your platform will cause a disconnect with young listeners. Find a way to graciously express concerns without lambasting large segments of society, present an informed, concise argument and we’ll hear you.
But the better course is to focus on what individuals can do day-to-day and how your particular audience can interact with culture in order to influence it for Christ. Millennial believers long to make an impact on their surroundings with their faith from a place of service, love, and compassion. Spend significant time walking us through what a truth looks like in practice while giving us concrete application and you’ll find that your desired effect is achieved much more quickly.
Benjie is the Interim Associate Campus Minister with Baptist Collegiate Ministries at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, TN. He is Jenna’s husband and Ava’s dad. He is a graduate of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary where he received his M.Div in Christian Thought (or, as he calls it, “Christian Nerdery”) and Georgia Southern University with a B.S. in Exercise Science (Hail Southern!). He loves superhero movies, good coffee, college students, catching up with friends, and the Atlanta Braves. Connect with Benjie on Twitter: @benjie_shaw.