Have you ever stood to preach and realized you’re younger than the congregation? Being a relatively young minister who’s preached in many churches, this is a familiar scenario to me. It can be intimidating. In fact, it can be debilitating unless one lives and preaches with a few important principles in mind. Whether you find yourself ministering to an older group for the first time, your church’s annual “Youth Sunday” is around the corner, or the faithful old ladies still pinch your cheeks after the sermon, use the following principles to help you bridge the age gap.
I. Before the Sermon
Live Godly: Great preaching begins long before you stand in the pulpit. It’s even more pronounced, however, when you’re standing before a group largely older than yourself. People may question if a younger person has anything of real value to say, so don’t give them ammunition by living without integrity.
This is simply the Apostle Paul’s timeless advice to Timothy, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity … devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:12-13; NIV). Notice the order — live right, then preach right!
Build Relationships: While preaching involves speaking authoritatively for God on the basis of Scripture, it also involves speaking compassionately to people on the basis of relationship. Think about it. Aren’t there things your spouse or friend can tell you that you would not readily heed if told by a stranger? That’s because familiarity often fosters trust and respect.
The age factor diminishes as you spend strategic and spontaneous time talking, praying, recreating, and, eating with others. Though it may be stretching to span the generational gap, it must be done. Nobody wants to listen to a disconnected talking head.
By the way, this principle is applicable to the visiting preacher as well. You won’t have the opportunity to develop meaningful friendships in one visit, but you can maximize the time you have to connect with people. I always try to arrive early and meet as many folks as possible when speaking in a new setting. People will take notice if you retain their name and somehow mention it neutrally or positively before, during, or after the sermon. Handshakes, smiles, opening doors, upbeat disposition, and talking to children are ways to make first impressions that gain attentive ears. Truth is always most easily received in the context of relationship.
Know Your Audience: In the process of building relationships, you’ll also receive a first hand education on how to contextualize your message to folks older than yourself. We emphasize age-appropriate content and methods when training our children’s workers. This is no less important when the audience is largely older. The “product” doesn’t change, but the “package” should. Notice what the congregation reads and watches; consider their family situations; pay attention to how they spend their money, vote, dress and interact with others. People can tell when we’re more interested in the content than in them, so study your audience to tailor the message to where they are.
Study Hard: Though we study our parishioners, we cannot neglect studying the Word. Recently I was invited to speak at a men’s dinner. When I requested a list of previous topics, I was told to speak on anything “the Lord laid on my heart,” except probably parenting since my son is still young.
While experience rightly brings credibility, the preacher can confidently venture into territory he hasn’t personally experienced if he carefully studies the relevant biblical (and cultural) data. But, sloppy study translates into flimsy messages. The Word of God, after all, is our power, and brings wisdom beyond our years (cf. Ps 119:98, 99)!
Manuscript Completely: There are different philosophies about preaching extemporaneously versus preaching with notes. But regardless of how extensive your notes are in the pulpit, you should initially write your sermon in a roughly word-for-word manuscript. This forces you to think concretely about what you’ll say, when you’ll say it, and how you’ll say it. Your introduction, logic, word choice, illustrations, transitions, and conclusion will be more polished and focused. What better way to call attention from the messenger to the message than with a good sermon?
Observe Others: Noticing how others address a particular audience can give valuable insight for your own presentation (cf. 1 Cur. 4:16; 1 Thess 1:6; Heb 13:7). Before speaking at my first nursing home, for instance, I joined the team for a couple weeks to learn from the experienced teachers.
Don’t forget to look to figures from the past who were young in years but seasoned in speech. In addition to studying biblical characters like Josiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Timothy, dust off those church history books and historical sermons to meet other young preachers who excelled like Whitefield, Wesley, Calvin, Hudson Taylor, and Spurgeon to name a few.
II. During the Sermon
Express Humility: Once your preparation is complete, the task of delivery begins. In an informal survey, I discovered few things deflate an older audience faster than hearing a younger preacher address them smugly, either verbally or by presence. Humility, on the other hand, shows respect, builds rapport, and makes hard truth softer to digest. When listeners perceive that a preacher doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, they relate to him regardless of age.
Humility doesn’t mean being timid or restrained in the pulpit, nor does it compromise your authority (cf. 2 Tim 1:12). Christ Himself invited people to learn from Him “for I am gentle and humble in heart” (Matt 11:29). God will honor your humility but oppose your pride (I Pet 5:5). Humility’s the better bet!
Illustrate Strategically: An effective illustration is a great friend who can network you with older listeners. It’s a chance to show you’re capable of relevance to the audience while illuminating truth. Introductions and applications also have this positive potential.
Look for stories, songs, poems, facts, experiences, and quotations that are mutually common or captivating to the audience. Don’t neglect the occasional dip into recent history either. I graphically remember using a war story several years ago. Veterans from two generations straightened their posture and never lost eye contact the rest of that morning! If you don’t overuse these illustrations, they show you have enough interest in what’s meaningful to others to be able to use it.
Be Yourself: Don’t preach yourself, but be yourself (cf. 2 Cor. 4:5). A yielded, natural vessel is more impressive than a contrived image. While “being real” is especially crucial to today’s youth, authenticity is a requisite for addressing all ages. A superficial and insincere performance is easily detected. Besides, preaching inherently involves proclaiming God’s truth through a preacher’s unique personality.
When I hear a good speaker, I ask myself, “What makes him effective?” Perhaps it’s the crisp transitions, poignant truth, measured inflections, or vivid wordsmithing. I used to focus on incorporating the best qualities into my own speaking. It was a compliment to hear, “You sound like ____________ (insert name of favorite preacher)!”
I’ve since realized that great sermons flow from great preachers. I want to be known for who God made me to be. Although we should learn from others, we shouldn’t robotically emulate them any more than Paul did John.
The break-through came after delivering a particularly lucid sermon. As customary during the drive home, my wife and I candidly discussed the sermon. “That was your best! You were totally yourself … your personality and passions came through!” I was able to connect because I was being real. Preachers don’t need to portray themselves as older, more mature, or more experienced. In fact, as we carry ourselves into the pulpit, we should forget ourselves and thus find the freedom we need to bridge the age gap.
III. After the Sermon
Evaluate Rigorously: Thorough self-evaluation can’t be over-emphasized. The tendency after a sermon is to file it and dive into the next text. But Sunday’s sermon isn’t over until you’ve assessed it while it’s fresh on your mind. All preachers should regularly step back and assess their preaching. When you have a particular challenge like adjusting to an age discrepancy, it’s even more important.
Like preaching, football’s post-game comment isn’t as exciting as the pre-game show, but it’s more effective in pinpointing ways to improve performance the next game. An audio or video tape, sermon notes, memory, and a favorite checklist are the only necessary tools to facilitate this process.
Based on the points of this article, you could explore several areas as a starting point: Is there evidence of personal spiritual growth? Was a relational element involved? Did I demonstrate familiarity with the congregation? Was there solid biblical content? How did my manuscript help me and how should I adjust? Is there something I can learn from another’s experience? Did I display humility? Were my illustrations effective? Was it apparent that I was being authentic? What can I learn from this experience? How did others perceive me? The hour or two invested in this weekly assignment will reward you and the congregation.
Solicit Input: Since we can never be entirely objective in self-evaluation, other mature believers should be sought for formal or informal evaluation — something more than the customary “great sermon” on the way out the door. It was a help to me when I could ask for honest input from an older man and woman in my former church. Even when guest speaking or as an associate pastor, I sometimes ask other ministers for their comments. A gracious spouse, of course, is a valuable asset too. She should know you intimately and be honest, but don’t rely on this alone.
It impressed me when a gifted pastor once gave me an evaluation form and asked me to critique him during a series of messages. That pastor wanted to know how he was connecting with the teenagers in his flock! I’ve also given out copies of that same form. Not everything is useful, but outside perceptions are good to know. It can even build a bridge with the eldest skeptic.
Don’t worry that your evaluators aren’t seminary trained or haven’t read the latest issue of Preaching. All you need to know is if the Word of God is being delivered in a way that is clear and compels people toward growth. If so, the age barriers have been broken!

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