As I looked across the table, the seven students selected for my interview looked a little nervous. I could tell they were apprehensive about the questions they might be asked by the Church Doctor and his associate. Little did they know this is my favorite part of all the interviews we conduct during a church consultation. For years, I have enjoyed the interviews with these young adults. I love their gut-honesty, transparency and insights about the church. This age group is a great source of hope for the future of the local church.
There they were: two sophomores, two juniors and three seniors from two different high schools. Most of them said they attend church just about every weekend. One attends four out of five Sundays and another said it was closer to three out of five. All of them are involved in the youth group and half of them attend the high school Sunday School class. The others said they dropped out of Sunday School because the teacher was boring and some of the kids fool around too much.
I asked my usual question about their favorite radio stations. Two like alternative rock, three follow top 40 popular and one likes country. The other listens to Christian rock. This is a fairly typical mix of musical preferences, from my experience.
For the past 30 years, I have been consulting churches of all kinds, all sizes, throughout North America—65 different denominations and a growing number of independent and emergent churches.
How Is Your Preaching?
As the interview reached the focus of worship, I heard some great insights about how the local pastor is communicating with high school youth. My theory is that for the most part, if you hit a home run with the youth, you will score with most of the adults, as well. Some of my cumulative results should encourage you. Some of what follows may stretch and challenge you. My hope is that if it can improve your preaching you will make changes as your congregation reflects a new world of young adults.
Obviously not every church has retained its youth. Many churches are “graying,” aging as younger generations are conspicuously absent. For those churches, it’s never all about the preaching. Yet, it is accurate that preaching and worship in general is a visible distinction of congregational life and is generally included in the mix of whether young adults stay or leave.
Grade Your Church
Here is a system I use to draw out the perceptions of the youth. I explain that in school sudents are constantly graded. In this interview, however, I wanted them to do the grading. Because letter grades might include an “F” and reflect failure, I changed the scale to numbers. A “1” equals “the pits” and a “10” represents “awesome.” While this type of evaluation system does not work well with older adults, the kids respond rapidly. They also are surprisingly serious about the process. You would be proud of them!
So, on a scale of 1-10, how do you grade worship? Just think of the whole experience. As you leave the church, on average how does it leave you? The overall average in our database is 6-7.
OK, what about the music? How does that rate? The responses for contemporary music is 7-10. For traditional music, the rating is 2-4.
How about your pastor’s preaching on a scale of 1-10? How would you rate your pastor as a person? On this question, most high school students rate their pastor as an 8, 9 or 10. A few will respond, “I don’t really know pastor all that well.” Overall, as a person, the youth rate their pastors fairly high.
What About Preaching?
So what about the preaching? How would you rate your pastor’s preaching on a scale of 1-10? As I review our large database, this is what I have discovered:
• Most groups I interview rate the preaching above 5 on the 10-point scale.
• Most students provide numbers fairly close to the others in their group.
• The responses seem to be grouped from 5-7 points from 8-10 points and are generally consistent for each group within that range.
How do you think the youth would rate your preaching?
My interview process does not end there. As I pursue the preaching issue further, my approach depends on the scores. For example, if the numbers are in the 8-10 range, I ask, “What do you like about the preaching?” I probe deeper: “What does your pastor do that seems to make the preaching meaningful for you?”
If the numbers are in the 5-7 range, I ask, “What could your pastor do that would improve the value of the preaching message for you? What would help?”
Here is the interesting part: With significant regularity, the high-end-rating group describes the same cluster of issues as the low-rating group suggests in almost every church.
What Works for Students?
Here is a list of the same issues I hear about consistently. They are not in any particular order of importance.
• Pastor is “real.” Pastor speaks like a real person, is transparent and honest about the joys and challenges of life as a Christian.
• The use of humor. It’s great that Christians can hear a message that has a little fun at some point. Even a serious message can have some element of joy at some part, especially at the end so you leave with hope.
• The use of story. Instead of just lecturing at us, the main points of the message are put into a story. (This reflects the importance of narrative in postmodern culture.)
• The use of visual aids. PowerPoint – not just words, but pictures and symbols as well; video clips; visual aids that are part of the message and brought into the communication at the appropriate time.
• The pastor interacts with the congregation. This can be a show of hands, dialogue or text messaging. It’s great when the listeners can give input or feedback.
At the end of my interview, I ask the students if it happens very often that someone asks their opinion about church. About 90 percent of the time, the answer is “Never.” What a shame! If church leaders would ask the youth more often, I guarantee you would be greatly encouraged. Plus, it could improve your preaching!