For the last two years, I’ve been teaching Scripture, theology, and ethics at a small Christian high school that shares space with a local church. It took me a year and a half to realize that, on one of my classroom walls, half-hidden behind a filing cabinet and obscured beneath a coat of paint, was a Bible verse, written in red:
“Let no one look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity.” 1 Timothy 4:12.
Do you ever have one of those moments when something happens and you think, “Uh, is this a metaphor?”
Yes, Virginia, there is a metaphor.
After two years of teaching Bible to freshmen and sophomores, I’ve realized something that pastors, youth leaders, and anyone interested in the word “discipleship” need to know.
Teenagers are called to preach. You should welcome them to preach in your church. You should do it today.
How did I come to this conviction? It began when I was given the opportunity to teach “Scriptural Interpretation” as part of my course load.
Students at my school had already received Bible survey classes in middle school, so my project as their high school instructor was to plunge them deeper into the task of interpretation. As I designed these classes, I realized that the primary way we encounter scriptural interpretation is through preaching.
Since the students were already learning the basics of rhetoric in other courses, the next step was gleefully simple: my group of 14 to 16 year olds would each be assigned to preach a sermon.
Many of my students came from evangelical, “Worship and Word” churches (45 minutes of singing, 45 minutes of sermon), so naturally they were a bit aghast when I informed them they would write and preach a sermon to their classmates (and any other teachers who wanted to listen in). But they soon discovered that my assignment was not a 45-minute gallop, but rather what Anglicans know as a homily: 10-14 minutes, rhetorically precise, with differing structures and effects depending on the passage selected. Their relief was palpable.
This last year we studied the interpretation of the Old Testament and their task was to preach a Prophetic Sermon. They had to (1) choose a group or audience, (2) identify an idol that their chosen group worships, and (3) speak from Scripture God’s word of judgment and mercy to that group.
We began by studying Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, looking at the pathos of prophetic poetry, the way the Word of the Lord brings both judgment and mercy. We researched artists who embody prophetic critique and watched pastors issue bold calls to their congregations. And then, after weeks of preparation, I called them up to preach.
“Prophets make people uncomfortable,” I told them in their pep talk, “so make us feel uncomfortable when you preach.”
Little did I know.
For audiences, they chose their youth groups, the school they attended, and American churches of comfort and privilege.
They spoke about idols: self-regard, disunity, consumerism, comfort, tribalism, and nationalism. They brought attention to the inconsistent ways Christians love each other, the masks we wear, how churches will split over buildings and ignore the poor, and how resistant we are to completely surrendering our lives to God.
They declared God’s mercy in “building longer tables instead of higher walls,” and that every opportunity to love someone is an opportunity to delight in God.
They cried in front of each other without shame. They declared God’s values with boldness, God’s priorities with insight, and God’s judgment and mercy with love.
But, most of all, it is what they told me after the assignment was finished that moved me to write this piece.
Preaching as Discipleship
Discipleship is a dialogue—necessarily so. You are always someone’s disciple. Obedience, assent, and liturgical practices are all dialogic acts. They can never be done in isolation, without an other.
As Christians, that other is first and foremost Jesus Christ, our Creator, Lord and brother. As he did what he saw the Father doing, so we also enact what we see him doing. From that primary relationship, it is no great leap to say that preaching is rightly and properly done by all baptized Christians, all members of the Lord’s family. As Jesus proclaimed the good news, so do we.
What I discovered in watching these teenagers learn to preach, and in hearing the words they were given, is that we need more preaching, not less.
We need this because, as one student said to me after finishing her sermon, “I was able to find my voice through preaching.” That, right there, is why I am writing.
Fr. John Wallace, my mentor during my diaconal year, used to say to me, “We all have a sermon in us. Mine is ‘God is so much better than you think he is.’” We don’t know what that sermon, that word, is until we are called to speak it. For those of you who preach, you know that preaching has made you a more dedicated, responsible, and dependent disciple.
Fr. John also knew when I preached a bad sermon—and I preached several. He showed courage and vulnerability by letting the pulpit of his new church plant be a place where I could learn to preach. “But we don’t have to put that one on the website.” Merciful words.
How many places in your parish do young people have to find their voice, to enter into the dialogue of discipleship with the Lord?
Where can the Word of the Lord come to them and where can they objectively act on it?
Where can the community recognize them as examples to follow, “in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity”?
Let me suggest one place all Anglicans have for young people to preach more regularly.
Sometimes the fine print is really amazing. Does that mean I read through every iTunes user agreement? Nope. But a great thing about the Prayer Book fine print is that it gives you some amazing details about Anglican life and liturgy.
You can start preaching at the Daily Office.
“A sermon may be preached after the Office; or, within the Office, after the Readings or at the time of the hymn or anthem after the Collects.” 1979 BCP, p. 142.
“A sermon may be preached after the lessons, after the hymn or anthem following the Collects, or after the conclusion of the Office.” 2019 BCP, p. 56.
The Daily Office is a perfect place to welcome youth to preach regularly in your parish.
Invite a high schooler to speak for five minutes on one way that morning or evening’s readings might change our lives. What word from the Lord do we need to hear in this place? What daily challenge can be brought to the Lord?
Anglicans have more opportunities to preach built into our liturgy than we really know what to do with. Instead of passing them by, let’s take them up and give them to our young people who are looking for ways to find belonging and belief in our churches. Give them a daily, Scripture-filled venue to find their voices in God. The kingdom of God belongs to such as these.
If your parish has a youth group, then invite them to preach there. One of the students from my class was asked to preach her sermon again to the whole school during our weekly chapel. Her sermon was about the biblical call to love our neighbors, especially the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. It was a moving sermon. But what riveted me was seeing 4th and 5th grade boys and girls sit completely still and focused on what she was saying. They were listening. A dialogue was starting. Discipleship was happening.
My own first sermon for the Sunday liturgy was during a summer internship. This was a unique church that, unlike most Anglican parishes, didn’t see a slowdown in attendance over the summer. If you’re a clergy person reading this and thinking, “yes, the summer slowdown! I’m going to welcome a young person to preach in late July!” Don’t. Let’s give young people opportunities to preach that engage your whole community.
I mean, don’t take Trinity Sunday away from the Associate Priests and Deacons, not that far…I tease. But give youth opportunities to be welcomed into the regular rhythm of parish life, times when people will show up.
I live next to a baseball field and regularly hear balls smashed against metal bats at 10:30pm and parents cheering with abandon. That’s faithfulness in the liturgy of sports. What about the Kingdom of God? If we are inviting young people to preach in the liturgy of God’s Church, let’s make sure they have a supportive and eager audience. Give your young preacher a team of people to pray for them and give them feedback when they finish.
We need to broaden our vision for preaching in the Anglican Tradition and take every opportunity to live into the fullness of the Church’s liturgical call. When the Prayer Book says “may”, let’s imagine what could happen if we read “should”. We need more preaching, by more people, with a multitude of voices.
The Word of the Lord is already coming to our young people. Will we equip them to speak it and will we be there to listen when they do?
So, let’s say you are thinking, “Ok, I see your point about letting youth preach and I’d like to, but I’m a busy pastor and don’t have time to teach preaching to the youth group. What should I do?”
Ask a young person to give a short testimony as an illustration to your sermon.
Have young people regularly participate as Readers in the liturgy. Reading Scripture is the first step in interpretation. Ask your readers, “If you had to preach a sermon on this passage, what would you say?”
From there, it’s a small step to having a reader share a short meditation during small group or the Daily Office.
Set ambitious goals and give young people a community to travel with.
Have them listen to sermons together, analyze them, ask how the words are working to form emotion and argument.
Ask them to tell about their favorite artist or musician, how they create their songs.
Read Scripture together and have them preach to each other.
Show them how to listen for the Holy Spirit, and what word the Spirit might be prompting into a sermon.
Offer ways to grow for next time.
Amos was blunt. Ezekiel was visionary. Jeremiah was pathetic. All spoke the Word of the Lord.
Commit to giving youth multiple opportunities to preach and be open about the mistakes you’ve made as a preacher. A blooper reel sets everyone at ease.
If they were not raised Anglican and have different expectations or internal habits about what constitutes a “sermon,” help bring those out and affirm the diversity of preaching. I remember listening to a 25-minute sermon and being disappointed because it felt like a mere introduction compared to the sermons I grew up with. Help them see the impact you can have with 3 minutes of speaking.
Share a vision with your youth ministry team for what catechesis can look like in your parish. Catechesis comes from the Greek word katékhéo, a compound word (kata-ekheo) that can mean “to echo down,” another dialogic activity.
This isn’t just making sure kids have the right ideas, but is about sharing a form of life with them, one in which they are bodily participants. If we spend time in church preaching to them, and since preaching is vital to our life as Christians (Rom. 10:14), we should help them imitate that form of life and make it their own.
Pray for boldness for yourself and for your young preacher.
How many sermons have you walked into the pulpit completely calm and ready to preach? Oh, zero? Me too.
No one is ever completely ready, but we are called to speak.
Let the kids preach, and do not hinder them, for the Word of the Lord comes to such as these.
Fr. Aaron Harrison serves as Assisting Clergy at Church of the Savior in Wheaton, IL. He lives in the Chicago suburbs with his wife, son, and dog. He’s worked as a church planter, hospital chaplain, high school teacher, and nonprofit manager.