Worship talks and sermons that scratch teenagers where they itch takes three things
Those who have dogs know that our canine friends absolutely love it when their owners spend some time giving them a good scratch every now and then. My dog, Buddy, is no different. Within a split second of me sitting on the couch, my dog is snuggled up against me, and somehow manages to position his head under my hand. He looks up at me with those big brown eyes, begging me to give him a scratch. And you know you’ve “hit the spot” when his hind leg begins to move uncontrollably.
While I’m a bit hesitant to compare teenagers to our canine companions, the fact of the matter is that every teenager wants their pastor to scratch where it itches. Week after week pastors all over the country stand before audiences of teenagers—at the chapel services of their local academy, at summer camps, at high school Bible retreats, you name it! — and these adolescent audiences are looking for the pastor to speak about what matters to them. We would do well, then, to scratch them where it itches.
So what topics do teenagers care about? What do I say in my sermon that will scratch where it itches? In order to answer these questions, we need to understand a little about what teenagers are going through at their particular stage of development.
Up until the teenage years, a child’s identity revolves almost entirely around their parents. Their parents have told them what TV shows to watch. Their parents have controlled what school they go to. Their parents have picked what clothes they wear. Their parents have even decided what church they go to. But when children enter adolescence, they have an identity crisis. They begin to question if they really want to embrace the identity their parents have placed upon them. Their teenage years, then, are spent on a journey trying to become their own individual person. All of a sudden, they start doing things they have never done before, they begin wearing things they have never worn before, and they begin to act in a way they have never acted before. While parents usually call this “rebellion,” adolescent psychologists call this the process of individuation.[i]
So what does this have to do with speaking to teenagers? A lot, actually! Knowing that teenagers are in the process of becoming independent human beings can help us quite a bit the next time we sit down to prepare a talk for them. Instead of speaking to them about the dangers of listening to hip hop, scratch them where it itches and help them realize how Scripture can facilitate in the process of defining themselves.
The best way to do this is by understanding their journey toward individuation as a quest to answer a series of important questions. When a teenager has answered these questions, they will have completed the process of becoming their own person and successfully enter adulthood. Our hope, however, is that they will have answered these questions from a biblical framework rather than a secular one. But unless we as pastors have been scratching them where it itches, what are the chances of them answering these questions from a biblical worldview? Not very high.
What, then, are these questions, and how can pastors help them answer the questions from a biblical perspective? The adolescent journey toward individuation can be summarized by the following three questions[ii]:
1. Who am I? This question is an attempt to define their identity or character. It relates to the kind of person they want to be, and how they want to be known by other people.
2. Where am I going with my life? This is an attempt to discover their purpose or calling. Even teenagers have a sense that they are called to do something, and that there is a reason for their existence.
3. How should I relate to other people? This is an attempt to rationalize the idea of being an individual, while still being a part of a community. In other words, they want to strike a balance between being their own person while still being in a relationship with other people (i.e. their parents, friends, and church).
The good news is that Scripture provides the answers to these questions. If pastors can tailor their messages to help teenagers understand these answers, we will effectively scratch them where it itches. But how do the Scriptures answer these questions?
When it comes to the question of identity or character, teenagers need to know that they have been created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27) and, as a result, have inherent worth and value. They need to understand that they were created to live their life as a reflection of God’s character, and that this reflection encompasses all areas of life (1 Tim. 4:12). They need to embrace the idea that they are not on this earth by accident, but that God “knew” them even before they were born (Jerimiah 1:5).
When it comes to the question of purpose, teenagers need to know that their number one calling in life is to discover a personal relationship with Jesus (1 Cor. 1:9). In light of this relationship, they need to understand that God has a specific plan for their life (Jer. 29:11), and that adolescence is the perfect time to discover what that plan entails. They need to recognize that the road to God’s calling is not an easy one, but absolutely worth it (Mark 10:29-30).
When it comes to the question of individuality vs. community, teenagers need to understand that they are part of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). They need to realize that even though there is one body, there are many different parts to that body (1 Cor. 12:14), and that each individual has something unique to offer (1 Cor. 12:15). They need to know that a community of unique individuals can accomplish great things for God (Eph. 4:11-13).
The next time you sit down to write a talk for teenagers, keep in mind the questions they are asking. Tailor your talk to help them answer those questions from within a biblical framework. Show them that their identity is wrapped up in their relationship with God. Help them see that the best life they can possibly live is one that responds to God’s calling. Lead them to understand that their individuality is best displayed in community with others. By showing them the answers to these questions, you will be scratching where it itches.
Jonathan Martin is youth pastor for the Markham Woods Church in Longwood, Florida
[i] Erik Erikson, Identity: Youth and Crisis (New York: Norton, 1968), 418
[ii] Duffy Robins, This Way to Youth Ministry: An Introduction to the Adventure (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 227