Beyond the Pulpit: Reaching a Generation on their Turf and in their Space
For years now I have taught aspiring preachers that the role of the preacher and the work done from the pulpit is very important and should never ever be taken lightly. The message or sermon delivered by the preacher is communication delivered in behalf of God, about God, and for the edification and benefit of those who hear. Stephen Farris (1998) points out, “Our God still speaks, and where there are people who will listen, nothing, not even the intention or performance of the preacher…can finally stand in the way” (p. 12). Undoubtedly, the pulpit is not a place for cowards, fakes, unprepared, or ill-equipped people who have been given the awesome task of speaking life into the hearts of those gathered. When preachers mount the pulpit it is not a time for “practicing” or delivering insufficient or damaged goods. The pulpit and the message spoken from it is serious business. In describing preaching, Jana Childers (1998) notes, “It needs a sense of purpose” (p. 27). Why preach? I have taught my students to prepare to preach and mount the pulpit with a clear understanding. The truth of the matter is someone’s life may be hanging in the balance and he or she has come to the house of worship to receive a message of hope. They want to know that God sees where they are, knows what they need, and is delivering the care that they need to get them through. In essence, the pulpit continues to be an essential tool used to offer pastoral care. It is here where God uses the preacher to deliver care to those who have come to grab hold of a lifeline that will aid them in conquering the issues they face. The pulpit is a conduit from which God has and continues to offer care to God’s people.
While there are different groups of people, including Baby Boomers and Generation X, attending churches today, there is one key segment of our population that pastors are finding increasingly challenging to offer pastoral care. This is Generation Y (the generation born since 1980 and just reaching their 30s). These individuals have grown up exposed to much more than any of their predecessors. “Unlike the generations that have gone before them," observes Stephanie Armour in a USA Today article (2005), "Gen Y has been pampered, nurtured and programmed with a slew of activities since they were toddlers, meaning they are both high-performance and high-maintenance... They also believe in their own worth.” Generation Y seems to have gleaned from and taken all the best that its predecessors have offered while kicking its own agenda and efforts into overdrive. In the process it has caused some to label itself – centered, irresponsible and a renegade. So then, what can you offer people that, seemingly, have it all? As much as it may seem that Gen. Y doesn’t have needs and doesn’t need anyone, it does. Like any other group of people Gen. Y has a unique set of needs that, in order to maintain its well being and foster its continued growth and development, has to be addressed. Clearly this is the generation poised to take the helm as we move forward in this new millennium.
Many “seasoned” Christians rightly believe that they are an important part of a village––a village of believers who are called to protect, nurture, and instruct our younger or next generation in the things of God. After all, God does want the next generation to be fully aware of God’s goodness and faithfulness to God’s people. Village elders further believe that it is urgent to reach Generation Y or the next generation with a positive message of love, grace, hope, peace, deliverance, and stability found in our great God. The essential question, however, is just what is being done to meet the need? The truth of the matter is the village seems to lag far behind in its attempt to speak to our younger generation. It is even questionable whether the village truly knows how to reach the next generation.
Interestingly enough, across the globe, daily scores of young people are “hooking up” on Skype, Aim, MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube. These new media have young people’s attention and they are listening; listening to the messages that are being conveyed. Ask any young person about these communication media and they will admit that they find them quite engaging. This is clear in light of the fact that many young people spend countless hours throughout the week communicating with one another through these media. Oddly, some elders shun these media and some even suggest that they are of the devil. Perhaps a paradox of sorts is the village elders' bewilderment concerning why they cannot seem to reach the next generation. The real question that has to be addressed is how can the next generation be nurtured, developed, and ministered to if village elders refuse to engage them on their turf and in their space? What is clear is that these media are reaching the next generation and from the look of things, they are here to stay. [Editor's note: The population of Facebook now outnumbers the population of the United States and more videos are added to YouTube each day than the three major broadcast networks have produced since their beginning 60 years ago.]
There are several key reasons for the success of the aforementioned communications media. One, these media are specifically geared to reach the younger generations. Second, these media pay attention to younger generations. They have created forums that are colorful, culturally friendly, inviting, relevant, and relatively safe. Third, and vitally important, they allow young people to speak their own languages. That is young people are able to communicate in a manner that is comfortable and acceptable amongst them. Finally, and perhaps most important, young people feel that they are in control as they communicate via these media. They decide what gets shared and to whom it is shared. In their minds, power belongs to them.
Engaging our young people must be a top priority. Those involved in the maintenance and furtherance of our villages must see evangelizing the village youth as a top priority. All involved must make a concerted effort to raise our youth’s God consciousness while helping them to deepen their commitment to and relationship with God. Clearly God wants to be involved in every aspect of our young people’s lives. Without a doubt it is the village elders’ responsibility to find ingenious and meaningful ways to spread God to, over, and into our youth. How shall they hear if there are no relevant media being utilized to spread the message?
Personally, I have observed some creative ways local pastors continue to use and expand the use of the pulpit. Some of the things they have done encompass, what many might consider, traditional uses of the pulpit but they have also begun incorporating ingenious ways of expanding the pulpit to reach Gen. Y. One method that has found some success in this endeavor is pastors’ use of the language of the next generation. Pastors have purposely weaved the next generation’s vernacular into their messages or sermons and, as a result, they have connected with them. It’s amazing how you can get someone’s attention if you speak their language. Henry Mitchell, a prince among preachers, illustrates how important this practice is. Mitchell talks about the need to employ two key hermeneutical principles.
The first is that one must declare the gospel in the language and culture of the people; the vernacular. For some this involves resistance to temptation to be learned and “proper." The second hermeneutic principle is that the gospel must speak to the contemporary person and his or her needs…As I have used it, “hermeneutic” is code word for putting the gospel on a tell-it-like it is, nitty-gritty basis.
Another creative thing pastors are doing to offer pastoral care is they are utilizing the arts in worship. Many churches are utilizing drama which includes messages that speak directly to the needs of our youth. Some churches have even offered entire worship services where a skit or an entire production was the only thing presented. Additionally, pastors are now seeing the wonderful ways liturgical dances impact young people. Accordingly, pastors have granted young people the freedom to infuse some elements of secular dancing into liturgical dancing. This has created a paradigm that has openly embraced our youth. In their own way, these dances speak to and minister to the needs of both young and old. Without saying a word God uses these dances to impact and change lives through bodily kinesthetic that is sometimes more powerful and effective than the preacher’s best sermons. These things are all an extension of the pulpit that have proven to be quite effective in offering pastoral care to our young people.
In an effort to reach our young people our church has moved the pulpit (not physically) to another space. What I mean here is we periodically gather our young people together to have “rap sessions.” These take place with several elders in our church. By elders I mean seasoned individuals who have life experiences and stories that our young people can benefit from hearing. Together we sit and talk about our youth’s issues. These sessions offer our youth an opportunity to dialogue and discuss critical issues they face where they can also receive feedback, support, and encouragement from our elders. These sessions occur in a safe environment where what is shared is confidential and our youth are comfortable in sharing what’s on their minds. As adults we get an opportunity to talk with our young people about the pressing issues that they face while sharing godly wisdom and insight with them. This is authentic ministry. It is yet another opportunity to preach the gospel and offer pastoral care beyond the pulpit.
What I have just shared regarding our church’s rap sessions requires a great deal of work. There is much preparation that needs to be undertaken before beginning. We must be careful to recruit and choose the right elders to participate. We must also be careful to create a warm, safe, and engaging atmosphere. Perhaps most important is we must be clear about our objective. The goal is to provide pastoral care to our young people so that their lives can and will be enriched. We must preach Christ in behalf of Christ for the benefit of our young people.
I recently visited my local emergency room and while there a nurse took my temperature in an interesting way. She took what looked like a pen and ran it from one side of my forehead to the other. She told me that it is a new instrument that is far less invasive and more effective than previous types of instruments used to take temperature. When new technologies and or new and more efficient ways of doing things become available, it is imperative that we utilize them. Growth occurs as villages embrace new paradigms that make their work easier but more effective.
Be that as it may, messages preached from the pulpit and other traditional church programs aimed at reaching and ministering to the next generation should not be discarded; however, the village must be clear that it is okay to use other media to reach younger generations. In point of fact, if the village is to effectively engage the next generation it must preach beyond the pulpit. Preaching beyond the pulpit is essentially praxis of ministry that encourages villages to adapt to changes and adopt non-traditional paradigms and methodologies that reach and minister to our younger generations. What worked before may not work now and villages must discern this reality and employ new ways to speak to the next generation. One key strategy for successfully engaging youth is to meet them where they are––on their turf––in their space. Internet media of communication are a great way to spread the gospel. No doubt it will take great efforts for villages to learn to use and navigate these media but the growth and well being of the next generation is well worth the time and investment.
Armour, Stephanie. (6 November 2005). Generation Y: They’ve arrived at work with a new attitude, USA TODAY.com (Updated 8 November 2005).
Childers, Jana. (1998). Performing the word: Preaching as theatre. Nashville: Abingdon Press.
Farris, Stephen. (1998). Preaching that matters: The Bible and our lives. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.