I have never been accused of being a faddish or trendy person. When I was in elementary school, my entire family made the mistake of jumping on the Beanie Baby bandwagon (I was convinced we’d be worth millions!). My bedroom shelves were crammed full of the things, and we ate about a billion McDonald’s kids meals to get the special promotion Teenie Beanie Babies (smaller=cuter, right?). Suffice it to say that I’ve learned about every lesson there is to learn about fads from my experiences with those little ear-tagged critters.
There is a connection, I think, between my family’s experiences with the marketing geniuses over at Ty, Inc. and the desire many preachers feel to “reach a new generation.” The connection is that both events are fads. In the 90s, Beanie Babies were all the rage. They flooded the market and spawned a host of imitations, but they ultimately left collectors with basements full of mostly worthless stuffed animals (the “super rare” Princess Diana tribute bear can now be had on eBay for a mere $30.00). In the same way, faddish preaching that only desires to “reach a new generation” is ultimately going to leave preachers with far too many social media accounts and a shelf full of dated books on “reaching generation [letter of your choice].”
When I was in college, I was a Classics major. We read Aristotle. Lots of Aristotle. Then I took a preaching class, and I read Aristotle again. I even took an introduction to communication studies, where, surprise! we read even more Aristotle. As much as I wish I could chalk this coincidence up to a secret cabal of university professors who wanted me to know more about Aristotle than my own life, I think I read so much Aristotle for a profoundly different reason: Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Poetics form the basis for just about any kind of sophisticated human communication.
The ideas espoused by this ancient Greek are still relevant to modern communication, an idea quickly forgotten by a culture that worships at the altar of the new. Modern communicators are still concerned about Aristotelian notions like ethos (the speaker’s credibility and authority), pathos (the audience’s emotional reaction to the speaker), and logos (the speech’s patterns of reasoning). A full third of Rhetoric is dedicated to important stylistic advice that still influences the way we communicate. And if you’re a fan of careful storytelling in sermons, you should probably know that Aristotle’s understanding of plot still shapes the way we tell stories.
So, if you want to reach generation X, Y, or Z, put down your glossy new book on reaching generation X, Y, or Z, and pick up Aristotle. Or any good book on communication theory, really. And apply it to your sermons. You don’t have to be hidebound to ancient rhetorical criticism. Feel free to spice up your language, use modern cultural references, and address the real issues facing your target generation. But if you can only address those issues with 140 characters and a hash-tag, you won’t be able to reach anybody.