How to give a brilliant youth sermon!

January 18, 2012 — 21 Comments

I remember the experience like it was yesterday.  I was back at the speaker cabin sitting in my chair wondering what in the world had just happened.  My heart was beating out of my chest and my mind was racing, trying to figure out where I lost them, where I went wrong, what happened.   Before I even had a chance to figure it out, before my heart rate could even slow, I heard a knock at the door.

I was about to throw up.  To my horror, the director of the camp was at my door.  I knew he would come, I just didn’t expect it to be so fast.  I invited him in, and he sat down on my bed across from me.

“Everything ok?” He asked.  “That was a little rough.”

Before I could even respond, he filled me in on his plan B.  I was welcomed to stay in the cabin and enjoy the rest of my time at camp, but he was going to finish off the talks.

I couldn’t believe it!!  Actually, the worst part is that I could believe it!!  What in the world happened?  I am a youth ministry veteran, a compelling speaker, and a likable person.  I had just wasted 45 minutes of the opening night talk sharing the historical background and complexities of Ephesians as I set the stage for a weekend study of the book filled with four exegetically amazing outlines of the book.  While my preaching professor would be proud, the room packed with high schoolers was completely lost.

From the moment I looked up from my notes, half way through my talk, I realized I had lost my audience.  And as I finished my sermon, my mind scrambled with what to do.  My mouth was unpacking Paul, but my mind was arguing with my professor, with these students, and with my own calling.

Thankfully, the camp director was a good friend and was extra gracious with me.  In our discussion together, I had figured out my problem and my solution.  I told him I would scrap my sermons and put together a great series of talks for him.  And that is exactly what I did.

Tell your seminary prof to relax :)

That was the culminating experience that officially helped me pull my gigantic, over-inflated, seminary-trained head out of my butt and settled into my calling as a pastor to students.  Up until this point I had been increasingly attempting to gain favor with my senior pastor, parents, and fellow students, to prove to them that youth pastors are real pastors and that we shouldn’t dumb down the scriptures.  And in my attempt to satisfy all these people and prove my worth, I had made the scriptures completely irrelevant.

In no way am I saying that a youth talk should be dumbed down or that exegesis is unimportant.  I am saying that we must keep our audience in mind as we are prophets for our people, as we unpack the scriptures for our students.  We must remember that our students need clear, memorable, applicable teaching.  And even more than the teaching, they need space to unpack what they have just heard.

When I first started in youth ministry, some youth ministry veteran passed on their outline to me.  It is simple, straightforward, and even rhymes.  I used it religiously as my structures for youth ministry.  Seminary was a short and awful hiatus from this structure.  And ever since my sermon at camp, it has been my go-to outline.  (If you know who’s this is officially, please let me know so I can thank them for saving my youth ministry career.)

Here is the most amazing structure ever used for talks to students: Hook, Book, Look, Took!

Hook:  This is the classic funny or compelling story used to gain the group’s attention while addressing the topic at hand.

Book:  This is the passage of scripture you will be teaching on.

Look:  This is where you teach through your three points from the passage of scripture.  The simplest plan is to communicate a point and illustrate it with a story or example.  These three points can be an acronym, alliteration, whatever clever tool you want.  It is the meat of the lesson.

Took:  This is where you help your students have a take-away from the lesson.  We want scripture to mold and shape us; this is the part of the talk where we give them some examples of practical application.

Small Group Questions:  For our group, we end every lesson with our students breaking up into small groups to unpack the lesson and figure out how to put it into practice in real life.

I know this isn’t rocket science, but maybe you have been struggling with the format for your talks, maybe you have drifted into complexity, or maybe you are brand new and have no idea where to start.  If that is you, I hope this simple format helps.

This is simply the outline an average youth pastor uses.  If you are brilliant communicator, please share with us your structure and your tricks.  Keep preaching it!

21 responses to How to give a brilliant youth sermon!

  1. The “hook, book, look, took” model was developed by Larry Richards, a CE expert who wrote many books during the 70’s and 80’s.

  2. Ha! Thanks for the transparent story. (My gosh, it made MY stomach turn. Can’t imagine what it must have felt like!) And, for sharing the outline. It’s one I, too, have known of for years and really does serve as a simple and effective approach to organizing your thoughts. Good post!

  3. Awesome. I heard this in public speaking class as well. I think it also helps to have variations. One time I told a story about a girl who was glad she was not like the other nerds in her grade and she told her group of friends how awesome they were compared to the nerds. Then I read from Luke 18:9-14…you could have heard a pin drop.

  4. Crazy story. I think it’s always important to know you audience. I love Haddon Robinson’s book, Biblical Preaching. He is all about the big idea. I find it is easy to focus on the big idea!

    When I first graduated from seminary I wanted to be just like the profs the only problem was that no one could understand what I was talking about. Appreciate your honesty.

  5. The “hook, book, look, took” model was developed by Larry Richards, a CE expert who wrote many books during the 70′s and 80′s. What are the CE experts saying today?? can anyone comment on this?? Curious if there have been any major changes to the approach that you’ve observed?

    • There are quite a few models out today for speaking. (BTW, the HBTL model was designed more for curriculum than speaking.) Doug Fields and Duffy Robbins, two of the most effective speakers to teenagers ever, offer one model in their book “Speaking to Teenagers.”

      Perhaps the models most being advocated currently have to do with more of a narrative model of speaking than to an expository style. the rationale is that this generation of students thinks narratively (in story), and as such, prefer to find their own way forward into their place in the story (intuitively), as opposed to being told what that place is (expositionally). One such narrative model comes from Eugene Lowry’s book, “The Homiletical Plot.”

      • jim, thanks for adding these additional teaching models. i am intrigued by lowry’s book and will have to pick it up.

  6. Hook, Book, Look, Took is a great method that I was taught in college a couple decades ago. It still works for “big church” also. A couple other variations that I use to structure talks and sermons are the SCORRE (Subject, Central Them, Objective, Rationale, Resources) method from Ken Davis; the Change Method from Andy Stanley (Me, We, God, You, We) and the IDEA method that I’m not sure where I picked up (Define, Explain, Illustrate, Apply)

    • thanks for sharing those other structures. the andy stanley change method is a home run as well. it is personal and powerful. i have never heard of the scorre method, but love the resources part for continued growth. thanks again david for your additional resources.

  7. No acronym, my dad (the best preacher EVER) just used this great structure: (1) tell them what you’re going to tell them, (2) Tell them what you came to say (3) tell them what you told them. It’s old and corny, but it still works!

    • This is the basic model for preaching which is, I think, still taught in seminaries. This is a very effective and easy model to follow for both the preacher/speaker and the listener.

  8. I’ve used the hook, book, look, took method many times. I’ve also used Andy Stanley’s method of Me, We, God, You, We that he shares in his book communicating for a change.

    I think if everyone is honest we’ve all tried to teach in a way that didn’t work. Anytime that I’ve taught and it didn’t work it was because I was trying to be someone else and not myself. The biggest key to speaking is to just be yourself.

  9. Dude, hearing a youth min vet express a story like yours is SO helpful for us newbies. :) Still using the PROAPT study method and Hook, Book, Look, and Took approach to just about all of my talks, just like you taught me. Works like a charm!

  10. This is an awesome article! How do you develop a compelling “hook” to launch you into the other 3 “-ooks” to captivate your audience?

  11. Great post man! I love this line: “…helped me pull my gigantic, over-inflated, seminary-trained head out of my butt and settled into my calling as a pastor to students.” As a seminary student I struggle with what you talked about in this post. Seen and used a similar outline many times before. Good stuff!


  12. I think that this is one of the best ways to structure your lessons. I am a big proponent of the story telling, narrative style. It is conducive to establish tangible relationships with students and it creates points where the can identify and relate to you.

  13. Our CE professor taught the HBLT structure, too. It’s been helpful for me, but I really like Stanley’s assertion in Communicating for A Change that we should make a point. Not a bunch of points with a bunch of jokes and illustrations, but 1 point that fits into a story that the listener can see themselves in.

    In addition to this, I think it’s important to have an overall life that builds into the preaching. I wrote more about this at but basically, I start with me and God (build a relationship with God that fills you with a message worth delivering), work on me and the message (make sure you’re sharing what Scripture actually says and living it out), then build a relationship between your students and your message (help your students see how their story fits into God’s story).

What do you think?