Saying “you” in sermons has become uncomfortable for preachers. Like third grade teachers who switch from red to green pens, many preachers are afraid of coming across too strong.
What I mean by saying “you” in a sermon is that the preacher uses “you” to make it obvious that his exhortation is aimed directly at his people.
The postmodern values of acceptance and tolerance have saturated the worldviews of churchgoers and pastors. This has caused saying “you” to feel abrasive to preachers and listeners alike.
Off the top of my head, I can think of two reasons why.
First, saying “you” feels authoritarian. The pastor thinks, “What right do I have to tell these people that their hearts are in the wrong place? I don’t know them.” Or, he puts himself in the TOMS of his congregation and imagines them thinking, “What right does he have to tell me my heart is in the wrong place? He doesn’t know me.”
The second reason pastors avoid “you” (and it’s related to the first) is oversensitivity to the need to identify with your people. This results in the preacher saying “we” a lot, but rarely “you.” The pastor thinks that if he doesn’t admit he’s wrong every time he tells his people they are wrong, then they will reject his message because he is inauthentic.
This attitude sees the Bible only as a stumbling block, but not also as a living and active, double-edged sword. You think that people will only respond as Jews or Greeks, but never as David. He responded in repentance to “You are the man!” without Nathan having to qualify himself with, “But I am tempted in those areas, too, and I might have done the same thing if I were in your position.”
The bottom line is that avoiding “you,” demonstrates a lack of trust in the Holy Spirit to convict and change people through the word.
So that is why we avoid “you” in sermons. But why should we use “you” more often when we preach? Here are three reasons.
1. The biblical authors say “you” all the time
Read Jesus’ words in the gospels. Read Paul. Read the prophets.
They say “you” all over the place.
It follows that not preaching “you” sermons that relate directly to the congregation isn’t preaching in a fully biblical manner.
You may respond by saying, “But we aren’t the biblical authors. What authority do we have to preach in the same way they wrote?”
Well, Paul expressly commands Timothy to preach “you” sermons: “Preach the word…reprove, rebuke, and exhort” (2 Tim. 4:2). Paul also expects Timothy to follow his manner of ministry (3:10-12), and to raise up other preachers in his mold (2:2).
So if you have any desire to be a biblical preacher, preach directly to your audience, and let them know you are preaching directly to them by saying “you.”
2. “You” communicates the authority of the text
What do you do when someone comes up after your sermon and asks, “Are you saying that I’m not allowed to sleep with my girlfriend?”
You calmly say, “Yes, but not ultimately me. Ultimately, it is God who demands sexual purity from us. So yes, I said it, but I was only delivering what God has said.”
We speak with authority precisely because it is not our ideas that we expound. We can say “you” without a shred of postmodern squeamishness because the substance of our sermons is not our opinions.
This gives us freedom to say “you” to those who hear us, free from anxiety over anyone’s postmodern (in)sensibilities.
3. “You” personalizes your message to your congregation
Many pastors avoid saying “you” in sermons by switching to “they.” But “they” sermons leave your people knowing how everyone else needs to change, except for them.
The result is that your people remain as safe as a pig in their sinful house of sticks because your uncontextualized sermon doesn’t huff or puff in their general direction.
“They” preachers talk about all the sinners outside the walls of the church. You preach about the sins of hipsters, entertainers, pyramid schemers, and politicians, but never the sins of the people ten feet in front of you. Your congregation leaves bemoaning how bad the world is, and proud of how well behaved they are.
The word “you” clearly indicates you are talking about the people in your pews, not the “sinners out there.”
The other way of replacing “you” with “they” is to talk only about the original audience of the passage. Thus you rag on the Israelites, the Corinthians, and the Pharisees – being true to the text! – without mentioning that your people’s hearts are in the same condition.
You can sound very bold this way, banging your pulpit as you address the sexual sins of Corinth. But your boldness is a façade; it’s very easy to speak boldly about people who are dead.
Will you address the sexual sins of your congregation head on? They will tell you are doing so if you say “you.”
How to say “you” without sounding like a hypocrite
The trick is to preach “you” sermons without unnecessarily alienating your listeners. Here are three ways to not sound like a spiritual know-it-all.
1. Feel the tension of humility and authority. In How Sermons Work, David Murray writes about a pendulum that must swing in the preacher’s heart while he is preparing: from humility to authority. If you feel both sides of the pendulum, your hearers will sense that you are not being authoritarian as you speak with authority.
2. Preach “you” sermons with “complete patience and teaching.” That is, after all, how Paul finishes off 2 Tim. 4:2. “Complete patience” trusts that the Spirit will do his work in his time. “Teaching” will not merely point out sin, but also instruct how to turn away from sin by the power of the gospel.
3. Practice redemptive vulnerability. The times you say “I” will stand out more than the “you’s.” Think of Paul: “I am the least of the apostles” (1 Cor. 15:9), “I am the very least of all the saints” (Eph. 3:8), “I am the foremost of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). His confidence in the gospel enabled him to admit his failings. But he doesn’t dwell on them, speaking just long enough to let his readers know that he needs the gospel, too.