What we speak and what they hear

By Duffy Robbins

There’s a brilliant French TV commercial from the French film industry promoting the notion that people need to see a movie in the theater to fully understand the movie. To really get the point of the spot, you have to understand that the documentary film, March of the Penguins, released here in the States about five years ago, was originally released in France under the title March of the Emperors. In the thirty-second ad, a guy is talking to a girl about this wonderfully powerful film he’s seen. But, as he describes the movie and its depiction of the migration and mating habits of Emperor penguins, she thinks he’s describing a documentary about French kings.

For example, when he describes the migratory march of the penguins, she imagines a long line of Napoleon-like rulers walking across frozen tundra. When he describes the danger that penguins face from being attacked by seals, she envisions a giant monster seal that rises up out of the water and terrorizes the long marching line of kings. But the punch-line of the commercial comes when he communicates the wonder and beauty of the Emperors mating with each other and then exchanging eggs; she just looks at him with an expression of eye-rolling disgust.

It’s a basic fact of communication: there’s the message that we speak and the message that our audience hears. We create the first one, and they create the second one. Jesus’ own ministry shows us that even a master communicator is not going to change that (cf. John 7:12-43). In practical terms, that means those of us who speak to teenagers are always alert for that one word, that one phrase, that one line or illustration that will frame the picture—that will somehow put the scene in its proper context so that our kids will hear what we’re saying. We have to do that, because they aren’t just hearing the message; they’re creating the message.

Over the last few issues of Good News we’ve been looking at some of the challenges of speaking to teenagers—whether that’s in a youth group setting, during a devotional for a winter retreat, or from the pulpit on Sunday morning. Understanding that my teenage audience is creating the meaning of my message is only one of those challenges. Let’s look at two others.

1. They aren’t making these choices alone. When you speak to a ninth-grade guy whose friends are skaters, or a tenth-grade girl who’s a cheerleader, or a 17-year-old guy who is part of a gang, or a 16-year-old girl who has an overbearing father, they aren’t just listening to what you have to say. They’re listening through the filter of what their friends, their fellow cheerleaders, the guys in the gang, or their family members might have to say about what you have to say.

Communication theorists call these clusters of friendships reference groups. They remind us that because we’re human, we’re interconnected through a matrix of relationships, and every time we listen to a message we’re asking, “How will my response to this message affect those relationships?” These reference groups may be made up of family members, good friends, kids on the team, the folks at an after-school job, members of a gang or club, or even members of a youth group.

As a speaker, I have to understand that students aren’t listening to me from a position of passionless, isolated logic. All the while they’re listening to me, they’re listening over the voices of their reference group. They’re not just asking, “What do I think about this?” They’re asking, “What will they think about how I think about this?”

2. Our job as youth workers is not to get kids committed; they’re already committed. They may or may not be self-aware enough to name those commitments, but the commitments are real just the same. Unless we’re preaching in never-never land, every time we ask our students to say a “yes,” we’re also calling them to say a “no”—no’s that are just as vivid and just as real as that day four thousand years ago when Abraham left his country and his people and his father’s household to pursue the will of God (Genesis 12:1).

To speak to students as if those commitments aren’t genuine is to be either very naive (about our audience) or very dishonest (with our audience). I’ve got to ask myself whenever I speak, what the commitments already embraced by this group of kids are, and secondly, to what will I appeal to persuade them to exchange their current commitments for a new or renewed commitment to Christ?

I’m convinced that one of the keys to effective communication with teenagers is realizing that it’s not what I say, it’s what they hear that makes all the difference. If I want students to truly hear God’s Word, I need to pay careful attention to how they hear my words.

Duffy Robbins is Chairman of the Department of Youth Ministry at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, and a long-time columnist for Good News.

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