Earning the right to be heard

By Duffy Robbins

“Let him (or her) who has a mouth to speak listen to what the audience says…”

One of those youth ministry proverbs that we hear over and over again is this: “You’ve got to earn the right to be heard.” Kids will not donate their attention.
Wise youth workers will always shape their programming and their messages with the notion that the first task is not to speak to the kids; the first task is to get the kids to listen. And getting a teenage audience to pay attention to a speaker usually begins with a speaker who pays attention to the audience.

Let’s say it’s February, and you’ve decided for your mid-week Bible study to do a four-week series on sexuality and issues of sexual purity. Typically, there will be a range of responses, from “Great!” on one end of the spectrum (meaning genuine openness: “Oh, man, I’ve got a lot of questions about that stuff”) to “Great” on the other end of the spectrum (meaning complete rejection: “Oh, brother, not that topic again!”).

For the most part, the students in your youth group know you. From that standpoint, they might be a little more receptive to what you have to say about sexuality and sexual purity (or, depending on what they know about you, maybe not). And, it seems fair to say, there will be some curiosity about this topic. That also helps you gain their attention. It beats the heck out of your six week series on supralapsarianism. On the other hand, sexual purity is a topic that will probably make a lot of your students uncomfortable. After all, some of the biblical notions about chastity and modesty are fairly counter-cultural. So, we might expect the audience response to be mixed, and skewed to an unwillingness to hear.

The key here is: we want to think in advance about the range of responses so we can know best how to pitch our message. Obviously, we’d use one type of talk if the continuum was heavily weighted to the hostile end, and we’d use a totally different type of message if we were speaking to an audience sympathetic and eager to learn. Let’s flesh this out a bit more.

Speaking to a hostile audience. As a result of your February series on sexuality, one of your students persuaded her high school health teacher to invite you to speak in her sex education class. It’s a pretty cool opportunity, but it’s also a pretty different venue. The kids don’t know you, and a biblical view of sexuality is quite different from the one they’ve been hearing about in class from a teacher they do know. This is apt to be a fairly hostile audience, and they may make that clear from their comments, their questions, their disinterest, perhaps even their desire to disrupt your presentation.

For the most part, your best approach is to merely entertain. Now, don’t assume that means stand-up comedy, because it doesn’t. For one thing, there’s nothing less entertaining than someone who is not funny trying really hard to be funny. If you read this column very often, you probably already know how true that is. Entertain, in the sense we mean it here, is what happens when someone is invited over to your house for the first time. You entertain them. You’re trying to make them feel comfortable. You’re trying to build a bridge so that, later on, maybe the bridge can provide a connection.

Think, for example, of the decision to confront your neighbor about his pit bull because that cute little guy (the dog, not the neighbor) keeps chewing the bumper off your Hummer. You and the neighbor both know what this conversation is about, and that it could be uncomfortable. You’re concerned that he could just storm out of the house and never listen to you again. It makes little sense to come out with guns blazing, complaints spewing, and threats flying. Your neighbor simply isn’t going to hear it.

As we all often need to be reminded, the goal here is not winning an argument; it’s winning a person. What is the point of providing really great content to your students if they aren’t even going to hear it? From research on persuasion, we know that the harder an audience feels pushed, the more likely they are to push back. So, you entertain. It doesn’t mean that you say nothing; it means that you realize that you don’t need to say everything on the first visit.

Surely, this is why we read so many accounts of Jesus entertaining drunkards, tax collectors, and sinners (Matthew 9:11, 11:19; Luke 5:30, 15:2, 19:1-10). It wasn’t that he had nothing to say to them; he just knew it was useless to say much until they were willing to listen.

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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