By Duffy Robbins
The hard part is getting them to give you a listen!
It’s that time of year when youthworkers and Sunday school teachers are heading into a new school year, praying, brainstorming, dreaming, stressing, and panicking about how they will make biblical truth come alive for a roomful of adolescents. For some it’s the excitement of a new Fall. For some it’s the fear of falling. And for some, it’s the fear of total failure.
We’ve been talking in the last several issues of Good News about how we can more effectively communicate biblical truth. Specifically, we’ve been looking at some of the factors that make it hard for students to hear us such as program flow and students’ openness to new ideas. Before we leave this topic, there are a few more issues to consider:
• How much of a threat is the message? (cf. John 6:60, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”) Students are asking, “What are the potential costs and benefits if I respond to this truth?”
• Are we speaking in their language? Missionary Cam Townsend founded the Wycliffe Bible Translators because a Guatemalan Indian posed to him the question, “Why doesn’t your God speak my language?” It’s still one of the fundamental questions that kids ask about our preaching. That doesn’t mean that we need to talk like teenagers, but we surely need to craft our messages based on how teenagers talk.
• Is this the best time and place for this lesson or this message? We’ve all had conversations in which someone has said, “Can we talk about this later? Now is not a good time.” The ambiance of time and place makes a difference in what we hear and the way we hear it. A group that is open and receptive in a late-night lock-in setting, might not be as much so on the following morning. The message that seemed powerful and inspiring when you gave it at the campfire somehow seems cold and sterile at the Wednesday night Bible study. Time and place matter. That’s why your wedding proposal was made in a romantic soft-light bistro and not in the drive-through lane at Chick-fil-A.
• What is the mood of the students? Sometimes a crisis at school or a national news story provides a unique window of opportunity to address a topic with our students when that topic might otherwise be very tough to talk about with a fair hearing.
• How crowded is the teaching venue? Yeah, believe it or not, there is substantial evidence that having students crowd together in a room makes them more susceptible to persuasion than would be the same number of kids in a larger room. Moral to the story: Always use a room—or, at least, try to arrange the room you are using—so that students feel jammed in together.
• Is there a way I can add humor to this lesson? Communication research has confirmed what most youth workers have learned through experience: humor makes an audience more open to persuasion. Numerous studies have shown that humor relaxes an audience and makes it feel more at ease. Humor can break down barriers and increase receptivity to our message. Again, that doesn’t mean you need to be Rev. David Letterman. If you’re naturally funny, that’s great. But, for the humor-impaired, there are wonderful resources for visual humor and funny stories on the internet (still pictures, funny movies, outtakes, clever television commercials, YouTube clips). One of the keys to being funny is not creating humor, but learning to see it when it’s there in everyday life.
• Does this talk or Bible study really scratch where they itch? This is probably the most important gateway factor: are we speaking to their felt needs? Does this study answer their questions or our questions? One of the ways to think about this as we prepare a talk or a lesson is by asking of every biblical text four simple questions:
1. What would my students find hard to embrace in this text? What would my students doubt to be true?
2. What do my students need to know or re-hear in this text?
3. With which inner feelings, longings, hopes, and hurts does this passage connect in their lives? How will they feel this truth?
4. If this text is true, what does it say about the world in which my students live? What might they need to rethink or reevaluate if they accept the truth of this message?
Jesus was wise enough to understand that even the disciples had limits to what they might hear. And, whether it was due to their lack of maturity, or the circumstances they were in at the time, Jesus knew not to push matters beyond their limits: “I have much more to tell you, but now it would be too much for you to bear” (John 16:12). Understanding how our students hear can help us to think more strategically about how we communicate.
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.