Earning the right to be heard

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.

Earning the right to be heard

Speaking to the heart and head

By Duffy Robbins

As a young college student and a relatively new Christian, I still remember devouring Josh McDowell’s book, Evidence That Demands a Verdict. It had just been released, an almost encyclopedic inventory of facts and historical references that gave credence to the claims of the Christian faith. It made a huge impact on my faith in those early years. But, that was over three decades ago—the first edition practically came out so long ago it appeared in Sanskrit.

If you’re involved in youth ministry today, you’ve perhaps observed that evidence has nothing to do with the verdicts reached by a lot of teenagers.
They make all kinds of decisions that seem to fly in the face of all the available evidence. So, how do we move those kids to a verdict? How do we communicate to them a Christian faith that stirs them to commitment?

In the last few issues of Good News, we’ve been addressing precisely this question, and thinking about it in terms of an action continuum that tracks audience attitudes all the way from hostility on one end to obedient belief on the other. In my last column, I talked about how we might communicate to the hostile kid. In this issue, we want to think about how to shape our communication for the student who’s skeptical.

These are the students in the room who’ve already formed strong opinions against what we’re teaching. They aren’t neutral, but unlike those who are hostile, they are willing to listen. Our main emphasis will be providing information.

But—and here’s the important part—this isn’t simply a matter of presenting evidence. Communications specialists tell us that there are several steps in this dance from a mind that is closed to a mind that is willing to embrace, and what is most significant is that the primary ingredient in each step is an emotional response rather than an increase of knowledge. It’s more emotional than intellectual. In other words, ultimately it will not be just the evidence that demands a verdict. The door that inches open is hung on two hinges—heart and head.

Typically, the persuasion process comes in small steps. Communication researchers call this the foot-in-the-door syndrome. Essentially, it’s based on the observation that people who respond positively to a small task are more likely to respond later on to a bigger task.

Perhaps some of you reading this column were, at one time, adult volunteers who were willing to help behind the scenes but had “no intention of teaching or leading a small group of adolescent delinquents…,” and your pastor or youth pastor said, “Oh, of course, we just need you to help with refreshments.” And then, one ask led to another ask, and that ask led to another ask, and now you’re in charge of the youth ministry! It was a step by step process—a progression from small ask to big ask that appeals to the head and the heart.

But, are there ways we can increase our students’ willingness to take these steps? Let’s consider just one.

Program Flow.
To some extent, the speaking part of your ministry hinges on every other facet of your ministry.

Think about, for example, the way this principle plays out on the average weekend retreat. Kids begin forming their opinions about the credibility of our spoken messages from the moment they arrive at the church parking lot: the way they are greeted, the vibe on the bus during the trip to the venue (i.e., Do the adults interact with kids? Is any effort made to help newcomers feel welcome? Is the music or other media played on the bus congruent with the other messages of the weekend? What is the attitude of adults and people in authority?), the quality of the accommodations and the food when they arrive, and any programming prior to the message. By the time we get up to speak, any one of those elements can sabotage or salvage the talk before we ever utter the first word.

I remember a time when I was doing a denominational weekend event, and, literally, the first words to come out of the emcee’s mouth at the very first meeting on Friday night were, “Okay, look, we had somebody pee on the wall of the men’s room at this event last year, and we’re not going to have that this year.” You could see it on the kids’ faces: they were looking at each other and thinking, “Gee, this is going to be fun!” Unfortunately, the second phrase out of this guy’s mouth was, “Now, here’s our speaker, Duffy Robbins.” I was so taken aback, all I could think to say was, “I promise, it wasn’t me!” All of a sudden, I’m no longer starting at square one; I’m starting at square negative five.

We’ll look in the next issue of Good News at some other ways to increase our students’ openness to the gospel message.

Duffy Robbins is Chairman of the Department of Youth Ministry at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pennsylvania.

Earning the right to be heard

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.