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 It had just been released, an almost encyclopedic inventory of facts and historical references that gave credence to the claims of the Christian faith.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.
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.