By Duffy Robbins
I’ve never given birth to a child.
But, I know something about the birthing process.
In fact, all of us who teach, preach, or speak on a regular basis—whether to a small group, a large group or something in between—know something about the process of conception, preparation, and delivery. And what we all understand is that delivery is always the high point of the drama. All of the planning and prep work, all of the Bible study, all of the brainstorming—all of it comes down to the moment of delivery. If you’re teaching, preaching, or speaking to teenagers on a regular basis, you know that none of it matters until your students hear and respond to God’s Word.
What that means is that the critical part of communication is not just conceiving the topic or preparing the lesson; it’s about bringing that baby to life!
In the last few issues of Good News, we’ve talked about the process of deciding what goes into a message—will it be a four-week series or a stand alone lesson, a topical message or a textual message? That’s important. But, for the next few issues we’re going to be thinking about how to deliver the message—not what goes into the talk, but what comes out when you talk.
They Don’t Call it Labor for Nothing
Most of us know well Paul’s charge in 2 Timothy 4:2: “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season…”
We also know it can be tough work.
Some say it can’t be done, or that it shouldn’t be—that teenagers today don’t respond to spoken messages the way they used to. Some very creative and articulate youth ministry thinkers believe that we should be moving away from “the talk” as we’ve thought about it in the past—that our communication needs to be more visual in delivery, more active in approach, and less linear in form. Some believe that Paul may have said, “Preach the Word…in season and out of season,” but perhaps its time to declare open season on the spoken message as a form of effective communication to teenagers.
Research, for example, tells us that the vocabulary of North American ninth graders dropped from 25,000 words in 1940 to 10,000 words in 1990. This is an audience that spends hours a day in an on-line environment in which people on average watch only 21.8 seconds of a 30 second online video ad. The average segment of attention without a break in television is a grand total of seven minutes! Is it really strategic to speak to a teenage audience for ten, twenty, or thirty minutes using the spoken word?
I, for one, believe it can be. I don’t believe it’s an either-or proposition.
I’m convinced that our teaching must be shaped by the audience factors we’ve discussed in this space over the last several months. That’s critically important. And I strongly encourage youth workers to use lots of different types of communication styles. I’ve co-written books like Spontaneous Melodramas, Memory Makers, and Everyday Object Lessons because I understand that our youth groups are filled with students who learn in lots of different ways. If we’re teaching every week with a “stand and deliver” style, we probably aren’t maximizing our impact with every student. We should be using visual delivery, active learning, and other narrative and creative forms of teaching.
But, I’m not ready to say, “Speaking is passe,” and I’m not ready to do that for the most basic of reasons: I’ve seen the impact of the spoken Word in the lives of teenagers.
But I also believe it’s incredibly hard work. No wonder Paul followed up his charge in 2 Timothy 4:2 with these words: “…correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”
Like every other skill, good speaking requires intention and execution. And like every other impossible mission, it requires the power of God. Of course, we know God will do his part! But, how can we more effectively do our part, especially if we don’t feel like gifted speakers and teachers? It’s a question posed by lots of sincere youth volunteers and Sunday school teachers.
And it’s a question we’ll begin to explore in the next issue of Good News.