“Who can tell me what we talked about last week?”
I’m really hoping that I’m not the only one who has asked that question in front of a group of teenagers—most of whom heard my message just one week prior—and received nothing but silence in response.
Or perhaps you’ve experienced this: you deliver a passionate message at youth group about how Jesus told his followers they would be recognized as belonging to him by how they love one another (John 13:34-35), only to later overhear a group of girls gossiping about another girl in the youth group.
These kinds of experiences can deflate, discourage, and sometimes even anger us. Isn’t anyone listening? Don’t my hours of message preparation and writing small group questions matter to any of these teenagers? What am I doing wrong?
Since I’ve had more than my share of those (and similar) circumstances as a youth pastor, I’ve had a lot of time to think about what I can do to deliver messages that actually stick and actually matter. And after all that thinking, here is what I’ve learned: the hardest part about preaching to or leading a small group of teenagers isn’t the preparation, and it isn’t the delivery or leading the discussion.
The hardest part is getting your message or Bible study to make even one bit of difference in a teenager’s life.
The theologically astute of you will no doubt remind me that we as youth workers are simply the planters, the ones who water the seeds. It is the Holy Spirit’s job to make anything grow. That being said (and affirmed), I still think we can be better planters and watering cans by doing one thing better: making it crystal clear what we expect teenagers to do with what they just heard, read, and discussed.
It doesn’t matter if you’re leading a small group Bible study or preaching to hundreds of junior and senior high students; unless you help them understand what they are supposed to do with what they’ve just heard, they’re likely to disregard—or forget altogether—just about everything they’ve taken in. And if you’re not doing that, then all the hard work and time you put into your preparation is just going to waste. Here are some ways to help teenagers internalize and respond to what they just heard:
Teach and preach with transformation in mind, not just information. It’s easy to make the mistake of approaching a lesson or message by asking only “What do these teenagers need to know?” It’s just as crucial to ask this question as well: “How can God use this information to transform their lives?”
Choose one “big idea” and make it clear. Teenagers are more likely to know what to do with what they heard if they can actually remember what they heard. Too many messages are actually three or four mini-sermons stitched together. Make your main point clear and repeat it several times.
Connect the dots for them. Don’t assume that when students hear the parable of the unforgiving servant, they understand without a doubt what it means for their lives. Rely heavily on statements such as, “If this is true, then it means that I need to forgive someone who has hurt me, even if I think they don’t deserve it.”
Provide a doable “next step” for teenagers to take. None of us can perfectly live out any of Jesus’ teaching, so provide a simple but challenging “next step” that will help teenagers begin to live out what they’ve heard. “Go and make disciples of all the nations” can’t be done in one day, so help them start by challenging them to pray for one friend they can tell about Jesus.
Send reminders throughout the week. If you challenged your group to serve someone anonymously during the week, you might post on Facebook, “Praying for you all as you serve someone anonymously…keep putting others first!” You can also do this via text if you lead a small group.
What are some ways that you’ve helped teenagers respond to what they’ve heard?