Last week was a great week because I spent it at the Orange Conference in Atlanta.  If you are involved in student ministry or children’s ministry and you haven’t been, you really should come next year.  Here are a few highlights from last week:

OC16

RECONNECTING WITH FRIENDS

One of my favorite things about the Orange Conference is hanging out with people who are passionate about the next generation and think like me.  Over the last few years, I’ve made a few great friendships through networking at Orange.  These people are invaluable when I’m feeling exhausted in ministry or when I have a crazy idea that needs perspective.

MAKING ACUFF LAUGH

It might not sound terribly spiritual but I did enjoy making Jon Acuff laugh.  I was attending a bloggers breakfast where they served (of all things) cups of ice cream with those worthless wooden spoon thingies.  Holding one of the spoons, I turned to Acuff and said, “Hey, don’t you have a comedy bit about these things?”  He looked at me like I was a delusional fan.  I came back with, “Oh, that must be Gaffigan.”  He continued to stare.  And I clinched with, “I mean, it must at least make you feel good that I mixed you up with Gaffigan.”  He laughed heartily, sputtering, “That’s good!”  It’s the little things really.  I assure you I’m not actually a stalker.

INSPIRATION

Perhaps the best thing about the Orange Conference is that the speakers and experiences inevitably make me cry, cheer and generally get pumped.  Every year, I bank on the Orange Conference experience as an injection of inspiration.  I walk away with more passion, more focus, more drive, and more tools.  Here’s to you Orange for reminding me of my calling and for filling up my tank so I can keep running after it.

NEW RESOURCES

I am a reader.  It’s my primary method of learning.  The Orange staff was kind enough to give a few of us bloggers a sneak peak at their new resources.  I’m pretty stoked.  Here are a few that piqued my interest:

FUN

I mean, Tripp and Tyler, all the music, laughs for days.  I just love it.

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If you missed the conference this year, FEAR NOT because the Orange Tour is coming this fall!  Check out dates and locations here.  And, if you’re thinking of attending the Detroit tour stop, DO IT!  because I’ll be there and we can hang out and stuff.

My OC16 Breakout

April 27, 2016 — Leave a comment

Hey Friends!

Perhaps you found yourself so riveted that you couldn’t take notes?  Maybe you were bored out of your skull and fell asleep?  Or, you thought: “That guy sounds hideous, I’m picking a different breakout.” Whatever happened, I’m sharing my content.

Here are the slides, handouts and documents from my Coaching the Best out of Your High School Volunteers breakout at the Orange Conference.  If you’d like to continue the conversation, send me an email.  I’d love to connect.

Here’s the handout:  Aaron Buer Breakout

The slides:  Aaron Buer Breakout Slides

Our leader blog:  lifelineparents.org

And, the expectations docs:  Resource Docs

Stay tuned.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll be blogging about these concepts, including all the genius stuff I was forced to cut out.

When it comes to improving as a communicator, practice has made a huge difference for me.  But, practice, while a very good discipline, isn’t as impactful as taking one additional step.  That step is inviting feedback.  If you’re working to improve as a speaker, it is absolutely imperative that you seek feedback.  Because, as the saying goes:  Practice doesn’t make perfect…it makes permanent.  You could very well practice for hours only to perpetuate distracting mannerisms, nervous twitches, or filler words like “ummm.”

Let’s be real, we all know that one communicator who always says or does super awkward and distracting things….you don’t want to be that guy and I don’t either!  So, we need to invite feedback.  But, let me warn you.  Feedback hurts.  It can be deflating but it is a crucial step in mastering the art of speaking.

So, if you’re interested in seeking feedback, here are two simple steps to get you moving in the right direction.

VIDEO YOURSELF

About three years ago, I became the primary communicator in our student ministry, which involves teaching through video 2x a month.  The funny thing about video is that you get to watch yourself.  Let me tell you how awful this experience was in the early days!  I found myself saying, “Why in the world do I move like that?”  “I blink my eyes every millisecond!!!”  “I have to stop saying ‘like.’  and “Wow, I used used the word ‘hugely’ 14x in a 7 minute video.”

It was incredibly enlightening (and humbling) to watch myself teach.  I discovered all sorts of things that I do that are distracting or confusing.  And yes, it was wickedly deflating.  But over time, I have improved dramatically just by watching myself.  Now, we video every teacher in every environment so that we can learn and grow as communicators.

So, I would encourage you to video yourself teaching.  At first, you’ll basically want to die.  And to be sure, you will be harder on yourself than anyone in the audience but I guarantee it will help you sharpen your skills and ditch a few distracting habits.

 

INVITE CRITIQUE

If there’s one thing we’ve done in the last year that has helped our student ministry teaching team improve, it is inviting critique.  In our ministry, every large group teaching gets a test drive in front of our team about a week before we go live.  And whoever that lonely soul is, who is practicing that day, gets a heavy dose of feedback from all of us.  In fact, we practice everything that will be said from the stage, including the welcome, games, and announcements.  This practice run-through has dramatically improved our program and the teaching in particular.

LL practice

I realize that many of you don’t work on a team of student pastors but I bet you do have other student pastors in your area.  And, I bet those other student pastors want to improve as communicators.  What if you created a network where the goal was to offer each other helpful feedback on your teachings?  Sure it would be awkward at first, but I’m telling you, the payoff would be tremendous.

If that sounds awful, invite a volunteer to give you feedback or ask a teaching mentor to watch a video of you teaching and offer you a few thoughts.  If you don’t have anyone in your life to help you out with this, I’d be happy to give you my 2 cents.  Just email me a link.

 

Recently, after speaking at a student conference in which I delivered a couple different communications without notes, a friend asked me about my preparation process for teaching without notes.  This post is a summary of my answer…

First, teaching without notes might not be the best practice for you.  As a communicator, the goal is to deliver a great communication.  For some, that means notes and others none.  With that said, I think everyone should attempt to go noteless for a season (don’t give up after 1 or 2 tries!) to see if it works because speaking without using notes will help you communicate in a more conversational and authentic voice.  For student ministry, this is paramount.

Also, this is my 13th year of full-time student ministry.  I have been a primary teacher for 8 of those years.  I just started teaching without notes two years ago.

Anyway, here’s my preparation process for speaking without notes:

 

WORK WAY AHEAD

Step one in teaching without notes is to work way ahead.  I’m at my best when I…

  • Map my teaching content for the entire year during the summer
  • Write outlines a month out
  • Work through edits three weeks out
  • Write full scripts two weeks out

Working way ahead creates mental space for creativity and memorization.  For me, cramming will always yield an inferior teaching.

 

WRITE HOW YOU SPEAK

When it comes to preparing notes, I…

  • Write in my speaking voice.  This helps with internalizing the material.
  • Write a full script.  This script is word for word, exactly what I want to say, but never exactly what I will say when I teach.
  • Translate the full script into practice notes, which is an outline of keywords and phrases.

The process of writing an outline, then a script and then practice notes helps me memorize the content, and even more importantly, the flow of the content.  Specifically, this is what I memorize:

  • Intro
  • Transitions
  • Bottom Lines
  • Conclusion

If these elements are memorized, the rest will fall into place.

 

PRACTICE LIKE YOU PLAY

During the week I will be communicating, I…

  • Practice three or four days out using my practice notes
  • Practice repeatedly while driving around in my car (this makes me look like a crazy person at stop lights)
  • Do a full dress rehearsal three hours before teaching (on the stage with lights, mics, slides and everything)

In order to teach without notes, I simply have to practice a lot!  The key here is that I’m gradually moving away from my notes and adjusting as I go.

 

For me, learning to teach without notes has dramatically improved my delivery.  It isn’t terribly complicated or difficult, it just takes a whole lot of discipline.  Give it a shot and let me know how it goes.

 

image credited to Matt Roberts via Flickr

Check Your Flow

April 12, 2016 — Leave a comment

I’m currently blogging about the secret sauce of speaking…at least my secret sauce.  I don’t pretend to be a guru.  Anyway, so far, I’ve written about engaging the internal conversation of the audience and the importance of tension.  Today, I writing about flow.

What do I mean by flow?  I’m talking about the structure of the teaching.  I believe that every good communication is a journey from a starting point to a destination.  It should move because the purpose of preaching and teaching is to motivate people to move, change and grow.

One of the most difficult aspects of writing a good communication is creating a clear flow of thought that moves from starting point to destination.  Too many communications have rabbit trails and side notes that detract from the overall flow.  One thing that I’ve learned is that what makes sense in my head won’t make sense to the audience unless the flow is logical and linear.  An audience that is confused is an audience that will tune out.

WRITE THOUGHT BY THOUGHT

The way I was taught to write a sermon or teaching is not at all how I write today.  I was taught: introduction, 3 points and conclusion.  In my opinion, there is too much potential for confusion when we write and deliver this way.  When I write, I think journey.  There may be 2 or 3 stops along the journey toward the destination but there aren’t 3 unrelated points.  So, instead of writing a point and then writing a second point, I write thought by thought.  Each thought flows into the other.  As I write, I use a conversational voice because writing in the voice I speak in helps me remember the material.  And, writing thought by thought keeps everything I write in relationship and therefore connected and linear.  In other words, you will be clear.

I do often have 2 or 3 “points’ (although, I never call them points) but they flow into each other and are all on the way to the destination.

TELL THEM THE PLAN

Another technique that I use, that I was taught by our senior teaching pastor, is to simply tell the audience what you plan to do.  Why keep it a secret?  When the plan is known, people can follow more easily and also have better expectations for how long you’re going to talk.  Here’s an example from the teaching I plan to deliver this week:

My goal for tonight is to describe 3 different friendships that we all need.  In each of these friendships, I’ll show you how your friends shape your future.

They know upfront that there will be 3 different friendships that I’m going to talk about, they have a general idea of how I’m going to try to influence them, and during the 2nd friendship conversation they will probably say, “OK, he’s almost done, I can hang in there for a few more minutes.”

CUT, CUT, CUT

I get pretty violent with my scripts.  I firmly believe that less is more and any ideas that aren’t directly related to your destination will be distracting at best, and confusing at worst.  My best communications have been parred down for the sake of clarity.  I try to keep in mind that within two days my audience is only going to remember one or two things that I say anyway.  Cut every rabbit trail, side note and parenthetical idea.  Clarity is better.

TALK IT OUT

If you’re like me, something can read brilliantly on paper but fall flat when communicated verbally.  Over the last two years, my communicating skills have grown significantly, largely because I’ve begun to practice out loud.  Nearly every time I practice, I find myself saying, “That doesn’t make sense” or “I don’t think these two ideas are as connected as I thought.  Basically, practicing out loud is another way to improve the message and make sure that the flow of thought is clear.

There you have it.  That’s my basic methodology for creating a communication with a clear flow of thought.  Next time I post, I’ll share a few ideas on how to speak without using notes.

 

photo credited to drestwn via Flickr

I’m currently blogging about what I’ve learned about teaching over the last few years.  My last post was all about engaging the internal conversation of your audience.  Today, I want to share a little more about tension.  You should probably know that these ideas are stolen from my senior teaching pastor, Jeff Manion.

As we teach, it’s crucially important that we answer the question every listener is asking, “Why should I listen to you” by creating tension in our introductions.  But, that initial burst of tension only buys us 5-7 minutes of attention.  In other words, your introduction, even an amazing introduction will only buy you, at the max, 7 minutes until your audience will start asking, “Why should I continue listening to you?”  If we fail to answer this question, our audience will begin daydreaming and in the case of middle schoolers, probably throwing something..  Opportunity lost.

Movies utilize tension in the way I’m describing.  There is an initial burst of tension and then tension is reintroduced every few minutes.  For example, Star Wars…

  • Initial Tension: Darth Vader captures Princess Leia
  • New Tension:  Luke can’t go to the Toshe Station (what a whiner!)
  • New Tension:  Luke gets attacked by the Sand People
  • New Tension:  Luke’s struggles with whether to become a Jedi
  • New Tension:  Stormtroopers attack Luke’s family
  • New Tension:  Han shoots first…
  • New Tension:  You get the idea.

A great movie reintroduces tension every few minutes, and while preaching or teaching is considerably different than Star Wars, the same principle applies.  If you want to capture and keep your audience’s attention, you must reintroduce tension every few minutes.  So, how do we do it?

One of the easiest ways to do this is through transitions.  There is a way to use transitions in a way that reengages the minds of the audience and points back to your central question. If you’re unfamiliar with this idea, it might sound like crazy talk.  Let me explain.  I’ll use the example of John 11:1-7, and the transition between Jesus’ apparent lack of concern for Lazarus and then his emotional response and the resurrection of his friend.

First, a typical transition that does nothing to help reintroduce tension and reengage the mind of the audience:

“Jesus gets word that His close friend is desperately sick.  Surprisingly,he waits for two days. But then Jesus goes to his friend.  Let’s read what happens.”

QUESTION

Here’s an example of a tension loaded transition using the tool of a question:

I just have to ask a question here.  Is this how Jesus responds to his friend when they are desperate?  Is this how Jesus will respond to me when I’m desperate?  What’s going on here?

The imagination of the listener is drawn into the drama of the story and they put themselves in the story.  The purpose of a question transition is to ask a real or imaginary question that the audience is or could be asking.  When you use this technique, tension is reintroduced to the communication.

OBJECTION

Here’s an example of a transition statement that raises an objection:

As we read this story, I know that some of you are thinking, “This is exactly why I walked away from the church.  This story about Jesus confirms my experience with God.  When I needed Him, He was silent.  When things fell apart in my life, He went missing.”

The idea behind an objection transition is to raise a real or imaginary objection that members of the audience are or could be asking.  Even if the listener hasn’t personally experienced the objection, their mind will be reengaged in addressing the objection.  And, if you address a real objection that your audience is actually asking, the impact is tremendous.

REVERSE

A reverse is when you draw a contrast between what is expected and what actually happens.  Think football.  Here’s an example of a reverse from John 11:

Lazarus’s sisters send word that Lazarus is dangerously sick.  Everything we’ve read about Jesus to this point would lead us to believe that he’ll drop everything and run to save Lazarus but, if you’re familiar with the story, you know that’s not what happens.  What in the world is happening here?

A reverse can be effective when you’re sure the audience is expecting something other than where the text or a story you are telling is going.  You’ve nailed it if the internal conversation of the audience says, “Wait, what?!?”

 

These examples may sound too simple or perhaps even silly but I am telling you they work.  And, think of what’s at stake here.  So many sermons and teachings start out strong with a good introduction, plenty of tension and then gradually run out of steam as tension evaporates and the audience engagement wanes.  One way or another, if you’re going to teach effectively you must reintroduce tension and one easy and effective way to do this is through transitions.

There is another way that communications run out of steam and that is when the audience gets confused.  In my next post, I’ll share some ideas on teaching with clarity.

 

 

Image credited to Kham Tran via Flickr

When it comes to student ministry, my favorite role is communicating.  I find so much joy and fulfillment in brainstorming series, writing content, speaking, and developing the other teachers on our student ministry team.

Over time, I’ve learned quite a bit about teaching–from trial and error, listening, mentors and from attempting to formalize my method so that I can help others improve.  Over the next couple of weeks I want to share some of the secret sauce.  Here’s lesson number one…

One of the most important skills a speaker can develop is the ability to view the communication as a conversation.  In other words, this is more than a presentation, sermon or lesson.  This is a relational connection.  There is so much more going on than content exchange.  Think about it:  Whenever you listen to a sermon or presentation (and you’re actually listening) there is a conversation running in your head.  You say things like:

  • “I’m not sure I agree with that.”
  • “Wow.  I know exactly what she’s talking about.”
  • “I’m not sure I like this person.”
  • “How did he know exactly what is going on in my life?”
  • “Why is he still talking?!?!”

A master communicator knows how to tap into this conversation and even guide it.

The internal conversation begins as soon as you step on the stage or in front of the class.  The first questions everyone asks are:

  • “Do I trust this person?”
  • “Why should I keep listening?”

How do we tap into the internal conversation and guide it?  Give your audience the answers to these questions as they are asking them.

DO I TRUST THIS PERSON?

When I’m sitting in a coffee shop, writing an introduction for a teaching or presentation, I’m asking myself,  “How can I connect with my audience so that they feel like they know me and trust me.”  This usually involves a personal story that connects with the overall topic and demonstrates some vulnerability and understanding.  In a few days, I will be teaching on conflict in friendships.  My introduction includes a personal story about a friendship from college that meant the world to me, but I accidentally wrecked it. The story relates to the topic and builds trust with my audience because I am vulnerable, real, and demonstrate an actual working knowledge about the topic.   My story builds trust.

WHY SHOULD I KEEP LISTENING?

Now, about the second question:  It takes energy to focus.  It takes discipline to engage with a communication on a heart level.  And we all checkout when we feel like the teacher or presenter is talking about something that doesn’t actually matter or doesn’t relate to our lives.  As a teacher, it is easy to blame the audience for not paying attention but here’s the thing:  It isn’t the job of the audience to pay attention.  It’s the job of the communicator to capture their minds.

So, the task for a communicator is to convince the audience that they NEED to stay engaged.  As my friends at Orange say, “you have to create tension.”  You’ve created tension when your audience’s internal conversation says:

  • “I need to know this.”
  • “He’s right, I don’t understand this issue.”
  • “This topic could change XYZ in my life.”

A great introduction creates tension.  It answers the question everyone in the room is asking, “Why should I keep listening?”  In my teaching about friendships, I will say, “I’m not the only one who has wrecked a friendship am I?  We all have someone in our lives who was a close friend.  Is there a way we can navigate conflict in our relationships without blowing up the friendship?  This is what we’re going to talk about tonight…”

A great introduction answers two questions everyone is asking, “Do I trust this person” and “Why should I keep listening.”  Think about it:  Within the first few minutes, every great movie convinces you to root for the protagonist and care about the tension.

  • You fall in love with Nemo and care about whether or not he will find his dad.
  • You think Matt Damon is hilarious and really don’t want him to die alone on Mars.
  • You root for Forrest and want him to win Jenny’s heart.

Every great movie answers these two questions and so should every presentation or teaching.  Just remember two words:  trust and tension.

But here’s the thing, from what I’ve learned, your injection of tension only lasts for 5-7 minutes.  Then, the audience’s mind start wandering again.  Then what do you do?  I’ll share some ideas in my next post.

 

 

image credited to wisepig via Flickr

 

 

 

A Little Comedy

March 21, 2016 — Leave a comment

It’s been a while since I’ve posted.  I thought I’d jump back in the game by sharing this hilarious video.  Let’s just say our student ministry team is super talented and hilarious.  Oh, and Camp Lifeline registration is open:  Camp LL

Camp Lifeline | Sign Up! from Lifeline Student Ministries on Vimeo.

Shower Office

October 29, 2015 — Leave a comment

I’ve decided to move my office into my shower.  No seriously.  After conducting tens of hours of rigorous scientific research, I have realized that 9 out of 10 of my genius ideas occur to me in the shower.  There must be something about the humidity and the water.  So, I’m moving my office to my shower.  I’m still working on the issues of waterproofing my laptop.  I’m sorry if this image causes you to be a little sick but I assure you this is for the best.

Ok. Actually, after thinking about it a bit longer, I’m realizing that creative ideas spring upon me in other places–like when I’m forced to walk long distances, when my phone is dead, when I have to drive alone without music, that one time I went for a run, and when I’m trapped in elevators.  So, after a bit more thought, maybe it isn’t actually my shower that is a conductor for creative energy…maybe it is quiet, a lack of structure and maybe even boredom.

I’ve come to realize that for me, creative energy requires certain conditions in order to be released.  When I am rushed, hurried and frantic, creative ideas and innovative schemes seem to dry up.  Maybe creative energy needs space.  Stop.  Listen.  Be patient.  Turn down the noise.

My suspicion is I’m not alone in this.  Whether you are an engineer, an artist or a stay at home mom, creativity and innovation propel all of us toward greatness.  We all need ideas.  Ideas unlock the places where we are stuck.   I’m discovering that there is a way to structure our frantic lives for creativity and innovation.  It probably involves letting your phone run dead, walking instead of driving, or carving out space for a longer shower.

All this is so counter-intuitive.  We believe that running fast, busyness and long hours are what make us productive.  Admittedly, this is partially true.  However, without space for quiet–for curiosity, wonder and undistracted thought, the ideas, innovation and creativity will dry up.  Perhaps our daily schedules need blocks of running fast interspersed with blocks of locking ourselves in a closet.

The world needs your creativity.  We need your ideas.  Do us all a favor and create some dead space.  Be bored.  Take your time.  Power it down.  Let’s generate creative thoughts and fresh ideas.  I bet our lives, families, offices, schools and churches will be better for it.

 

image credited to r. nial bradshaw via Flickr

 

 

Defining the Win

October 15, 2015 — Leave a comment

Lately, our student ministry team has been redefining our wins.  Also, we’ve been reading through 7 Practices of Effective Ministry.  Basically, we’re kind of obsessed.  It’s been a great exercise for me and my team.  Here’s what we’ve come up for the ultimate win in our student ministry:  We win when a student is still following Jesus at age 25.  Yeah, that’s right.  It’s an intimidating goal.  A little about the wording…

  • We decided that what really matters is that our students are still pursuing Jesus and still connected to a church long after they leave our student ministry.
  • We chose the word “follow” because we’re not just after belief.  We’re after discipleship.
  • We chose the word “still” because we want kids and students to develop faith in our family ministry…not after.
  • We chose the number 25 because most 25 year olds are done with or finishing up college and yet, 25 is typically before children.  In other words, we want to fight against the trend of emerging adults putting their faith on the shelf in college and not reengaging it until it’s time to take their kids to church.

Obviously, this win is a lot harder to attain or measure than the typical win:  “leading students into a relationship with Jesus.”  Sure, this is part of what we want but it doesn’t speak to life-long faith, which is what we are really after.

In the process of redefining our win, we’ve been wrestling with the “how.”  I’m confident that our win is correct, but how exactly do you get there?  This is the part that I could be wrong about.  Also, we haven’t wordsmithed any of this yet.  I’m open to your ideas and your feedback, but here’s a rough cut of what I’m thinking:

 

CONNECT THEM

I think the foundation is connection to a Jesus community.  In other words, attendance matters.  Belonging to the community matters.  By all of this, I mean participation in your student ministry, but also connection to the congregation as a whole.  FYI has repeatedly shown that students who are inter-generationally connected to their church have a much better shot at healthy faith as adults.

So, what’s the first step?  Get students connected to your student ministry…and don’t you dare be a silo!  Get them connected to the rest of the congregation as well.

 

GIVE THEM A GUIDE

I’ve come to believe that this strategy is the cornerstone.  The three other pieces are important but this one is absolutely crucial.  Kids and students need a guide.  They need a mentor to show them what it looks like to follow Jesus.  A caring adult who is willing to walk with a group of students over the long-haul is the secret sauce of life-long faith.  Over and over again, I have seen how a great spiritual mentor can be a game-changer.

This is why small groups are a must and investing in volunteers is crucial.  We don’t need chaperones.  We need spiritual mentors.

 

HELP THEM GROW

The third piece is a growing personal faith.  Students who develop their own spiritual habits (or disciplines) are much more likely to continue pursuing Jesus in life after your student ministry.  In other words, it’s imperative that students begin to engage Jesus in their own world.  If their faith only exists at church, then we have a problem.  We must find ways for them to integrate their faith.  This is difficult because developmentally, students will naturally compartmentalize.  But, if we’re serious about promoting life-long faith, we must find ways to break down the walls of compartmentalized faith by helping kids bring their faith home and to school.

 

LET THEM SERVE

For years, the word that has defined our high school ministry’s strategy has been “Express.”  We desire for our students to begin expressing their faith.  This shows us that it is no longer their mom’s faith but their faith.  When students step out and express their faith through service and leadership, we know we are on the right track  However, we’ve learned that experience is often needed before expression.  That’s why we focus a great deal on mission trips, serving in our children’s ministry and serving roles at our summer camp.  And of course, because we desire inter-generational connections, we don’t have a student leadership team.  We want our middle school and high school students to serve alongside adults in church wide ministries because then they will develop relationships with other generations.

Lastly, students want to serve and lead now.  Don’t leave them on the sidelines!  First off, this practice is hurting the faith of students all across the country.  If they have to wait to practice their faith, they are far more likely to put their faith on the shelf.  Secondly, students are full of passion, energy and ideas.  Put them in coach!  It’s no coincidence that most of the world’s faith revivals have begun with students.

 

So, we win in our student ministry when students are still following Jesus at age 25 and these four strategies are our pathway to getting there.  What’s your win?  What’s your path to winning?  And…let me know if you have any genius wordsmithing ideas.

 

image credited to Erika via Flickr