Over the last few weeks, I’ve been blogging about the dumb things I’ve done in student ministry. If you’re wondering, it doesn’t feel that great, but I think it’s important because what we do as student pastors and volunteers is crucial. My hope is that by reading about my mistakes, you’ll be able to avoid them in your own life and ministry. So, here we go with number 2 in my top 10 list: Saying Too Much
I’ve always considered myself to be a decent public speaker. I usually receive good feedback, other than the first sermon I gave, after which, a crusty old man came up to me and say, “You’re going to be a good preacher someday.” I mean, how do you interpret that? “Thanks?”
In my opinion, becoming a great student ministry communicator requires answering three questions.
1. What’s the focus?
2. Who is my audience?
3. What’s the goal?
WHAT’S THE FOCUS?
I believe that the greatest temptation for someone who communicates to students is to focus on entertainment rather than biblical truth. This is incredibly difficult because it’s hard to keep the attention of students, particularly students who have grown up in church. They know all the stories. They’ve sat through about 3 million sermons. How do you grab and keep their attention?
For me, the answer is almost always comedy. To be honest, it is easy for me to get on stage and perform stand up comedy disguised as a sermon and receive great feedback. However, comedy alone doesn’t change lives, God’s truth does. The skill we all need to learn is to tap into the natural tension, character development, and inherent conflict of the biblical narratives and let them propel our communications. And, to be clear, all my communications are funny. It’s a gift God has given me and there’s nothing wrong with throwing everything you have into crafting a great communication. But, the point is, if your focus isn’t God’s truth, what’s the point?
WHO IS MY AUDIENCE?
I was trained to preach at a conservative bible college. I was taught to preach using three points. These concepts were drilled into me. Then, I was hired as a youth pastor at a church that believed in the same model of communicating. Now, it isn’t that this model is wrong, necessarily. However, as I prepared my communications, I had the wrong audience in mind. I prepared to impress my professors and the adults in our congregation who believed in this model of communicating. I failed to ask these important questions: How does my audience learn? Where are they developmentally? What will grab their attention, focus their thoughts and move them? In other words, what do students need to hear, based on where they are at?
I’ve come to believe that in order to be effective, communications must be targeted and tailored to the audience. If you’re following a communication model because that’s “the model,” it’s very likely that you aren’t engaging your audience. For me, I spent the first few years of my career saying way too much and yet saying nothing. I don’t believe my audience of students learned much during my first few years of ministry because I wasn’t aiming for them. Three points meant no points. That was a hard lesson for me to learn.
WHAT’S THE GOAL?
Allow me to be vulnerable for a moment. I love being told, “That was a great talk!” It feels so good! You’re probably the same. We’re hard wired to thrive on encouragement. The problem comes when you aim for this. I think that many of us, if we are honest, subconsciously prepare our communications with the goal of getting congratulated. This focus is dangerous for a number of reasons, but to the point of this blog post, it isn’t the right goal for an effective communication.
I’ve learned to aim for different feedback from students and volunteers. These days, what I want to hear is this: “Our small group had a great conversation tonight!” In our ministry structure, small groups immediately follow the communication. This is intentional because we teach for the conversation. The goal of the sermon is to set up conversation in the small group. My hope is that the focus isn’t on me, as the communicator, but rather on the small group leader and the dialogue. Students learn by engaging.
In the end, what we want, is life-change. We want students to embrace Jesus and become more like Him. We believe that the path to life-change is biblically centered communications that are developmentally appropriate and set up a conversations between students and their small group leaders. Small group leaders help put handles on the communication. They help students engage and implement what the Bible says.
ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
As I see it, great student ministry communications are built on the answers to three difficult questions: What’s the focus? Who is my audience? What’s the goal? If you answer these questions well. You’ll likely become a great communicator.
Lastly, not every student pastor has the time, or is wired to write great communications. If you find yourself in this situation, that’s ok! If it would be helpful, I’d be happy to send you any of our teaching series, complete with teaching scripts and graphics. Comment on this post or email me if you’re interested. Also, reThink’s XP3 curriculum is fantastic.
image credited to Elyce Feliz via Flickr