Anyone who has spoken in front of a group of adolescents knows how daunting the task can be, even if you have a passion and heart for working with teens. Since they are literally between childhood and adulthood, they are a unique kind of audience or congregation to work with. In addition, many of the teens we are trying to reach are at least passively ignoring of our Gospel message, or at worse, hostile to it. Nothing like the cynicism and hypocrisy sensitivity of an adolescent! But with the proper techniques, modeled on the way Jesus ministered and many communication skills borrowed from modern clinical counseling, we can begin to present messages in such a way to students that have the potential to move them forward to seeking deeper teachings and strong faith.
All too often, youth ministers struggle with how direct to make their Gospel messages. Too direct and forceful, and students in the crowd that are already turned off to ‘religion’ will never come back. Too vague and weak, and those hungry for the Word will not get fed, and we may walk away with a lousy feeling of not having presented the Good News. Take heart; there is a method based in context and technique that works. Furthermore, this method comes directly from the man Himself.
If we pay attention to the how and the dynamic that Jesus uses in His ministry with people, we can learn a great deal. In addition, the context that Jesus uses when He does His work is also informative to us modern day evangelists. Why reinvent the wheel? Why try to improve on what the Master does? Let’s take a closer look at how Jesus does what He does, the dynamic between He and others, the contexts in which He does it, and some specific skills gleaned from clinical counseling.
First, let’s look at the contexts. At the time of Jesus, there were few entertainments. When a good speaker is in the area, you want to go and check him out. It’s an attraction; people are curious and enjoy entertaining stuff. And, you can talk with your neighbors for days afterwards about the speaker, adding to the enjoyment. Kind of like first century social media buzz. From there, Jesus might get an offer to come to someone’s house for dinner (so a smaller group can hang with the celebrity). There, of course, in a more intimate setting, Jesus takes steps even closer to those listening and interacting with Him. Finally, a few folks, excited and touched by what He has said and done, want to catch Him alone for a one-on-one; ‘Just a moment, Jesus, can I have a word?’ And oh yes, He gave them the Word, right?
When Jesus speaks, He tends not to unload the whole truth upon those who are listening to Him. He knows that they just are not ready nor can they absorb the whole (wonderful) truth in one bite. Jesus clearly first develops a warm and positive (even using humor) relationship with people. He deeply recognizes their hunger and pain. Through the relationship, He begins to express compassion, care, and love. This draws the listener in.
As a counselor, I do the same thing by using skills I have learned and honed through the years: I listen to the other, agree with them that they are in pain, and begin to demonstrate my listening by reflecting their thoughts and emotions back to them. By doing this, I am able to ‘join’ with the counselee, helping them feel comfortable and trusting of me. Only when the individual arrives at a certain point in the exchange do they begin to be in a place where they can start to hear me. At this point in the process, I am able to offer teaching about Jesus. I also am sure to remind the individual of how greatly they are loved and how precious they are to God. Neither I nor counseling invented this approach. We can see in the Gospels how Jesus does the very same thing: he gently and positively moves through the listener’s resistance, seeking out the pain in their life. He affirms their pain and hunger. They begin to listen to Him. Once they feel His compassion and love, they are hooked (or netted, if you will).
Once the listener feels good about Jesus, what does He often do next? He tells a story to teach something. Or, if the connection that He started is strong enough (as demonstrated by the listener’s statements of faith), He simply reaches out and heals them. Then, more remarkably, He assures them that they are forgiven. Even at this point, He does not reveal the entire truth of Who He is; He invites the person to follow, and learn more, over time. It’s almost as if He ‘dangles a carrot’ of more to come, if we choose to follow.
So, how does this look in youth ministry? The use of wide open events that are attractive to adolescents is the keystone. The wide open and attractive event will be different for different regions, areas, and cultures, though in general we can say that things like food, music, fellowship, and laughter are pretty universal and are a great place to start planning.
The message presented at these wide events should follow the methods that Jesus taught us: appeal to the hunger and pain that the listeners are holding in their hearts. The person delivering the message must be able to restrain themselves from pressing their message forward to the whole truth of Jesus Christ. In fact, His name may not even be mentioned. I know this sounds counter intuitive, don’t get all upset and offended, it’s not because we are ashamed of the Name. It’s because it’s just not the right time and context to reveal it. Let’s remember that Jesus did not shout out that He is God during the ‘Sermon on the Mount’, but waited until His friend Peter admitted it in a small group.
At most, the message in the context of wide, attraction based events should be about relevant, common issues of the listener (again, the Sermon on the Mount is a great example). Maybe use a modern parable to make a point about modern life and the pain and hunger common to all human beings. Then, ‘dangle the carrot’. Suggest that there is in fact, more. Hint that there are answers to the questions and pain that the listener is experiencing. And then offer an invitation to the context in which you are willing to share that more and give those answers.
The next context is when the individual either comes to you one-on-one or comes to the small group that you are offering to hear the more. The primary dynamic and message at this time should be one of genuine attentiveness to the individual; conveying care, love, and healing. If we simply dump the individual into a Sunday School- like context and dynamic, the individual will likely feel ‘baited and switched’ and not return for more. Even if the small group you invite the person into is one dedicated to say, Bible Study and prayer, a significant amount f time and energy needs to be directed at helping the new person experience the embodiment of the Gospel (love). Someone in the existing group of believers (preferably a peer) needs to be assigned to begin to care for the new person after the group meeting. This means that they carry out quality, frequent contacts with them using caring encouragements during the time between activities. These caring contacts should not be pounding them with Bible quotes and admonitions. While you can and should tell them that you are holding them in your prayers, the focus should be on demonstrating genuine and authentic care and love, not preaching.
There is a tenuous path to be traveled with a curious seeker or new believer. It is important not to overwhelm them with information or even attention. It is equally important not to carry a ‘convert and file’ mentality by shuffling them into small groups that are not relevant to the individual’s life. There must always be the assurance of freedom and free will in their participation, allowing commitments to participate more deeply to arise from their growing faith understanding, not from pressure from the group or the youth minister.
The model for conveying the Gospel message is clearly apparent in the Gospel itself. It is also incumbent upon us to educate ourselves about effective communication skills, make them a habit, and keep them sharp. Being a disciple of the Master is more than just His message; it’s also emulating His way of interacting with those who need to hear the Word.
This article was written by Bill Krill and originally appeared on BandBseminars.com .