One youth talk made a huge impact on me. After giving it, I sat wondering what in the world had just happened. My heart was beating out of my chest. My mind was racing, trying to figure out where I had lost the teen listeners. Where did I go wrong?
Before I had a chance to figure it out or slow my heartrate, I heard a knock at the door. I was about to throw up. To my horror, the camp director stood there. I knew he’d come but didn’t expect him so soon.
I invited him in, and he sat across from me. “Everything OK?” he asked. “That was a little rough.” Before I could respond, the director filled me in on plan B. I was welcome to stay in the cabin and enjoy the rest of my time at camp. But he would finish the youth talks.
I couldn’t believe it! Actually, the worst part is that I could believe it! What happened? I’m a youth ministry veteran, a compelling speaker, and a likable person. I’d just wasted 45 minutes of the opening night youth talk sharing the historical background and complexities of Ephesians. I was setting the stage for a weekend study of the book, filled with four exegetically amazing outlines. Although my preaching professor would’ve been proud, the room packed with high schoolers was completely lost.
From the moment I looked up from my notes, halfway through my youth talk, I realized I’d lost my audience. As I finished the sermon, my mind scrambled with what to do. My mouth was still unpacking Paul. But my mind was arguing with my professor, with these students, and with my own calling.
Thankfully, the camp director was a good friend and was extra gracious. In our discussion, I figured out my problem and solution. I told him I’d scrap my sermons and put together a great series of youth talks. And that’s exactly what I did.
A Fresh Look at Giving a Youth Talk
That was the culminating experience that officially helped me deflate my gigantic, overinflated, seminary-trained head and settle into my calling as a pastor to students. Until then, I’d been increasingly attempting to gain favor with my senior pastor, parents, and fellow students. I’d wanted to prove that youth pastors are real pastors and that we shouldn’t dumb down Scripture. But in my attempt to satisfy all these people and prove my worth, I had made the Bible completely irrelevant.
I’m not saying you should dumb down a youth talk or that exegesis is unimportant. Instead, we must always keep listeners in mind. As you unpack God’s Word for teens, remember that we are prophets for our people. Students need clear, memorable, applicable teaching. And even more than the teaching, they need space to unpack what they hear.
When I first started in youth ministry, a veteran shared their outline to me. It’s simple, straightforward, and even rhymes. I used it religiously as my structure for youth ministry. Seminary was a short and awful hiatus from this structure.
Ever since my disastrous sermon at camp, this has been my go-to outline. (If you know whose this is officially, please let me know so I can thank them for saving my youth ministry career.)
A Handy Structure for Youth Messages
Here’s the most amazing structure ever used for youth talks: Hook, Book, Look, Took!
- Hook: This is the classic funny or compelling story you use to gain the group’s attention while addressing the topic at hand.
- Book: This is the Bible passage you’re teaching on.
- Look: Here you teach through three points from the Bible passage. The simplest plan is to communicate a point and illustrate it with a story or example. These three points can be an acronym, alliteration, whatever clever tool you want. It’s the meat of the lesson.
- Took: Give students a takeaway from the lesson. We want Scripture to mold and shape us. This is the part of the youth talk where you give examples of practical application.
Bonus: Small-Group Questions
For our youth group, we end every lesson with students forming small groups. They meet to unpack the lesson and figure out how to put it into practice in real life.
I know this isn’t rocket science. But maybe you’ve been struggling with the format for your youth talks. Maybe you’ve drifted into complexity. Or maybe you’re brand new to teen ministry and have no idea where to start. If that’s you, I hope this simple format helps.
This is simply the outline an average youth pastor uses. If you’re a brilliant communicator, please share your structure and your tricks. Keep preaching it!