I remember my youth talk experience like it was yesterday. I was back at the speaker cabin, sitting in my chair wondering what in the world had just happened. My heart was beating out of my chest and my mind was racing, trying to figure out where I lost them, where I went wrong, what happened. Before I even had a chance to figure it out, before my heart rate could even slow, I heard a knock at the door.
I was about to throw up. To my horror, the director of the camp was at my door. I knew he would come, I just didn’t expect it to be so fast. I invited him in, and he sat down on my bed across from me.
“Everything OK?” he asked. “That was a little rough.”
Before I could even respond, he filled me in on his plan B. I was welcomed to stay in the cabin and enjoy the rest of my time at camp, but he was going to finish off the youth talks.
I couldn’t believe it!! Actually, the worst part is that I could believe it!! What in the world happened? I am a youth ministry veteran, a compelling speaker and a likable person. I had just wasted 45 minutes of the opening night youth talk sharing the historical background and complexities of Ephesians as I set the stage for a weekend study of the book filled with four exegetically amazing outlines of the book. While my preaching professor would be proud, the room packed with high schoolers was completely lost.
From the moment I looked up from my notes, half way through my youth talk, I realized I had lost my audience. And as I finished my sermon, my mind scrambled with what to do. My mouth was 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 with me. In our discussion together, I had figured out my problem and my solution. I told him I would scrap my sermons and put together a great series of youth talks for him. And that is exactly what I did.
Tell your seminary prof to relax.
That was the culminating experience that officially helped me pull my gigantic, overinflated, seminary-trained head out of my butt and settle into my calling as a pastor to students. Up until this point, I had been increasingly attempting to gain favor with my senior pastor, parents and fellow students, to prove to them that youth pastors are real pastors and that we shouldn’t dumb down the scriptures. And in my attempt to satisfy all these people and prove my worth, I had made the scriptures completely irrelevant.
In no way am I saying that a youth talk should be dumbed down or that exegesis is unimportant. I am saying that we must keep our audience in mind as we are prophets for our people, as we unpack the scriptures for our students. We must remember that our students need clear, memorable, applicable teaching. And even more than the teaching, they need space to unpack what they have just heard.
When I first started in youth ministry, some youth ministry veteran passed on their outline to me. It is 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. And ever since my sermon at camp, it 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.)
Here is the most amazing structure ever used for youth talks to students: Hook, Book, Look, Took!
Hook: This is the classic funny or compelling story used to gain the group’s attention while addressing the topic at hand.
Book: This is the passage of scripture you will be teaching on.
Look: This is where you teach through your three points from the passage of scripture. 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 is the meat of the lesson.
Took: This is where you help your students have a take-away from the lesson. We want scripture to mold and shape us; this is the part of the youth talk where we give them some examples of practical application.
Small Group Questions: For our group, we end every lesson with our students breaking up into small groups 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 have been struggling with the format for your youth talks, maybe you have drifted into complexity, or maybe you are brand new and have no idea where to start. If that is you, I hope this simple format helps.
This is simply the outline an average youth pastor uses. If you are a brilliant communicator, please share with us your structure and your tricks. Keep preaching it!