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Six Crucial Elements of a Sticky Message: Concreteness

We’re digging deep into Made to Stick this week, a book about how to make ideas and messages stick. We’re applying these theories to preaching for youth and have looked at two elements of a sticky message so far: simplicity and unexpectedness. Today we’ll discuss a third: concreteness.

The younger your audience, the more concrete you’ll have to be. It’s in the teenage years that the ability for abstract thinking develops, but the exact age at which that happens differs. Children and young teens may have trouble with concepts like:

  • Logical reasoning
  • Sarcasm and irony
  • Metaphors
  • Hypothesizing

But it’s not just young teens that have issues with abstractness. Research shows that abstraction makes it harder for people of any age to understand an idea or message and to remember it. Sticky messages are concrete.

When I was a teacher, I had to teach on the Dutch legal system. That is not a subject 17 year olds enjoy, trust me. So instead of boring them with all theory, I decided to create a ‘murder’ and have ourselves a trial. They got to play the judge, the defendant, the lawyer, etc (we don’t have juries in Holland by the way). It was not only a lot of fun, but they all aced the exam.

One of the biggest issues when it comes to abstractness is the language we use in church. We’ve touched upon this topic in the post on simplicity as well, but it’s worth repeating. We have to remember that the church language we use so easily is an abstract one, a foreign language even which teens and young people often don’t understand. We have to make it concrete.

As for simplicity, the greatest threat to concreteness is the curse of knowledge. We have the ability for abstract reasoning. We speak the language of the Bible, the church and everything in between. We have the knowledge to connects to dots ourselves and apply theory to practice. But our teens don’t. So we have to make it concrete for them.

What is concreteness?

What makes something ‘concrete’ you may wonder. Something is concrete when you can examine it with your senses: see it, feel it, hear it, smell it or taste it. People remember concrete ideas and messages far better, because they are able to visualize them with their senses.

Make your messages concrete

What could you do to make your messages more concrete? Here are a few ideas:

  • Retell a Bible story in your own words and use all five senses to describe it. It’s not only helps with great story telling, but it will make it easier for your students to picture the scene.
  • Make the applications of your message concrete. ‘Love your neighbor’ is pretty abstract for instance, as is ‘respect your parents’. But if you say ‘mow the neighbor’s lawn because her husband is in the hospital’ it has become concrete, just as ‘don’t make jokes about your dad’s unemployment’. Now the risk here is that by trying to make it concrete, you’ll end up focusing in rules instead of the relationship. Be aware of that pitfall and never forget to bring up the relationship first.
  • Relate your core message to the daily lives of your students, not necessarily in terms of applications, but how it is relevant to them. This is best done by using good examples in your sermon. Say you are teaching on the Biblical command to take care of the widows and the orphans for instance, that is a fairly abstract concept in our days.  But what if you told them about food banks and how they provide food for the poor, or about other charities with similar goals. Show them pictures, tell them personal stories, make it real. Make it concrete.
  • Do a field trip. If you really want to make your message concrete, take your students out on a field trip and show them what you mean. If the topic is evolution vs creation for instance, take them to the zoo and show the creativity and diversity of God’s creation.
  • When you share the gospel to younger teens, using a comparison often works well. The abstract concept of substitutionary atonement can be explained for instance by sharing the well-known story (not a true one) of the judge who first condemned someone to life in prison and then stepped off, took his robe off and went to prison himself instead of the condemned man.
  • Use personal stories and testimonies. These are almost by default concrete (unless the testimony becomes a sermon in itself – as I’ve seen happen unfortunately). If you make sure these are well connected to your core message, they will really help make the sermon more concrete and drive the message home.
  • Use visual aids. I once talked about God’s holiness and how He could not come into contact with sin. I demonstrated that by setting a glass of clear water and a glass of red Kool Aid on a table, the first representing God, the second our sins. Even the tiniest amount of Kool Aid changed the color of the water. It was a visual demonstration of how holiness cannot touch sin, because it wouldn’t be holy anymore.

What else can you think of to make messages more concrete?

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Rachel Blom has been involved in youth ministry in different roles since 1999, both as a volunteer as on staff. She simply loves teens and students and can't imagine her life without them. In youth ministry, preaching and leadership are her two big passions. Her focus right now is providing daily practical training through www.YouthLeadersAcademy.com to help other youth leaders grow and serve better in youth ministry. She resides near Munich in the south of Germany with her husband and son. You can visit Rachel at www.YouthLeadersAcademy.com