The Problem With Youth Talks

Almost everybody in youth ministry uses youth talks as their primary teaching strategy, but do they actually work? Even though the “sermon” is the quintessential cross-denominational ministry practice, and has been since Josh McDowell was in cloth diapers, I’ve never, ever published an article on youth talk ideas or strategies in my 23 years as editor of GROUP. Until now (see above).

Why would the world’s most-read youth ministry resource almost completely ignore the world’s most-used youth ministry teaching strategy?

Well there’s a mountain of research that discounts lecturing as an effective way to help people learn, especially young people. But that’s not all. Even if you’re a big believer in youth talks, you likely can’t point to a sermon or message that actually changed your life. Life-change is almost always the result of an experience followed by some kind of debriefing.

I could use my fingernail to drive a screw into a piece of wood (don’t laugh, I’ve tried), but I’d rather use something that’s more effective…like, say, a screwdriver. In theory, almost all youth workers agree. When we surveyed them about the most effective methods for teaching kids spiritual truths, “youth talks or messages” ranked dead last in a list of six strategies—only 5 percent made sermons their top choice. Even so, we know from our own ongoing research that the overwhelming majority (70 percent) of youth leaders include the fingernail-like youth talk as one element of a typical youth group meeting.

So the reason you’ve never seen a GROUP article on youth talks before now is simple: Though they’re popular, they’re not all that effective and I’m a very stubborn person (ask my wife). Well, I’ve recently discovered that stubbornness isn’t a spiritual gift or even a fruit of the Spirit. So I decided that Jeremy Steele’s advice was well worth sharing in the pages of GROUP. But here’s my caveat: I believe there’s a much better way to engage teenagers than by lecturing to them. So I thought I’d share with you the “marching orders” I give all our speakers and presenters at our Simply Youth Ministry Conference (—these are my expectations for how they will craft their training times at the event…

Getting R.E.A.L. at SYMC

(Or a Friendly, Neighborhood Cannon Shot from Rick Lawrence)

Over the years some of Group’s critics have labeled us “cheesy” and “gimmicky”—not really compliments, as far as I can tell. And maybe one reason why we’ve sometimes attracted that kind of criticism is that it’s, well, true. It’s true because we’ve been trying to push the “learning envelope” for so long, in so many risky ways, that it’s inevitable that some of our “experiments” have blown up the beakers, so to speak. We believe that the popular lecture-based method is an ineffective tool for transforming lives. Transformation most often happens in experiential, conversational settings. That’s why we still believe in, and shamelessly promote, our “cheesy” acronym R.E.A.L. It stands for Relational, Experiential, Applicable, and Learner-based.

In a learning setting, the leader talks most of the time—no surprise there. Sometimes, a couple of discussion questions get tossed out, but they’re often a sidelight to what the speaker believes is “the real meat” of the presentation. But at our Simply Youth Ministry Conference, our goal is to make sure that in addition to “leader talk,” the participants get to talk, too. A lot. When you lead in this way, you’ll feel more like a ringmaster than a lecturer—more like a jazz musician (no sheet music) than a classical musician (sheet music).

I mean, you get to enjoy having a strong voice, surrounded by strong voices. You’ll offer crucial leadership in a context where many people participate and add to the content of the presentation. We ask all our presenters to stretch themselves in this way because, first, research and experience and the Bible show us that people learn best by doing. In fact, the people who learn the most in any class are the teachers—because they first need to ingest what they’re teaching before they teach it. So what happens when people get immersed in experiences and talk to each other (and you) about what they’re learning while they’re learning it? Well, real transformation takes place.

At Group we value and appreciate entertaining presentations as much as the next person, but we’re passionate about unforgettable, life-changing presentations. People can leave a presentation entertained but unchanged. That’s such an important truth that I have to say it again: People can leave a presentation entertained but unchanged. Our mission is to partner with God to do what He loves best—bring freedom and growth through transforming learning experiences.

The purpose of this little primer is simply to help you to “lean toward” these teaching values as far as you can. We understand you’re already experienced presenters with your own value system. All we ask is that you look for ways to bend your values, and your presentations, toward those we hold dear. That’s it. I’ll give you a little overview of our values, coupled with some simple ways to “bend” toward them.

R—Stands for Relational. It simply means people learn better, and retain more, when they’re learning in the context of a conversation instead of the context of a lecture. The easy way to do this is to ask more questions of the people you’re teaching, and get them talking to each other throughout your presentation. When you get people into pairs or trios or tables or flocks or…whatever, and you give them a great question to talk about, followed by feedback and debriefing, you’ve just helped them own what they’re learning.

The questions we’re aiming for, by the way, are those that actually serve as a catalyst for conversation—not questions that have a forgone answer, or those that merely serve to “set up” the speaker’s point, or those that require no thinking to answer. Our standard for great questions has three prongs: Surprising, Specific, and Personal. Surprising means the question requires engagement to answer. Specific means the question is clear and concise. Personal means that the question requires a personal response, not an esoteric exploration of an idea.

The Easy Fix: Take a look at your presentation and see if you can find at least two ways people can interact around your material. These interactions should be “legitimate”—I mean, you’re not giving them something to discuss, then immediately revealing the “right answer” after their discussion. Make it a conversation, where participants have genuine input.

E—Stands for Experiential. Every learning researcher agrees that experiences have way more power to teach than the merely written or spoken word (Thom and Joani Schultz have written two books on it—Why Nobody Learns Much of Anything at Church and The Dirt On Learning). When you involve people in “direct” experiences within the context of your presentation the chances of them never forgetting what you’re teaching go way, way up. A direct experience means involving people in something that engages all (or most) of their senses.

Full engagement is the goal. It could mean tasting something or building something or destroying something or risking something. It could mean taking away one sense to heighten the experience of the remaining senses. It could mean you ask them to “practice” what you just “preached.” In any case, the best direct experiences are simple, short, and memorable.

The Easy Fix: Is there a sensory experience, a project, a team challenge, or even a game that could serve as a “parable” to your teaching theme? Over the years I’ve learned something from Joani Schultz about leading people into learning experiences—“If you believe they’ll do it, they will.” So, when you think about your presentation, find one way to plunge people into some kind of an experience. And tell yourself you’re certain they’ll do whatever you tell them to do. Here’s a hint: storytelling is one mild way of plunging people into an experience—if the story is gripping, people enter into it as an experience. That’s why I almost always use film in the workshops and tracks that I lead.

A—Stands for Applicable. Learning loses its value the farther away it gets from practical life application. My least favorite (but often used) teaching strategy is when speakers pelt people with broad imperatives (“We all should be praying more”) that are divorced from the practical “hooks” that would help people take the first steps toward change and growth. You are the bridge between “what/why” and “how.” Applicable is determined by the people we’re leading, not by us. Lots of times we assume what we’re offering is applicable because it’s applicable to us. The question is: What’s applicable to the people I’m leading?

The Easy Fix: Here’s the filter I use—“If you tell people to do something, you’d better have a practical illustration, personal story, or accessible task to hook to it so they have light on the path you’re urging them to take.” One great way to combine the R and the A of R.E.A.L. is to use your conversation times to challenge people to apply what you’re teaching to their own environments, in partnership with others who can brainstorm with them.

L—Stands for Learner-Based. This simply means that the true judge of how much learning and transformation has been seeded by your presentation is the learner, not the speaker. That means the goal is not to deliver the stuff you’ve prepared and call it good—the goal is to make sure the learners “get it.” How will you know, for sure, that the people you’re presenting to have ingested what you’re teaching? Well, you already “own” your material—you’re inside of it so much that it’s part of your belief system. What would it take to lead the people you’re teaching into an “ownership” relationship with your material?

The Easy Fix: Look for ways you can release people to teach each other what you’re hoping they’ll learn. The idea is that as they learn something, they quickly transition into teaching someone else what they’ve learned. So, for example, if you form trios and send each person in each trio to one of three corners in your room to learn something together, then have them return to their trios to teach their partners what they just learned, you bring ownership into the learning process. Or you could simply ask participants to periodically summarize their “takeaway” as you move through your presentation.

Rick Lawrence is the longtime editor of GROUP Magazine and the author of Jesus-Centered Youth Ministry.

Previous articleReaching Intuitives with the Gospel
Next articleMore Than 90% of U.S. Believes in God

Get the ChurchLeaders Daily Sent to Your Inbox