One major mistake many speakers in youth ministry make, is that they focus on the content of their youth talks too much. They forget that youth won’t listen to you until they have decided you are worth listening to. And for teens to accept you as someone who is real and trustworthy, they have to see you as someone they have something in common with.
What you need is bonding. The good news is that bonding with teens is easy. The bad news is that it’s incredibly hard.
Let’s get to the bad news first: to truly connect with teens in a way that will make them open their hearts and minds to what you have to say, you have to get real. They want to see the real you, not the mask you’d often prefer them to see.
Being real requires a massive amount of vulnerability however, and there’s risk involved. You’re exposing a part of yourself, leaving yourself wide open to criticism and possible rejection.
Sometimes I see people trying to avoid the deeper risks by sharing only a sliver of their story. They’ll say they had a ‘rebellious puberty’ for instance. Or that they ‘ran into trouble as a teen’. Yet those descriptions are way too vague to connect with the listeners on an emotional level.
Even when speakers share a bit more, they tend to merely mention something, instead of sharing the story. They’ll say they ‘started drinking’ or ‘were arrested for shoplifting’. Those are merely cold hard facts however. It’s telling, not showing.
Bonding requires both vulnerability and story.
Now for the good news: bonding is easy once you utilize the power of story. All you need to do, is share something relevant to your topic from your own life in the form of a story. All you need to do is show (not tell) that you’re real.
Don’t talk in broad, general descriptions. Make it specific and real with details. Use your senses (How did it feel, smell, taste? What did you see, hear?) Don’t try and share your entire life story. Share little bits of your experiences, one story at a time.
In a youth talk on God’s perfect love, I shared the story of my first heartbreak and how my best friend betrayed me to the boy I was dating. I showed pictures from back then and told them how we had met and how madly in love I had been—only to be devastated when he believed my best friend’s word over mine. The teens and I bonded over heartbreak and betrayal, emotions they’re all too familiar with.
In a conversation with a few students, I talked about how I got bullied in high school for being overweight—and how that made me feel. Again, I made it concrete with examples, like how these two guys in my class would pretend the ground was shaking every time I walked by. It made some girls open up about their experiences in getting bullied.
In another talk, I shared how my dad got laid off when I was in middle school, resulting in severe financial troubles for my family. I told them how I often wore hand-me-downs and started working when I was 14 to earn some much-needed extra cash. I shared my frustration and my shame. It connected deeply with the students, because many of them know what a lack of money looks like.
And what’s most interesting is this: all of these examples happened in the last few weeks in a ministry I’ve just started to volunteer in. These are students who don’t me at all, yet we’re already bonding over shared emotions and life experiences. Because of that, they’re opening up to me, sharing their struggles—and asking me questions about my faith. My talks to them are way more effective because we’ve connected on an emotional level.
Bonding. It’s the easiest and the hardest thing to do, but so worth it.
(p.s. Learn more about the incredible power of story in my brand new book Storify: Speaking to Post-Christians Teens)