Three top tools for encouraging discussion and engagement with young people
Encouraging young people to engage in life affirming, and life changing discussions isn’t always easy. At RaiseUP it is our firm belief that young people can’t own answers to questions they’re not yet engaging with, and so finding ways to start conversations is really important.
We caught up with youth and kids minister extraordinaire, and all round good bloke Ali Campbell, to give us his top tips on encouraging discussion, just like Jesus.
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Jesus had a youth group, we call them the disciples. It is quite likely that this little band were in their teens/early twenties. Jesus had a great way of getting them to talk, discuss and engage with what he was doing. He asked them questions.
Give a read of Mark Chapter 8. In this chapter Jesus asks 15 questions. Fifteen. Just in this chapter! Not all are directed at the disciples, some are rhetorical, but Jesus soaks the disciples in an environment where it is good to ask questions, he gives them permission and encourages them to explore their own questions. So often in teaching we can present the answers, or – even if we ask a question – WE have the answer ready to go.
Are we genuinely listening to what our young people say?
Towards the end of Mark Chapter 8 Jesus 'questioned the disciples'. He says this, 'Who do people say I am?' It’s a great opener. They don’t have to think (yet) about what their answer to this question is, they just need to have been listening to the discussion and conversation going on around them. Earlier in the chapter Jesus has feed a whole bunch of people with just seven loaves (with seven baskets left over)... Imagine what comments were buzzing round the crowd!
So, the disciples come back with some answers: John the Baptist, one of the prophets, Elijah...
Jesus then homes in on what is most important – What about you? Who do you say I am?
This is such an important place to get to in our ministry with young people. We can ease them in gently with questions that open up discussion and debate: What do others say?
What is going on at School? Where is good stuff happening? Likes, dislikes, favourite films, what are you watching on Netflix?
But, this question 'What do you think?' is both challenging and empowering at the same time. In how many spaces are young people asked what they think where there is genuine interest in their own thought? Most often – in school, study and other spaces of learning – questions are used to try an illicit the 'right' answers.
Question the Bible (Swedish Bible Method) - Try using the Swedish Bible Method as a way to do this.
Vote on it - Brainstorm with the young people what topics they are most interested in covering, then vote on which ones to tackle and explore together. Where the young people feel they have participated in decisions about what to explore, there is more likely to be lively engagement.
Let them lead - This takes a bit of discernment, but consider your youth group. There are some young people who just stand out, when you have had group discussions or conversations before they are listened to by their peers, they have insightful things to say. Give them a passage and ask them to lead a short devotion on it; encourage them to ask of the others that great Jesus question, 'What do you think?'
Ursula Le Guin, the late great SCIFI author once said, 'There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.' And John Westerhoff, theologian and academic, says, 'We are a story formed people'. The author of life himself, Jesus, was fantastic at telling stories – stories to illustrate his teaching, stories to illuminate truth, stories where the listener had to work hard to understand - but every time, stories that drew in his audience and took them on a journey. This was often one where they would find themselves identifying with one of the characters. (Think of the prodigal son – who do we consider ourselves to be? The wayward son? the disgruntled and angry older brother? The loving, grace filled Father?)
The true story of the tragic murder of George Floyd galvanised many to do more to tackle racism; the unfolding story of climate change continues to ask questions of what we value and prioritise as a society. The young people in your youth groups see and hear and respond to stories that connect with who they want to be, the way they imagine the world should be and the way they believe the church should respond.
When it comes to our conversations and the engagement of young people, what is it that connects with them the most? The thing is, what connects with them most is probably unique to your group, your bunch of young people, the context they are living in, the relationships they value, the people they love and trust who speak in to their lives. So, if you struggle to answer that question, get to know your young people better, looks for chances to hang out more – not to deliver a programme, but to build meaningful and life giving relationships.
Whether we do that or not tells the young people a story. So here is the critical question for us as leaders, 'What story are we living and telling'?
Make it personal - Share something of your own life. Be real with the young people you are engaging with. Identify with the topic you are exploring together. For example, if talking about the parables in Luke 15 (e.g. the lost sheep, lost coin, lost son) share about something you have lost (or thought you had lost). It doesn’t need to be a big dramatic life changing event. You’ve lost your keys or your phone, searched all over the place until you found it... Just give something of yourself as you tell the story and help the young people see that we can all identify with 'lostness' – do something similar when you tell a story, whatever the topic.
Make connections - What cultural connections can you make that links a God story with a film, a book, a TV series, social media, a sporting event, a national news story?
Let them do some work - Jesus often left some work to do for his listeners – he didn’t create a straight path from 'here is life’s big question' to 'DA DA! I’ve worked it all out for you!' He encouraged others to do some work, make some changes, count the cost, consider things from a different angle. Jesus was posed a question, 'Who is my neighbour?' Jesus answers with a story and when he finishes, he pushes the question back saying, 'Which of these do you think was a neighbour?' (Check out Luke 10 for the story of the Good Samaritan.) The person who’d asked Jesus the question then splutters, 'The one who had mercy on him.' He can’t bring himself to say 'the Samaritan'. Jews and Samaritans didn’t get on, they hated each other, so this Jewish religious leader had to go and do some work – not just on his attitude, but also his actions! Jesus finishes with, 'Go and do the same.' Which brings us to the final thought: what is the point of discussions and engagement?
Ultimately, we ourselves – and the young people we serve – want to become more like Jesus. That doesn’t just come from discussion and chat about the things that Jesus said and did. It should shift us to consider, well, what should we DO then? How should we live in the light of what we are discovering about Jesus?
To truly engage with young people, we need to do stuff with them. We need to invite them to discover meaning and purpose in living like Jesus – in thought, word and yes – even our deeds. This is where engagement comes alive!
Following Jesus as an early disciple meant doing the things that Jesus did, not just listening to his words or learning more about him, but learning to be like him.
We are going to think here briefly about praying, eating and going. When we talk to young people about prayer, how much of our time is spent doing just that – talking 'about' prayer rather than actually praying?
When we have food as part of our youth activity, how much more engaged are young people? How much more relaxed and open do they become whilst munching on pizza or standing around the tuck shop?
When we are in the mini-bus on our way to a weekend activity or just heading off for an evening of bowling, how many great conversations happen on the journey that we haven’t planned for, haven’t expected?
We can plan a great discussion time as part of a regular youth group activity but it is so often in the spaces where we aren’t leading, hosting or running something – but are just with young people – that great stuff can happen.
Pray Together - Sometimes 'praying together' can feel like we need to have a 'holy moment' in order to do it well. It’s a bit like the epilogue at the end of a youth games night – Right, you’ve had your fun, now it’s time to pray. What on earth are we communicating if we do that? So, when I say pray together, I mean, whenever it is needed. Just take a moment, there and then, and pray. What you want the young people to see is that you 'do' the stuff you say is important. You teach about prayer, but they also see you praying. Jesus does this so well – he’s just getting on with his prayer life, but remember, being a disciple of Jesus meant hanging out with him all the time, so the disciples see him at prayer... After a while they say, 'Jesus, teach us to pray.' Not just because he is their 'Rabbi', their teacher, but because they see Jesus doing it.
Eat Together - Nothing brings young people together like food. It is amazing to me that at one of Jesus’ resurrection appearances we basically have Jesus hosting a BBQ on the beach for his mates. I would have thought he’d have the flip chart our with his three bold objectives for reaching Jerusalem, Judea and the Ends of the Earth with the Gospel but no.
Just being together was important, reconnecting. These were Jesus’ friends not just a means to an end. He cared about them for who they were, he wanted a relaxed context in which to have a challenging conversation with Peter; he wanted to remind them he was the same Jesus the other side of death.
Food and meals played such a crucial role in Jesus’ earthly ministry – whether that was the first miracle at the wedding feast, the last supper or a fish breakfast on the beach.
Do we cultivate a relaxed environment where we 'break bread' together with our young people just as part of doing life together?
Go Together - Finally, we go together. We go out, in to the world together. We engage with and live in the same world the young people do. Sometimes though, I think they can have the impression we 'live' in the church building or – sadly – that is the only context they see us and know us. What if we turned up at their football matches to cheer them on? What if when we get invited to speak somewhere, we talk a couple of our young people with us? What if when we are leading something, we ask one of them to share their testimony? What if when we have done something together, we ask our young people, 'What do you think? How do you think that went?'
In many of our churches, liturgy on a Sunday morning might finish with these words,
'Send us out, to live and work to your praise and glory'.
We can have fantastic discussions in the youth group, great engagement in our sessions – but the rubber hits the road when we are 'sent out'. Let’s make sure we go 'together' with our young people – we don’t leave them to flounder, but go with them in to the challenges each week holds – and live our lives alongside them, participating together, sharing stories and doing the stuff that Jesus did.
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