Beyond Comprehension: The Pursuit of Clearer Communication in Youth Ministry

October 1st, 2009

Any youth worker who’s been in ministry for more than five or six minutes knows that things don’t always go as planned—the VCR jams, the overhead lamp burns out, the guitar strings break, the drama kids don’t show, volunteers flake out…the list goes on and on.

When these small catastrophes occur, a good leader will draw on his or her arsenal of plan B activities. I like to call these “backfire games”—the easy, on-the-spot solutions to the inevitable backfires of student and volunteer-based programming. One of my favorite backfire games is called “Telephone.” This well-known game involves lining up students and leaders and whispering a phrase to the person at the front of the line. The phrase is then passed on until it reaches the end where it’s proclaimed for the whole group. The guaranteed result is that somewhere along the line, someone will misinterpret what was said and pass along an altered version of the original phrase. This pattern repeats itself until the message only faintly resembles its original form. You start with “Jesus Loves You” and you end up with “Feces Tofu.”

It’s a fun game, but it also serves as a powerful illustration of how easily and quickly our communication can become distorted. Sometimes the message we intend to communicate isn’t what’s heard.

Communication is a youth worker’s primary responsibility. We communicate to students and leaders, to parents and church staff. We communicate in large groups and small groups, with our words and our actions, and in our flyers and our bulletins. Nearly every aspect of ministry involves communication. Our purposes may be determined, our programs developed, and our principles defined, but we must communicate what that purpose is, where and when those programs are, and how the principles apply. Communication is central to a healthy youth ministry.

Typically, the concept of communication is reduced to the dissemination of pertinent information to an audience. But truly effective communication is far more than that. It’s much more involved than an efficient transmission of words and ideas to potential receptors. Powerful and evocative communication is relational; it involves an exchange and interaction; it allows for discovery; it resonates because it’s rooted in truth; it stirs hope and inspires change.

As those God has called and inspired to work with students, we should continually seek to improve the ways in which we communicate. A good leader will constantly explore and experiment with new modes and methods of expression. Continuing to develop our communication abilities is critical.

In order to improve our communication, let’s establish a clear definition of the basic components. Simplistically, communication is comprised of a message, a medium, and an audience. The message is the central truth, concept, or idea. The medium is the manner or vehicle in which the message is conveyed. A medium could be a verbal speech, a written letter, or a printed flyer. The audience is composed of the intended recipients of the message.

Knowing Our Message

Throughout our ministries we’ll have several messages—our statements of purpose, a particular sermon, specific aspects of leadership training—but all of these messages are rooted in one central message. As youth workers, and even more fundamentally as Christians, our central message is found solely in God. God is appropriately described as “The Word” (John 1:1). Our God is the message—the Word—the divine expression of unconditional love that has the power to transform the worst to the best. This central message must also be central in our lives. If we’re to communicate the message of God, we must know the message of God.

A general knowledge of this message won’t suffice. We must enter into a deep and intimate knowledge of the one who calls us in order to move beyond comprehension and into communion. This message won’t be scaled down to bumper-sticker understanding. It must be pursued recklessly and followed passionately. It demands to be pondered; it commands consideration. To know the message is to love and be intimately involved with God.

Often it’s difficult to commune with God in this way, especially when this relationship is wrapped up in our vocations. During my first week on staff at Saddleback Church, I was asked to pick up some ice and drink cups for an end-of-summer party at the beach. I left some time at the end of the day but got called into a meeting as I was leaving. The meeting, of course, went long. I ran to my car, peeled out of the office parking lot and sped to the nearest convenience store…which happened to be fresh out of ice. What kind of a convenience store has no ice in August? On my way out of the store, I seriously considered a Dukes of Hazard-style car re-entry. The drugstore across the street had ice and cups, and soon, I was back on the road. As I mentally Map-Quested the quickest route to the beach, I couldn’t help envisioning thirsty humans fuming at me as they sipped their warm sodas. At this point I was ridiculously late and had already broken several statutes of my recently-agreed-to Church Staff Guidelines—including speeding and swearing—and I can only assume that when I shouted, “More like an inconvenience store!” in the parking lot that I violated some rule. Finally, I skidded into the beach parking lot grabbed a bag of ice in each arm, and dashed for the barbeque pit. Out of breath, I proclaimed, “I have ice!” No one cared. One leader said, “Oh. Cool. We’ve just been drinking out of the cans. Dude, Joey just chugged a Coke and smashed the can on his forehead. It was awesome!”

Sometimes our goals and responsibilities aren’t as important as we think they are. When we assume that our work for God is more important than our time with God, we devalue and diminish both, and our communion is reduced to comprehension. In a youth ministry schedule, there’s always more to do, opportunities to serve, tasks, and responsibilities. But we need to do whatever it takes to cultivate our love-affair with God.

Knowing Our Media

A message requires a medium in order to reach an audience. Typically, any given message will have several media. For example, a sermon you deliver might utilize your words; your visual appearance; whatever symbols, physical aids, or examples you incorporate; stories and illustrations you share; and the actual room that you’re in. All can be employed to convey your message. Media allow access to the message, but the media themselves are limited. They must serve the message, or else we communicate a reduced, distorted, and irrelevant message.

One of the most formidable dangers in ministry is the inability to differentiate our message from the medium—to distinguish the truth from the manner in which it’s conveyed. The media we use to communicate our message will inherently take on qualities of the message that they represent. Media critic Marshall McLuhan refers to this inherent relationship in his statement, “The medium is the message.” Our nature is to become attached to the media—our programs, styles, and traditions. We become comfortable, defined, and understood. However, if our commitment to these media supersedes our commitment to the message of God, we’ve reduced our message and, in effect, are misrepresenting God.

With an understanding of this fundamental difference—when we comprehend the true power and quality of our message and the inherent limitations of our media—we gain a sense of freedom to utilize new media. We recognize a responsibility to experiment with different methods of communicating the Gospel in a relevant and accessible manner.

Show and Tell: Verbal vs. Visual

One way to enhance communication is by valuing visual expression. As an artist, I’ve always been inspired by visual communication. Most people profess to be visual learners as well. Visually oriented communication can be a powerful and influential form of articulation.

Historically, a majority of the great works of art were commissioned by the church and functioned as representations of the beauty and glory of God. Recently, the church has adopted the view of many other pragmatic institutions that art and visual communication are impractical. Creative expression is understood as a bonus, a functionless adornment. And as a result, our church halls are hung with the quilting ministry’s latest masterpiece or the praying hands carpet-collage.

If we were to attribute the same value to visual expression as the early church, we’d be aware of an effective medium for meaningful communication. Never before have so many tools been available for us to creatively utilize. Color graphic reproduction is becoming increasingly convenient and cost effective. Professional imaging and layout software continues to improve and be more available. Media projection devices are more and more common. One of the many visual channels available is PowerPoint, which has become a standard. With a program like PowerPoint, we can easily incorporate photos, graphics, text, and other illustrations to enhance the experience of a message.

I currently serve as the creative director for Simply Youth Ministry. I love working alongside my friend and former youth pastor, Doug Fields, developing and designing tools to simplify ministry and save youth workers time. We’ve recently created several media resources that utilize PowerPoint and are intentionally designed to engage students visually.

The need for good visual communication also provides opportunities for ministry. You might be the first one to admit that you don’t have a creative bone in your body. That’s fine. There are people in your congregation and community who have artistic abilities and would love the opportunity to serve God with their gifts. You might have talented teenagers in your ministry who might be interested in serving in this way. It could possibly be a completely student-led ministry. (Although you might want to get an adult involved so that you’re not surprised when the students unveil their contributions to your message on David and Bathsheba).

For every message series at our church, we try to create a distinct look and feel. We’ve used PowerPoint, photographs, artwork, flyers, and bulletins. Everything has a consistent graphic theme which functions as a visual reinforcement. Thus we can significantly increase students’ interest and retention. When we value the visual experience of our audience and take steps to incorporate creative media to convey our message, we make an impact on students that goes beyond verbal comprehension.

Native Tongue: Now vs. Then

We live in a continually evolving culture. One of the driving forces in this movement is technological advancement. At what seems like lightning speed, new technology is developed and subsequently changes the way we live. Computers have changed the way we work, the Internet has changed the way we receive information, and e-mail has changed the way we interact with each other. This generation of students has grown up in a digitally dominated culture. They’re technology natives.

As youth workers, it’s our responsibility to learn the native tongue of the students God has entrusted to us. We must become fluent in the technology with which our students are familiar.

A good example is e-mail, which offers a fast, relatively simple means to consistently provide detailed information to multiple groups of people. E-mail is a great medium for data dispersal, whether it’s keeping leaders and parents up to date or getting information to students. But there are drawbacks. First, you can never be sure that the messages you’re sending are being received. Most students will have changed their screen names before you get home from Bible study. SportyGirl1990 this week will be PunkChickRockerX next week. Students might be technology natives-but the natives are restless. E-mail often communicates a very impersonal message. If the only way we’re communicating with students is through general group e-mails, something is wrong. E-mail is a powerful tool, but it has a limited capacity to facilitate the type of intimate and personal communication we need in our ministries and should never replace an occasional visit, phone call, or personal letter.

Another developing technological medium is instant messaging. IM allows you to exchange messages directly with others in real time. You can subscribe for a free AOL Instant Message account (even if you’re not an AOL user) at aim.com. Most of the teenagers I’ve worked with spend considerable time using IM. But, like e-mail, this forum can’t replace real, face-to-face interaction. However, instant messaging provides a certain sense of anonymity for both students and leaders. A seemingly unapproachable student might be more receptive to communication through this channel. I’ve often felt more comfortable asking certain students, “What did you think of the message tonight?” online than I would’ve in person. Many of our leaders have shared that they’ve been able to facilitate meaningful conversations and even challenge students spiritually during online chats. In the same way, this anonymity often provides a safe forum for students to open up and share feelings, struggles, and questions with honesty and authenticity.

Knowing Our Audience

Utilizing new media and engaging students visually are important components of authentic and inspiring communication. It’s also imperative that we’re able to identify the advantages and limitations of our media and distinguish our media from our message. We must also truly know our audience. More and more, it’s important to simply be living in and with the communities to which we minister, to move beyond simple awareness of those around us and into true community. For all of the tools at our disposal—the backgrounds and bulletins, the sermons and surroundings, the verbal and visual—the way in which we live out our lives will ultimately be the strongest message we communicate. Our daily coming-and-going and those things we often consider least significant will be remembered by those around us. They’ll be woven together to form a part of the larger message of the living and unconditionally loving God.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.