The process of making disciples is not passive. It is active. We should never ask our students to sit complacently in a chair for thirty minutes or more and absorb while we, as leaders, wax eloquently from the stage. Learning is about engagement. Therefore discipleship has to be about participation as well.
At first, I thought it to be a fault when I spoke in church settings. I somehow always default to being a teacher—asking questions, calling on students, looking for constant interaction. Large portions of a teacher’s lesson plans are contingent on student interaction. Just by default, I find myself doing the same thing when speaking at church events and retreats. But over the last year or so, I stopped thinking of it as a fault—because students were paying more attention.
Less Lecture, More Conversation
We have so much to share. So much that we feel we need to communicate with students. And so little time to do it in. We have them once (maybe twice) a week, for just a couple of hours. So we often feel compelled to use that time as wisely as possible. Which for many of us, translates into lecturing. Well, we call them lessons or sermons. But let’s be real, we are lecturing. Yet lecturing is the least efficient way of creating a learning environment.
But what if we talked less? What if we asked more questions?
Rather than lecturing at them, try engaging students in a group conversation. It takes a while to get students use to it and for them to feel comfortable in engaging you in the middle of a talk. It took me an entire weekend retreat to convince students they could ask questions or seek clarification while I was talking. But it took just one student to be daring enough. My final talk went over by twenty minutes because of the increased level of engagement from students. You will love it once a student stops you to ask for clarification on a point you just made.
Hold Them Accountable for Listening
Don’t just teach and assume they got it. Find ways to hold them accountable for the information. This, of course, will differ based on the unique dynamics of your group. However, here are a few examples that have worked for me.
Incorporate content into games and other activities. It is as simple as blurring the line between fun and learning. Teachers do this kind of thing all the time. Don’t force it or make it corny, but brainstorm ways with your leadership team on how you can reinforce what you want students to learn, with the usual craziness of youth group meetings.
Good old-fashioned incentives. If you gave students a clear directive or challenge in your latest sermon, offer an incentive to complete the challenge and report back. For example, instead of giving away a Starbucks gift card, I would have students write down their favorite drink. So when I issued the challenge, the first one or two that reported back to me via email or text would have their favorite drink waiting for them at the next meeting or class. Such a gesture not only helps to create the incentive, but it builds better relationships and stronger communities. Besides, it makes the rest of the group jealous and over time students will grow spiritually without even realizing it.
Unleash creative potential. In any number of ways have your students express what they have learned from the past week creatively. Then allow them to perform, act out, or display that creativity.
Keep Students on Their Toes
Stop at some point and literally ask questions. The rule of thumb that I learned in seminary was every minute of preaching was equal to one hour of study. So much time, study, preparation, and practice went into my first sermons and lessons that I rarely felt comfortable being interrupted by questions or worse, the need to provide clarity to a confused listener. While I agree with my seminary training on prep time, I also build into that prep time precisely crafted questions to ask my audience. It might only be one or two, but the intention is to get an answer.
Now I know what you are thinking. What if no one answers it? It will happen, I guarantee it. It is here that you have to make the conscious decision to either allow for and enjoy the seemingly endless awkward silence looming in the air after you ask your perfectly crafted questions. Or to do one of my favorite things—to come down from the stage, walk into the audience and pick a person and ask them your questions directly.
You have to be careful here, not embarrass them or make them feel stupid. That defeats the whole purpose. Be gracious and kind. The point is not to get them to answer the question. The point is to keep your students on their toes. If they answer, thank them for their insight. If it is not correct, build off of it to get back to your point. This will send the message to your students that they contributed to your talk.
Asking questions of your students during a talk will help foster active listening and engagement rather than just passively taking up space in the room.
These are just a few ideas that I have found work given enough time and creativity. Don’t be afraid to try new approaches, ideas, and tricks. Talk with some of the local teachers in your community. See what is working with students and what isn’t. How is technology playing a role? Additionally, pay attention to the dynamics of your group. The blend of personalities makes a difference in how you approach increasing engagement and interaction.
Have fun with it. Don’t worry if something doesn’t work. Create a list of what worked and what didn’t. Modify and hone in on what worked and ditch what didn’t. Give it time. Your students will respond.
See what else CE National does to encourage, coach, and empower students. Dig In: Tips on Communicating Christ in a Post-Christian CultureHelp! I Prepared for 20 Students, but Only 5 Showed Up!