Whether you’re in your first year as a youth pastor or your 20th, your communication skills can always improve.
I’ve lived by these nine principles of communication through every camp I’ve spoken at, every youth meeting I’ve preached in and every devotion I’ve shared and I believe they will help you become a better communicator as well.
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Preparing Your Students
Before your event starts, it has begunPriya Parker
Priya Parker is a master at giving purpose to her gatherings and her point here was a “highlight this immediately” moment as I read her book The Art of Gathering.
Her point is, the minute you share that there is a gathering/meeting your audience has already begun to imagine it. The question is: What have you been giving your students to imagine?
I see many youth pastor emphasizing the game night or the activity they will have, and there is nothing wrong with that, but how often do you, as Priya says, “prime your guests” for the message you are going to share?
I know what some of you might be thinking, “Kids don’t care what I’m going to talk about, they only care about the games” Not true. If you are sharing the gospel and principles of Christian living, they do care if that is the purpose of your meeting.
If kids show up and have no idea what you are going to talk about, they have to jump in quickly. If you prepare them with social media posts like “Five Ways To Find The Best Friends” or “3 Things Jesus Did That You Won’t Believe”, that gets your students minds turning and they become more interested in the content you’re going to present.
Tip: Use part of your meeting to announce the topic or title of what you’ll be talking about the following week and then follow up with key posts and graphics to stir the imaginations of your students.
Using Volume to Grab Attention
Some preachers have only one volume, loud. Being the loudest or the most excited does not make you a great communicator.
When I’m in a small room, I don’t use a microphone, I have a big enough mouth to project. Use a microphone when you are in a large setting or if you feel you’re audience will not hear you.
I change volume often during a message. Changing volume and tone changes the importance of the point I’m trying to make. When I’m telling a story, depending whether it is funny or serious, I make sure my tone matches.
If you keep the same volume throughout your message, every thing is important or nothing is important. When I try to get kids attention, I don’t yell, I whisper because they expected me to yell. Whispering catches their attention.
If Gandalf, from the Lord of Rings movie, had whispered, “You shall not pass” how effective would that have been in communicating the scene? Would you have leaned in or checked out? Most likely the latter.
Tip: If you type up your notes, make the points that are most important in bold and make every thing else in italics. Get louder at the bold parts and softer on the italics.
Changing your volume allows you to share a more engaging story and allows your listeners to keep up with the main stuff they should walk away with.
Using Your Space To Your Advantage
One thing I can never do is stand behind a pulpit or a music stand for very long. I love to move around. I know that some of you feel very comfortable, even hiding, behind something to speak, but don’t do it if you want to communicate well.
What is the downside of standing behind a structure to speak, it walls off your connection with your audience. It says, “you can’t reach me” and conversely, you can’t your audience.
Space is your friend, if you use it wisely. If I have a large space, I like to fill it with an Illustration like the time I drove a car into a chapel service,
and recently I used a canoe to share the time Peter walked on the water. In the latter, I used kids to act out the scene. Using your audience as props fills up the space, for a moment, and gives the audience a visual of your message as well as something to engage with.
I love to walk around when I talk. I love to give kids fist bumps or ask them a question that has to do with my message. Being personable is a great way to use your space.
Whether you have a small space or large space it’s all your space when you’re speaking, so use it well.
Being Relevant vs Being Cultural
Appropriate to the current time, period, or circumstances; of contemporary interest.US Dictionary, Lexico
Relevancy is not about being super cool because you know who A$AP Ferg is or who Billie Eilish is. Relevancy in a sermon or talk should be relative to a students life, not just their cultural likes.
Using a a movie clip or sound byte has to connect with your audience. Too many times I’ve used something that only reached a segment of my audience because I assumed everyone knew the artist or the movie. It was true of my kids and it’s true of yours.
When there were only x amount of channels on the tv, you either watched the MTV awards or you didn’t. You could only watch it on tv. With what seems like endless channels and platforms to consume knowledge on, you can’t assume your kids have seen it or connect with it.
If you’re going to use some type of media, make sure you introduce it and even ask, “Have you guys heard about this?” . I do this for news stories because most kids do not watch the news.
Some of the best ways to be relevant are through personal stories. Stories strike at the heart of human issues the way a movie clip, with no context, does not.
Jesus used stories and parables all the time and if they were good enough for him….well….
Have You Applied The Text?
This section is personal, it’s meant to be uncomfortable, because I know I have done it. Think of the last message you preached, how much of the principles of that passage have you practiced or applied to your own life?
It’s easy to teach a passage without any real connection or application to your own life. Not to integrate the text, in some way, into your life can have you feeling like a hypocrite and will only diminish the impact of your sermon or talk.
I love practicing Lent because I write every day, on Facebook mostly, about what I’m going without, what I’m replacing it with along with some spiritual truth or scripture to go along with my journey of discovery.
You could do the same. Make a challenge for yourself. Try doing a Discovery Series. Take the challenge several months before the series you are to speak on, say Mark 16:15
He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.Mark 16:15
Week one: I am going to personally share the gospel with one person a day.
Week two: I am going to share the gospel on Instagram/SnapChat, etc. every day.
Week three: I am going to go live on a platform and answer questions about my faith
Once you’ve completed the 21 days of discovery, you have more than enough stories to share about your experience with Mark 16:15 and your students will see you practicing it.
In addition, you can share about what was the hardest/easiest part of sharing your faith as well as your successes and “failures” or mistakes. Which was easier to share your faith, in person or online?
Find ways to integrate the principle of the text into your life and not only will you grow your own faith but the faith of those whom you share your experiences with.
Organizing Your Notes
I don’t use notes anymore. I used to have pages and pages of printed notes that served only to show people how hard I studied or researched, but eventually, the notes became a hinderance rather than a help.
Have you notes every spilled your notes on the floor and it became a distraction?
I don’t know where I heard this, but, and it’s a paraphrase,
If you have to use notes, you’re not deep into what you’re speaking on.Anonymous
I’m not against physical notes, but I use slides. Slides have the big points I want to get across and I fill in the gaps with mental preparation. You do you. If you need physical notes, use them. Instead of pages of notes, use index cards so you can cut out wordiness. Your audience wants authenticity regardless of what kind of notes you use, whether it’s Evernote off your phone or Slides.
Don’t let your notes, or cleverness in using them, take away from what you are really wanting to say.
Connecting With Students
Earlier you heard me mentioning using kids in a sermon illustration. That’s one way to connect with students. I like to make teens feel a part of the message rather than passive observers. I believe, when teens are involved, it helps them remember what I’m saying.
But connecting with students isn’t just about illustrations or participation, it’s about emotional connection. How do you know if a kid is picking up what you’re laying down? Here are a few ways to connect
- Asking Questions: How many of you can relate?
- Stories: Stories of when you were a kid as it relates to the message
- Testimony: Let students share their journey as part of your message
- Take a poll: After service, on Instagram ask: What did you take away from tonight? Or, which of my points helped you the most?
- Conversation: Put three questions on the screen two fun and one that has something to do with your message and tell your students to talk with three other students about them. You can one of the people they ask.
Communicating information is only one part of your job. Too many times I asked someone, “How did I do?” versus asking “Did I connect?” Speaking can be a narcissistic practice when it should be 15-20 minutes of empathy, listening and making sure our audience is connecting with God and the scriptures.
Signs of connection
- Less kids on their phones
- Eye contact
- Participating in the opportunities you give them
- Can remember one actionable point
- Posts something about your message
- They ask questions
- They apply something you said to their own lives
So what if a student can’t remember your whole message, that’s not the point. The point of speaking or preaching, in my opinion, is not that that they remember everything I said, but what God revealed to them.
If I can have a small part, through my message, to allow God to reveal himself to a student, then I have done my job and so have you.
A Question of Balance
What exactly am I asking you to balance? In terms of your communication, I am asking you to balance scripture and you. How much of the message was you being funny and how much of the message was scripture. You don’t need to be funny, but humor helps connect with your audience. Scripture is important, but too much of it and your kids check out.
I love speaking at camp because I have a practice of asking kids at dinner time to read scripture for me at chapel. There has been arguing and begging between campers to read that night. I usually only have seven verses to read.
These verses may all come from one story or they may all be different.
Tip: In doing this I make sure Scripture takes center stage. I usually have the scripture on the screen in case the teen is a quiet reader.
When I share about myself, I don’t go on about my hot wife (even though she is) or about my ministry or anything like that (that’s just filler to me), what I do try to share is pieces of my life as they relate to my message.
I recently spoke about a friend of mine who I went to camp with and how each of us made different decisions while were at camp. It just so happened I was having dinner with this friend and he had pictures of us as kids
This gave my audience a glimpse into who I was, in context of being a teenage and camper and who I was today because of Jesus.
To be balanced, just make sure there is more scripture than you because neither you or me can change anyone.
What Was Your Wow! Factor?
I’ve already mentioned driving a car into the chapel at camp, but you don’t have to do that to have a Wow! factor.
A Wow! factor is surprising and delightful and sometimes a little weird.
A Wow! factor is something students wouldn’t get at home if they were watching you on a screen.
A Wow! factor is an opportunity you create for students to move into the heart of God and vice versus.
I’ve used a lot of Wow! factors over my 30 years of speaking from drilling holes in a Bible to prayer stations. I’ve worn costumes and I’ve set up tents in the middle of the youth room. All of this was to make a memory that connects the Wow! with the gospel.
If you want your kids to remember that meeting or that service, add a little Wow! to it.
If you’d like to have all these tips on one sheet, that I call The Preachers Scorecard, just subscribe to my youth ministry newsletter and download your scorecard now.