It was my first Christmas as a youth minister, and we’d gathered the youth together for our “Christmas Special:” food, games, and a talk on the true message of Christmas. I was full of the energy and enthusiasm you’d hope for from someone new to the job. I’d worked hard to prepare my message and I was excited to deliver it. As I reached the climax of my talk, I looked out at the teens in front of me and saw… blank faces. A group of young people who at best looked confused, and at worst looked straight-up bored. Something had clearly gone wrong. But what?
Looking back now, there are a number of things I’d want to say to my younger self that night. I’d reassure him that sometimes teens get distracted and it’s not your fault. I’d challenge him to spend more time praying for God to be at work in the hearts of young people to give them a hunger for his word.
But I’d also want to gently point out a problem with the message itself: it was indigestible. It was too long, too complicated, and not focused enough.
I wanted to provide the young people I was ministering to with solid food, not the fast food of cheap grace or the sugar rush of a motivational pep talk. I wanted to give them the gospel in all of its richness.
In reality, I was piling up an overwhelming array of ideas and arguments and quotes and illustrations on top of each other. Like loading up their plates with some chicken and some ribs and some spaghetti bolognese and some greens and some soup and some cake and some fruit… all at the same time. Indigestible.
Now, there are lots of different reasons an inexperienced youth minister might struggle to teach in a way that builds up students. But for me, the heart of the problem was my heart.
I wanted to prove myself. So, I included a tricky theological concept in my message. Not because it was necessary, but to prove to myself and the other leaders that I had understood it.
I wanted to make my mark. So, I made sure to spend time on the particular aspect of a passage I felt was often neglected. Not because it would be helpful for those listening, but to make a point. My talk that night was fundamentally about me, not the teens who were listening. About my intelligence and theological nuance, not their growth or their good.
To minister the gospel to these students, I needed to take hold of that gospel for myself. The good news that I didn’t need to prove myself or make my mark because my value, worth, and significance was secure in Jesus Christ and his death on the cross for me.
If I understood this, I could stop making my ministry and my teaching about me and start making it about the students God had given me. Then and only then I could truly hear the call of Jesus: ‘feed my sheep’ (John 21:17).
That is the task God sets before us– to feed his people from his word. Allow me to offer a few tips on how to do that – and in particular how to make sure your message is digestible!
Work Hard in the Word. ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord’ (Deuteronomy 8:3). If we want to really feed our sheep, we need to pay attention to every word of a passage. We need to dedicate time and hard work to prayerfully discerning what God is saying, so that we are able to faithfully present God’s Word. This is what gives our teaching goodness and substance. Without this foundation, everything that follows will just be “polishing a turd,” as we say in England!
Find Your 10 Words. Early on in ministry, I often crammed too many different ideas into one talk, making my teaching confusing and hard to follow. One discipline I’ve found helpful is to write at the top of my talk draft one key idea in 10 words or less; something I long for young people to grasp, to be shaped by, and to take away with them. Everything in your message should then serve those ten words, so that you proclaim the gospel clearly as you should (Colossians 4:4).
Don’t Confuse Simple and Superficial. We never want our teaching to be superficial; to be all stories and soundbites and no substance. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be simple. Take John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Simple? Yes. Superficial? Not at all.
Embrace Repetition. If you’re anything like me, you can be scared that your youth might feel like they’re hearing the same thing each week, so you end up complicating things in the attempt to say something completely new. Don’t be scared. God is intensely relaxed about repetition (take a look at Psalm 136 if you don’t believe me!). We can be too. In fact, the Bible is clear that we are prone to forget God and his gospel (Deuteronomy 8:11-14). We need to be reminded of his goodness and mercy time and time again.
Be Patient. We want to be able to say with Paul that we didn’t shrink from declaring the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). We want to feed our youth with all the depth and richness of the Scriptures. But we don’t have to do it all in one go! Instead we are to be patient. Paul spent two years in Ephesus before he was able to say to the elders of that church that he had declared to them the whole counsel of God. Those of us in ministry play the long game; we don’t have to do it in 2 weeks!
As youth ministers, Christ calls us to feed his sheep. Not to impress people, stake out our theological positions,or hone our speaking skills. He calls us to teach his Word to students in such a way that they are brought to faith and built up in faith, by his grace and for his glory.