While teaching during youth group or Sunday School, a common occurrence is for a student to raise his or her hand and ask a question that is completely off-topic. This happens in every youth ministry and can be quite difficult to handle. What should you do?
Several responses come to mind, none of which have worked in my ministry.
The first response is to spend time answering the question. This is, after all, what the student is thinking about and, the odds are, other students are probably thinking about the same thing or have thought about it at some point. However, spending too much time answering a big or off-topic question can lead the group down a rabbit trail and you may have a very hard time getting them back on track.
Another option is to tell the student that you will answer the question later. The issue with this is that it’s more likely you will forget the question, and then lose an opportunity to engage with a student on something that they really care about. Also, if it is a really good question, giving an answer one-on-one will mean that others will not hear the answer.
A third option is to say “Don’t interrupt! Let’s stay on topic here!” and simply ignore the question altogether. This is an easy and sometimes tempting solution, but it will discourage all students from asking questions in the future.
In my ministry, we have found that none of these options really produce the results we want. We want students to stay on topic during our discussions and teaching times, but we also want to address what is on their minds. We want our youth group to be a place where doubts and questions are raised, and answers are provided.
We have found that the best way to handle off-topic questions is to create a quarterly “Questions Night.” Four times a year, we set aside a youth group night where the only agenda is for student to get answers to their questions.
How Questions are Submitted?
Whenever students ask questions that simply can’t be answered because they do not fit with our current passage or time just doesn’t all for it, we ask them to write their questions down and put it in a box in the back of our youth room for us to answer on the next “Questions Night”
This box is also available for students to put questions in at any time. A stack of post-its sits next to the box so that whenever a student has a question, he or she can easily submit it.
We ask our students to write their names down when they give their questions, but we also allow for them to submit their questions anonymously. Providing names permits us to get clarification or context on questions that might be hard to understand, and it allows for us answer questions one-on-one if it is one that is more personal in nature.
Who answers the questions?
Before Questions Night, we recruit a panel of members from the congregation to answer the questions. By picking people outside of the youth ministry, students are able to interact with people that they rarely interact with. We try to select questions that are related and pick a panel that reflects the theme of the questions. If most of the questions have to do with life in college, we recruit a group of college students to answer. If questions are more theological in nature, we ask the elders and other pastors in the church to be on the panel. If questions are scientific, we recruit scientists in our congregation to answer.
We also try to pick people who are gospel-centered, spiritually mature, members of the church, who know what they are talking about. We want our panel to be a group of people that the students can look up to and go to with more questions outside of youth group.
Due to the context of our church (Asian American), it is hard for students to mingle with people who are older than they are. When the youth ministry is meeting or when the English congregation is holding its Sunday Morning Worship Service, parents and most of the older people in our church are doing something different and doing so in another language. “Questions Night” allows for different generations in the church to interact and build relationships.
Once our panel is chosen, we send the questions to the panel about a week ahead of time, so that they can be prepared for what is coming. We also encourage our panel to have scripture ready to back up their answers.
How are Questions Answered?
Once “Questions Night” arrives, we usually stick to the same format. The question is usually shown on a screen and read out loud, then the youth group is given the opportunity to answer. Once answers from the youth group are given, we submit the question to our panel and they discuss and provide an answer for the group.
Students are also given the opportunity to question the panel during the discussion. This will sometimes lead to even more questions which are either answered or are postponed to the next Questions Night if time doesn’t allow for an answer.
What Kinds of Questions Do Students Ask?
Questions asked are often challenging, relevant to students’ lives, and are often difficult to answer. Here is a selection:
- Are miracles the best way to show that Christianity is real?
- Who and When should I date?
- How Do We Address Apparent “Contradictions” In Scripture?
- Does God care who we vote for?
- Does God hate homosexuals?
What if you can’t Answer the Question?
If the panel is stumped by the question, we tell our students that we will get back to them. While our panels usually have an answer, it’s a nice moment when students see that we are also still on our own spiritual journey as well.
Overall, “Questions Night” has been a great addition to our ministry. This event has resulted in a decreased number of off-topic questions. It has given us a way for students to interact with Christian adults of all ages, and it has allowed us to create an environment where doubts and questions are welcome.