More than once, I was told it was a liability in a church setting. What would work in the classroom for discussion could never translate in a church environment. Yet, 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 I realized that students were paying more attention and were more engaged with the content.

Less Talk, More Listening During Discussions

We have so much that we feel we need to communicate to 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 sermons that look more like lecturing. But lecturing is the least efficient way of creating a learning environment.
But what if we talked less, listened more, and asked more questions?
Rather than lecturing at them, try engaging students in a group conversation. It will take time and patience to get students comfortable with it and for them to feel comfortable 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 my final talk went over by twenty minutes because of the increased level of engagement from students. You will love it the first time a student stops you to ask for clarification on a point you just made.

Hold Students 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 during youth group discussions. It is as simple as blurring the line between fun and learning. 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. Unleash their 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 Your Youth Group on Their Toes

Stop at some point and literally ask questions during youth group discussions. So much time, study, preparation, and practice went into my first sermons and lessons that I rarely felt comfortable being interrupted by question—or worse, the need to provide clarity to a confused listener. I learned to build into my 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 my questions? It will happen, I guarantee it. Enjoy the awkward silence. Roll with and use it. Don’t embarrass them or make them feel stupid. That defeats the whole purpose. Be gracious and kind. 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 you value their insight and 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.
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 doesn’t. Give it time, your students will respond.
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