It’s the never-ending youth ministry saga. Let’s imagine that you just hosted a youth service or retreat where the Lord showed up in a big way. Students’ lives were really impacted. They even said things like, “I’m really going to be different after tonight.” But fast-forward two or three months and what is the scene? Most of those same teenagers are back in their same spiritual ruts, without many road signs that would point to lasting change. It’s a dilemma that all seasoned youth workers face over and over. In reality, how do we more effectively partner with the Lord to create long term spiritual change?

Fast Company Magazine published an article which dealt with this crucial topic of creating lasting changes in human behavior. The article was entitled, “Change Or Die” (written by Alan Deutschman). It opens which a really pivotal question: “What if a doctor said you had to make tough changes in the way you think and act—or your time would end soon? Could you change? Here are the scientifically studied odds: nine to one. That’s nine to one against you.” Wow. Maybe youth leaders aren’t the only people who struggle in this vital arena of creating lasting lifestyle changes.

The data was shared at IBM’s Global Innovation Outlook Conference. The insights gleaned from neuroscience and psychology offer some surprising answers that transfer easily to creating lasting spiritual change in teenagers. But in truth, the “hinge-pen-issue” was one that really flew in the face of some of my conventional youth ministry training. The knockout blow for the data was presented by Dr. Edward Miller, the dean of the medical school and CEO of the hospital at Johns Hopkins University. He focused his remarks around studies of patients whose heart disease was so severe that they underwent bypass surgery. Those same patients were clearly told that if they did not change their behavior, they would be greatly shortening their lives.

Sounds like pretty powerful motivation to create lasting change, don’t you think? Change or die. You can’t get much more persuasive than that! But unbelievable as the data was, only 1 out of 10 heart patients did make the necessary changes. Dr. Miller went on to say, “If you look at people after coronary-artery bypass grafting two years later, 90% of them have not changed their lifestyle. And that’s been studied over and over and over again. And so we’re missing some link in there.”

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So what is the “missing link” that the experts came up with? The data that was shared by John Kotter, a Harvard Business School professor, rubbed me a little wrong. After all, we in youth ministry know that appealing to a student’s emotions is a carnal, manipulative form of communication. Or is it?

Kotter shared, “Behavior change happens mostly by speaking to people’s feelings. This is true even in organizations that are very focused on analysis and quantitative measurement, even among people who think of themselves as smart in an MBA sense. In highly successful change efforts, people find ways to help others see the problems or solutions in ways that influence emotions, not just thought.”

Wow. “Behavior change happens mostly by speaking to people’s feelings.” What a short but powerful insight for those of us attempting to impact a teenager’s spiritual formation. Obviously, this insight can be taken overboard. We certainly aren’t making a case for hyping up teenagers or playing primarily to their hormonally-driven emotions. But perhaps we need to give more focused attention to how well we are connecting with their heart and emotions when we are attempting to communicate spiritual truth. Often, I have been almost guilty for those “heart-to-heart moments,” being accused occasionally of “playing on the person’s emotions.” But intuitively, I’ve always seemed to realize that permanent life-change would not occur if I talked exclusively to a teenager’s head, and forgot about their heart.

So how do you do that? How do you make strategic efforts to connect with teenagers both mentally and emotionally when you are presenting your next talk in youth church? Let me make a few simple suggestions:

  1. Never underestimate the importance of including a well-told story in each of your presentations. As I prepare for my weekly youth service, I always use at least one strong illustration in my sharing. Through the years, I have carefully filed these stories by categories. Now, nearly four decades into full-time youth ministry, I find them to be an invaluable resource.
  2. As you teach biblical principles, mentally ask yourself the two-word question of the century: “So what?” In other words, one of your most powerful emotional connecting points is authentic relevance. So at the risk of sounding trite, make sure that you are communicating biblical truth in a manner that easily relates to their everyday life.
  3. Don’t always steer away from emotionally-charged situations. Some of them can provide unforgettable teaching platforms for you. For instance, just a month ago, a key teenager girl in our youth ministry died suddenly while undergoing a relatively routine surgery. The Wednesday evening we learned of her agonizing passing, I changed my message and sensitively used portions of her amazing life to challenge the students to examine their own lifestyles.
  4. Realize that nothing communicates heart-to-heart more than students sharing transparently with each other. Thus, use students to share testimonies and their own life-experiences often in connection with your messages. Coach the student before they share so they have the courage to go beyond the superficial to deal honestly with the area you are asking them to share about.
  5. Occasionally, use some movie sound track music underneath a moving story, a student testimony, or a closing scene of a drama. Well-chosen music and dimming the lights at the appropriate time will go a long way to create an atmosphere of emotional connection.
  6. Use drama, if only brief monologues, to capture the “inside feelings” of a situation. Tell a student to pretend that they are in a room alone, either talking to themselves, talking to the Lord, or a combination of both. Encourage them to take off the masks and express some of the thoughts and feelings that go through your mind dealing with the topic you are addressing (i.e. loneliness, doubt, fear, etc.). Put some soft music behind them, pull the house lights lower, and watch how quickly even the simplest words make a heart-to-heart connection with the other students in the room.

Granted, the use of connecting to a teenager’s emotions can be overdone and used inappropriately. I think we all have enough common sense and wisdom to avoid anything close to hype. And we are also very aware that only the Word of God has the power to create biblical life change. But as you’re preparing for this week’s message, ask yourself the question, “Where and how am I purposing to connect with my students’ hearts?” Dr. Kotter would remind all of us in youth ministry, “Behavior change happens mostly by speaking to people’s feelings.”

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