6 Ways to Connect with Your Audience

Whether you’re speaking to your students, a group of parents, or guest-speaking at a retreat or camp, it is important to think through how to connect with your audience. We have all witnessed someone struggle to connect with their target audience, and we know the necessity of connection as it helps to strengthen the effectiveness of our message. But the question is: how do we connect with our audience?

This is an interesting question because depending on the audience the answers may vary. If you’re communicating with students or children, you may use simpler language and talk about memories when you were their age. If you’re speaking to adults who have a stronger biblical background you may be more apt to include theological terms and doctrinal statements. But age aside, there are some key ways to connect with an audience no matter who you are speaking to. Today, I want to share some of these with you to help you think through how you’re not only connecting but also communicating with those around you.

Know your material.

This is a big thing that I think we often overlook. As ministers of the Gospel we need to take seriously what we are doing and sharing with those in our charge. We shouldn’t treat the messages we share with a lackadaisical attitude that sees us prepping the message right before the start of youth group or a conference. Instead we should desire to study and know our material, and we should give it the proper treatment that is reserved for the life-changing components it contains.

That means we need to afford the proper amount of prep time to what we are sharing, we should internalize our message so if we loose our place in our notes we can still continue and not be stuck, and doing this will afford us freedom as we share should a question or distraction be raised.

Know your audience.

This is one that can be both easy and difficult depending on your setting. If you’re speaking to your students it is probably easier to know them than if you were speaking at a conference or to a newer group. Regardless of who are speaking to, knowing your audience will allow you to establish rapport and credibility, which will then allow them to listen better to what you are sharing.

An easy few ways of knowing your audience include listening, observing, and interacting. Listen to the people around you: to what they say, their stories, their likes and dislikes. These things will help you know what makes them tick which will allow you to then engage with them more on their level and with what they care about. Observing people will also help you understand the social settings and dynamics that are happening within the group, and to discern what they do or don’t enjoy. This then affords you a greater understanding of how to relate to them. Lastly, you should also interact with your audience. Listening and observing is great, but if you don’t get involved with them you may appear standoffish or elitist. When you actually engage and participate with people you will learn much about who they are, which will allow you to connect with them at a deeper level.

Utilize stories.

Stories are an amazing way to connect with your audience. Not only do they help engage one’s imagination but they draw people in and help to further the point of your message. I highly encourage using personal stories because they help you to connect at a deeper level, show authenticity, and highlight that you are a real person who is growing just like your audience. Jesus used stories, often called parables, with great success because storytelling is a wonderful and helpful means of getting your audience to understand and connect the principles you are sharing with real world application and results.

Be authentic.

If you work with students you probably know that they can sniff out when someone isn’t being real or honest with them. They know the moment someone doesn’t really see or care about them, and they know if a speaker truly cares about and wants to be sharing with their group. So when you are speaking or onstage for an event, just be yourself and look to connect with your audience by sharing from your life. Don’t try to mimic another speaker or presenter. Don’t try to tell someone else’s story. Don’t try to be another “influencer.” Instead be who God made you. Communicate your own way and care about the people with whom you are communicating. When they see your heart and love for them, complimented with the truth of Gospel, then you will see lives changed as the Spirit of God takes hold of them.

Use humor.

Humor is a great resource when connecting with people. Some people are masters at this and can seemingly weave it into any talk with little effort, while others need to work hard to bring it into their messages. No matter where you fall in that spectrum, consider using it because humor helps people lower their walls and it allows them to trust you more.

When it comes to humor remember a few things:

  • Always keep it appropriate. If you need to ask, “is this okay to say, do, or show?” the answer is probably no. Always err on the side of caution. You never want humor to be the focus of your message but to point people back to it.
  • Never use other people for humor unless you have their permission. The worst thing you could do is make fun of someone in the audience because they will tune you out and you could potentially turn them off to Jesus.
  • Poke fun at yourself and tell funny stories from your own life. This will help you to be relatable and seen as a normal, everyday person.
  • Your message isn’t a stand-up routine. You are there to point people to Jesus, and humor is simply an asset to help you do just that. Too much humor will come across as disingenuous and people will only come to laugh and not hear the truth of the Gospel.

Utilize visuals.

Visuals can come in all varieties and may change depending on your audience. If it’s a younger audience video clips and funny photos may be a very helpful resource. If it’s an older audience photos, quotes, pictures of resources, and graphs may help in getting your point(s) across. Regardless, we must understand that visuals help us in communicating and therefore help us in connecting with the audience. Visuals bring people in, capture their attention, and help with recall later on.

A few easy visuals include photos (personal photos offer a deeper level of connection if applicable), video clips, PowerPoint or ProPresenter slides, props as they pertain to what you’re sharing, or art. The importance thing in utilizing visuals is that you do not force them and that they are not juvenile. Don’t try to force a prop into an illustration or point because if it doesn’t work, you will detract from your message. And if you try to do something juvenile, people will disconnect and just think about how it wasn’t for them rather than focusing on the point you are attempting to communicate.

Helping Families Win: Resources [Part 2]

Last week we shared some digital resources we believe would be helpful for families. Today, I want to spend a little bit of time looking at some books I find beneficial for a variety of topics families are dealing with. These books are not all encompassing, but I believe they will provide helpful insight and guidance for families, and prayerfully strengthen the relationships between parents and students. There are also far too many books to list in a singular post, so I will be doing a follow up to this post with additional books that I have found helpful.

Living in a Gray World – A Christian Teen’s Guide to Understanding Homosexuality

This is a super helpful book from Preston Sprinkle that seeks to provide insight and understanding for the questions many students (and adults) are asking about homosexuality. This is an easy read that is filled with grace, compassion, understanding, and biblical truth. Sprinkle handles everything from questions we may have, to what the reader should do if they might be gay, to what the Bible say about homosexuality. If this isn’t a topic your family is thinking or talking through, I would still highly recommend reading this book to gain insight and understanding into a topic that is very big part of our world.

It’s Not Too Late – The Essential Part You play in Shaping Your Teen’s Faith

Dan Dupee put together this book to encourage parents who may feel like they don’t know what they are doing when it comes to shepherding and guiding their children. It is an honest and raw book that utilizes sociological research and Scripture to help you navigate the realities of development in your children and to give you tangible ways to engage and pour into them. One of the big things that Dupee will focus on is the reality that students are not removed from your care and influence once they enter middle school, high school, or college. The way you engage may look different but you can continue to engage and disciple them at those points.

If I had a Parenting Do Over – 7 Vital Changes I’d Make

Jonathan McKee is a widely respected youth culture expert, speaker, and author who loves to provide resources for parents, families, and youth workers. The purpose of this book is to encourage and challenge parents to grow and pour into their children. Jonathan offers honest insight into the realities of parenting and mistakes he has made in order to provide wisdom and helpful tools for parents navigating caring for and discipling their students. He provides helpful actions, thoughts, and insights to give parents a place to breathe, acknowledge, and look to grow as they shepherd their students. This book also has a free seven week curriculum designed for small groups of parents to walk through that is amazingly helpful and beneficial.

Understanding Your Teen – Shaping their Character, Facing their Realities

Dr. Jim Burns put together a fantastic book to help parents (and really anyone working with young people) understand and care for their students. This book is extremely practical and offers insight into how to parent well and how to help develop your student in maturity and faith, all while understanding the realities that students are navigating in a changing culture. In the first part of his book, Burns provides parents with insight into understanding their student and gives practical ways to think through and talk about issues that students are facing. Burns provides helpful thought into how to have healthy media boundaries, developing student’s faith, teaching healthy sexuality, and much more. The second part of Burns’ book talks through issues and problems that students are facing and then gives helpful thoughts and solutions for parents to consider as they navigate these topics. Some of the topics that are covered include eating disorders, bullying and cyberbullying, self-harm, abuse, depression, and much more.

52 Ways to Connect with Your Smartphone Obsessed Kid – How to Engage with Kids Who Can’t Seem to Pry Their Eyes from Their Devices!

Jonathan McKee has multiple books and resources that are amazingly helpful, and this is one of his books that every parent and youth worker should read. The focus of this book is to help students move from being tech dependent to tech enabled. Jonathan wants to help parents help their students by seeing that the technology they have should not own or command them, but instead is a resource and a tool meant to be utilized appropriately. Jonathan’s easy-to-read style of writing offers the reader 52 ideas on how to proactively engage your student that brings creative advice and ideas to the table and allows for the uniqueness of each student to help parents think about how to engage with them. There are also questions to ponder at the end of each idea, that would be very helpful to simply begin fostering a conversation with your student.

Shepherding a Child’s Heart

This is a wonderful resource to give to families with children at any age. Tedd Tripp offers two sections in this book: Foundations of Biblical Childrearing and Shepherding Through the Stages of Childhood. Tripp first offers the basic biblical principles that all parents need and then begins to look at how to formulate them into a shepherding plan as you love and care for your student. Tripp uses the shepherding metaphor often in his book because he believes that parenting is more than just a task or a developmental procedure. He believes it to truly be about shepherding and cultivating the heart of your children because focusing on the heart focuses on the true aspect of who we are.

The Quick-Reference Guide to Counseling Teenagers – 40 Topics, Spiritual Insights & Easy-to-Use Action Steps

Doctors Tim Clinton and Chap Clark have put together an amazing resource when it comes to counseling students. This book offers much insight into a wide range of topics including bullying, adoption, eating disorders, self-harm, pornography, abuse, depression, trauma, God’s will, and much more. They present each topic by first using a couple of portraits or case studies, then they give clarity to definitions and key thoughts to help us understand what is actually being talked about. They provide helpful questions in the assessment interview, they offer tips for wise counsel, action steps, biblical insights, a prayer starter, and additional resources. Now it should be said that I am not advocating for parents to become clinical counselors through the use of this book. Instead, I believe that this book offers helpful insight and knowledge to parents, and gives them practical questions and biblical understanding of the issues at hand. With that understanding, this book will empower and enable parents to have a more centered and biblically grounded conversation about whatever topic their student is walking through. It also will help give parents a better understanding through their student’s responses on whether they should seek additional counseling through a trained and qualified counselor.

How to Co-Lead Well

Many of us have more than one leader working in our student ministries. Whether it is you and your spouse or you have dozens of youth leaders at your disposal, learning how to co-lead is highly important. In many of our ministry settings we must have two leaders for accountability and legal purposes. Whatever the reason may be that you have multiple leaders, co-leading (leading with another leader) is something we must learn to do well in order to have a successful ministry.

In order to lead well with another person, there are certain aspects that we need to consider and implement. Today, we want to examine a few of those and hopefully give you relevant and helpful ways to lead well together.

Communication

Part of leading well with others involves communication. Whether you are talking with your co-leader for a small group or the three others who are helping facilitate your gathering, communication will help everyone be on the same page, it will instill value and worth, and it will help everyone lead better. So communicate with one another before the program or group time. Communicate about where you see the discussion going, communicate about arrival times, or even about conversations you have had with the students in your group. The more communication there is, the better off you all will be as leaders because it helps you work as a team.

Game Plan Together

Another aspect of communication is planning with one another. As you lead with others you should work collectively to come up with a plan as to how you see things going. This could involve who will handle what aspects of a small or large group, it could involve who will facilitate discussion, or it could even be who will speak with a student about what they shared or did. Game planning together will bring a cohesiveness to your group and allow for all leaders to have a role in what is happening. Planning together will allow for each leader to feel validated and provide everyone with a clear direction for your group.

Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses

Working with others can be challenging at times and I believe part of this is because of our own weaknesses and strengths. Where we have a strength we see other’s weaknesses, and where we have a weakness we become frustrated or bitter because of someone else’s strengths. But that shouldn’t be our focus. Instead of fixating on how great we are or where there are missteps, we should look at what each person brings to the table and use them to collectively help our students grow. A weakness is only a weakness if we allow it to be. If you struggle with asking open ended questions but your co-leader excels at it, don’t get upset they are asking the questions. Maybe lean into your strength which could be one-on-one discipleship. Both are valid and beneficial, and when used together by a team it brings greatness to what you are doing. So communicate about your strengths and weaknesses with your co-leader(s) and look for ways to excel together.

Be for One Another

This is something that we all need to be mindful of, especially as we lead together. Leaders may not always agree, but it is important to show unity. It is important to not chop someone at the knees if they misspeak about a passage of Scripture and it is equally important to not bad mouth your co-leader if they are late to group. Speaking positively about other leaders not only instills confidence in your students for their leaders, it also allows you and your co-leader to grow closer together. This isn’t dismissing behavior that is problematic but instead allowing for you two to be for one another and supportive of each other. If a problem does arise, the best way to handle it is away from the students.

Be Honest with Each Other

Being honest is hugely important when it comes to leading with others. In both good and difficult times, honesty will help your relationship with your fellow leaders. If you are frustrated by something that happened, share it in love and look to be honest about the situation. If you need help or are running late, be honest about it. Be honest if you weren’t able to prepare as much as you would have liked. This allows for transparency and opportunities for growth and for truth to be spoken. It will also allow for frustrations to be alleviated and for you relationship to be built upon trust.

Leading Students Well in Chaotic Times

This past week we saw something unprecedented in modern times: the US Capital was marched upon and breached. It was a moment that as I watched it unfold brought me back to the moment I saw the Twin Towers struck in New York and then collapse on September 11. The pain, hurt, grief, frustration, and brokenness I felt made my soul weary and longing for the return of our true Savior.

But as I sat and pondered the events of this past week and scrolled through social media, I saw how my students were reacting. Their reactions varied and ranged across the political landscape, but what struck me so deeply was the level of engagement and reaction they displayed. The last year has been nothing short of difficult for our students. They have faced a global pandemic, figured out how to engage with online education, struggled with loss of income, wrestled with racial equality, and still attempted to navigate the normal difficulties of teenage life.

Students are struggling right now, and we as their pastors and leaders must give them the space and place to process, engage, and respond. They are asking deep and meaningful questions, they are searching for answers, they want to understand, and are seeking clarity, wisdom, and knowledge. The reality is we are all processing and hurting, but as leaders we have an obligation to lead out and shepherd our people well. We must be a voice for truth, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, and a reflection of Jesus to our students. Today, I want to offer some steps you can take to engage well with your students as they are working through the realities and difficulties of our world.

Be approachable.

In order for us to have these conversations, students most know that they can approach us about these issues. Students will wrestle with various topics and issues, but they won’t always be willing to share them with you if they do not think you can be trusted. It’s imperative to be someone who shows they can be trusted and someone who will listen and be available.

Create the space for conversations.

This goes hand-in-hand with being approachable, but it takes it a step further. Be someone who not only allows conversations to happen, but also engages in them. Don’t shy away from talking about heavy, difficult, or deep topics. Embrace the conversation and engage with your students. In doing so, you are creating a place for students to be real and honest about what they are thinking and processing. Students need to understand that you are willing to talk about things and when they bring their thoughts to you, that you are going to listen and walk through it with them.

Listen well.

Speaking of listening, we need to be leaders who listen well. Often as leaders we tend to want to fix problems as they are presented to us. This means that while students are sharing their problems with us, we are not listening to them fully because we are already figuring out how to fix their problem. This type of listening is often called “Passive Listening” and honestly isn’t really listening. It actually devalues the speaker because you aren’t giving them the forum to truly share and be heard. What I would suggest is something called “Attentive Listening” which you can read about further in this book by Charles Allen Kollar. Kollar’s suggestion of “Attentive Listening” means that you are listening in a careful and alert way and bringing in the beneficial aspects of passive and active listening. You speak back words, phrases, or paraphrases to the speaker and you help them think through solutions after they have finished speaking.

Listening well means you don’t just look at the problem and the solution, but you value the person and you show them they have been fully heard. Students want to be listened to and valued, and allowing them to share and be heard will build mutual trust and respect.

Do not be dismissive.

There are times in many of our lives where we may be dismissive of someone and their ideas, beliefs, or ideologies, whether we meant to or not. It could be because we scoff at the idea that is presented. We respond sarcastically. We try to flaunt our own knowledge. We could say it is a non-issue. We tell people that this is just how it is. When we do this to anyone or when it is done to us, we feel dismissed and diminished. We feel dumb, ignored, and cast to the side.

Students are so aware of when this happens, and when it does they shut down, refuse to engage, and frankly they stop trusting you as a safe person. I am not saying that we need to have an open theology or hedge on our doctrinal convictions. But I do believe we need to allow students to present what they are thinking and why, and then walk through a thoughtful and biblical response with them. Bring them into the process, value their time, hear their heart and thoughts, and challenge them to grow.

I would also encourage you to not allow for lack of time to keep you from engaging with students. Sometimes we can be dismissive because when students ask a question or challenge what is being said, it isn’t an opportune time to respond (i.e. while you are teaching). So instead of just telling them to be quiet, ask them if you could take them out for coffee later and discuss further. And then make sure you follow through.

Be willing to hear both sides.

Throughout 2020, politics and the surrounding topics littered our conversations, and an observation I saw was how divided the lines were. It wasn’t just generational either, although that was a big piece, it was more partisan in its divide. And people on either side were unwilling to hear the other side or even consider what they were saying.

Often this happens within ministries as well. We simply stick to our views and theologies rather than give other views a honest consideration. Let me explain it this way: you may hold to a literal seven day view of creation, but a student holds to an old earth view that includes a non-literal view of the creation account. How do you respond? Do you make a firm stance on your theological hill? Do you tell the student they are wrong? Do you allow them to share their thoughts and ask to grab coffee and study the topic together?

We can tend to hold onto our theologies, dogmas, and personal beliefs so closely that we close off any other views or insight. It is so important to not live in a one-sided bubble but to be listening to other thoughts and viewpoints even if we don’t believe or agree with them. Doing so will not only allow us to grow and have a deeper foundation of our own beliefs, but value students and their insights as well. It will also open doors to build bridges between differing view points or “sides.”

Admit when you are wrong, don’t know, or need to search for info.

I am not the brightest bulb in the socket and I know it. In fact, at our church there are many staff members who are much smarter than I am. And working in student ministry has shown me how important it is to have a grasp on wide variety of topics and what the Bible says about them. But there are a great many topics I don’t know about and questions I don’t have an answer for.

In light of that, it is so important to admit when you don’t know and let students know that. But don’t simply say you don’t know, let them know you will look for answers and get back to them. My line has always been, “I don’t know, but I am going to ask George” (our senior pastor). And I do, and will typically get 3-5 books to read through. But then I bring the student into the study and we look at it together. I also would encourage you that if you are wrong in something you said, admit it. It is incredibly humbling, but man is it a great way to lead from a place of humble servant leadership. Students will see that you aren’t perfect, but in seeing that they will respect you all the more for leading outward and upward.

Seek understanding and clarity for where others are coming from.

Sometimes students just like to be contrarian and other times they are asking questions or disagreeing because of something that happened in their lives or because of what they have been told. Don’t assume you know why a student disagrees or that you know why they are challenging you. Be willing to dig deeper and find out why a student believes what they do. I asked a student one time why they didn’t believe in hell thinking it was because they thought since God was love everyone would go to heaven. But I found out it was because a grandparent had passed away who wasn’t a believer and they didn’t want to think they would lose them forever.

That understanding changed my whole approach to how I engaged with them and my responses to their questions and thoughts. When we pause and truly listen, when we ask questions, and when we dig deeper, it will allow us to better understand our students and better serve them.

Be willing to change your views.

This is a tough one, and to be honest, I hesitated even putting this in because I know it will ruffle feathers. We tend to have our views and theologies and we hold to them firmly. But if I can take a moment and ask a question: what if our theologies were perhaps incorrect or not fully informed? Should we not think about a new approach? And even if they are correct, shouldn’t we be willing to hear arguments against them and think critically about what we believe and why we believe it?

I share this because I often see students having differing views than their leaders, parents, and older generations and that is a good thing! They should be exploring and asking questions. They should be pushing on the status quo. And they should be asking “why” questions. This allows them to think critically and formulate a deeply personal relationship with Jesus. But if we only respond out of fear or frustration or from a viewpoint of “this is how it always has been,” students will stop engaging with us because they do not see you as a safe person and thereby will not trust you.

So should you hear a viewpoint different from yours, be willing to hear what is said and truly consider it. Be willing to consider you may not have it all figured out and that perhaps. just perhaps, the idea a student shares is accurate and correct. I am not saying capitulate on doctrine, but be willing to think critically about personal convictions, political beliefs, and denominational viewpoints.

How to Pursue Healthy Communication

This past Sunday I had the privilege of preaching in our church’s main services on the topic of “sharing our story,” which was focused on how we can communicate the Gospel story in healthy and proactive ways. So often our communication styles are not helpful because we allow for a “me-centric” approach to conversations, and I was able to share how I believe Jesus desires us to have healthy conversations both within and outside of the church.

As ministry leaders, we must model healthy communication at all levels in order to help facilitate the discipleship process. Today, I want to share with you some ways we can engage in healthy conversations from an interaction between Nicodemus and Jesus in John 3. These tips are not all-inclusive, but are simply a starting point for how we can begin to navigate the conversations and interactions we have with one another.

Be someone who is willing to have conversations.

As ministry leaders we must be willing to engage in conversations, whether they are with people with whom we disagree, or people who share similar views. We must be willing to engage with people where they are at in a loving, Christ-centered way. Maintaining an open door policy in regard to conversations, questions, and direction will set the precedent that you are someone who is willing to walk with others.

Ask good questions.

Part of healthy communication is the ability to both ask and respond to questions in a proactive manner. Questions are a sign that someone is seeking knowledge, clarity, and understanding in regard to the topic at hand. Questions should not be feared, but welcomed, and the manner in which we respond to them will continue to establish rapport and trust with others.

In a conversation it is also beneficial for you to ask clarifying questions as you seek to provide wisdom and insight. Rather than simply providing answers, seek to understand before you respond. Asking good questions can help you uncover the heart behind the questions you are being asked, which will then allow for you to better minister to and care for your people. Asking questions will also help you avoid assumptions, which can lead to frustration, misunderstanding, and ultimately a breakdown in communication.

Use encouraging language.

Throughout Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus, Jesus challenges him to think critically about his questions. Jesus doesn’t respond harshly or negatively toward Nicodemus, even though the answers to his questions may seem obvious to us. As we engage in conversations with others, we must be mindful of the language that we use. Negative language will push people away and give them a sour taste, not only toward the church, but also toward the Gospel. This is not to say that we do not speak truth, nor engage in difficult conversations. However, the manner and conduct with which we approach these conversations can allow for a healthier, fuller, and more honest dialogue to unfold.

Practice active listening.

We are a society and a church that as a whole struggles to listen well to others. Often we say that we listen, but the manner in which we do is passive listening. Passive listening entails looking for flaws in the person’s conversation or argument, listening to win, and finishing sentences before a thought is completed. This type of listening is neither productive or proactive. This type of listening is harmful and will not establish trust or continued opportunities to dialogue, as people do not feel heard and instead feel devalued in the moment.

What we need pursue as ministry leaders is active listening. Active listening entails paying attention to the other person’s statement(s) and asking clarifying questions in order to deduce the heart issue. The clarifying questions will allow for you to gain a better understanding of the issues at hand, as well as value the other person as you engage with their thought process and value their input. Active listening involves hearing the other person with a goal to understand them, before being understood.

Establish relational equity and trust.

It is important even prior to a conversation to be a person that others know they can trust because they have seen you model a trustworthy life. People should know they can trust you because you are not prone to gossiping or talking poorly about others, and they know that when they come to you they can expect the same treatment. This also involves following up with individuals, not in a nosy way, but in a way that demonstrates you care and value them enough to continue walking with them. This allows you to set the precedent that it is not a singular conversation, but a relationship that you value and respect.

Share your story.

It is important in healthy conversations to be transparent and vulnerable as you dialog. This requires tact and timing because we should not simply rush to share our story and in so doing, not allow others to share theirs. We should always defer to the other person and allow for them to share their story as they have come to us as a ministry leader. When it is appropriate, we can share our story of how God has worked in our life, or share other personal examples, to help others grow. It is important to remember the person came to you seeking clarity and understanding, not necessarily personal anecdotes, so be mindful of how much you share, and how long you share. You never want to dominate the conversation, but look instead to utilize your story to showcase the Gospel and its power.