Failure to Communicate: The Biggest Reason Teens Aren’t Listening to Your Teachings

I was indignant and frustrated. After spending hours pouring over the teaching and giving, what I thought, was an excellent proclaim, the priest of my parish pulled me aside. I’ll never forget what he said:

You failed at that talk. You lost them.

As a young core member who was often called a “great communicator” and was usually pegged to give the teachings, I was stunned. I mean, had my priest heard the last homily he gave? Who was he to tell me what went wrong?

Trying to contain my frustration, I asked, “And why do you think that? The teens all seemed engaged to me.”

His response was simple and was one I couldn’t accept at the time. I wanted to reject it. I complained about it. I complained about him. But he was right. He said:

“You didn’t give them substance in a way they could digest. In fact, you didn’t give them substance at all.”

It was great advice that I couldn’t handle at the time. There is a term for that: stupid.

When we stand up to communicate to a group of teenagers (or anyone, for that matter), we need to understand two things: context and content. The context is the state of the audience receiving the message. This includes everything from the environment they are in (is this room too hot or too cold?) to what is going on in their world (ever try giving a teaching the Sunday after a big basketball game?). Context also includes the lived experience and culture of teenagers.

If we miss the context, we miss our message.

Content is the message we are trying to communicate. We get into trouble with content because sometimes we don’t even know what we are trying to communicate. It could be that we don’t understand the content as well as we should or that we are trying to shove too much content into a talk.

The next time you prepare to give a talk, try this exercise: Write down your main point as a single sentence. Notice that I didn’t write “main points” or “multiple sentences.” What is the core of your message in one sentence? If you can’t succinctly write it out, then you have work to do with your content. The single sentence is powerful because it focuses on your message. I’ve seen many speakers (and been one of them) who have crafted highly theological and dense messages that were very good – but forgettable. People need a focus to hang onto – teenagers need that single sentence focus.

Here is where most teachings fail (and why some of yours are failing, too) – they aren’t balancing context and content. Sometimes we go so heavy on context – reading the room, leaning into culture and experience – that we don’t ever give anything substantial. The night I failed at my teaching, I had context – that’s why I thought I had the teenagers. I was speaking their language, but I never gave them content. We have a very scientific term for that in the teaching world: fluff.

Other times, we focus so heavily on content without being mindful of our context that we lose people entirely. Even if we have our one-sentence focus, we still need to fit our content to our context. If you’ve ever given the post-lunch talk on a confirmation retreat, you know that it doesn’t matter how simple your message is; those teenagers are going to be tough to reach. Teenagers use a technical and scientific term to describe talks that have content but lack context: boring.

For your message to be effective, you need to balance context and content. Maybe you have a group of engaged teenagers ready to dive deep – if that is your context, then you can go heavier on content. Do you have a room full of 6th graders that are bouncing off the walls because one of your core members decided to unload all of her kid’s Halloween candy on the group five minutes before the Edge Night? Narrow that focus and give the best six and a half minute talk ever.

When talks can achieve the balance of context and content, they are defined by a specific term: transformational.

Photo by Marcos Luiz Photograph on Unsplash

About the Author

Joel Stepanek

I spent most of my 8th grade year in detention because there wasn’t a dare I wouldn’t accept. But in high school, my youth minister dared me to follow Christ and I haven’t looked back. I love all things Wisconsin, especially the Green Bay Packers. I can probably eat more cheese than you. (Please don’t dare me to prove it.) Follow me on Twitter and Instagram at @ChasingHumility.

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