Using All Five Senses

Creating memories and experiences for your teens is one of the bottom-line goals for youth ministry.  It is certainly what we at Wild Frontier have learned over our twenty years of searching and questioning.  Experiencing is also the number one task in Faith Shaping and is at the core of spiritual formation.

Experiencing just so happens to use our senses and frankly, the more the senses are used the better.  Science is proving that the more senses are involved in the learning process, the greater the experience and the greater the memory that is formed.  Since providing memorable experiences is such a large part of youth ministry, I want to encourage you to purposely try to incorporate as many of the fives senses as possible into all that you plan.

You know this to be true whether or not you have knowingly put senses and learning together.  A youth pastor, Ray Ko, sent me an idea he has used.  Instead of teaching on Matthew 9:35-38 to develop a strategic plan for outreach ministry, he took his youth group to the neighborhood coffee shop.  After observing for a while, he gave his group guided questions such as:  Observe the people around your table. How many of them are male and female?  Describe them–clothing, education, etc.  What is your impression about their conversation?  Can you figure out their needs through their conversation?  Because all five senses were involved with this, don’t you think the experience was caught by the teens?   This is what our Location Lessons download is all about.

Another fact is some teens prefer and actually learn better from auditory or visual or hands-on learning styles. Those with learning disabilities will also benefit from this multi-sense approach to whatever you do in your youth ministry program.  (Don’t hate that word program.)

Can you guess right now which one of our five senses is the strongest memory-provoker?  Hopefully you guessed smell because that would be correct.  Yet I doubt that was your guess.  How often do you intentionally incorporate smell into your programming?  Honestly, it is rare for me to do it and is still not easy now that I’m learning and brainstorming about it.

The sense we most often go to is sight.  We do this with PowerPoint or a video or the actual Word of God.  We do this because we know that this does help the retention of our teaching.  However in Googling this topic I learned that “even though nearly 100 percent of visual information can be retained over short periods of time, this drops to 50 percent within 3 months.  Olfactory (smell) information, on the other hand, averages 80 percent recall after a brief time–and stays at 80 percent over at least a year. (McAleer, 1985.p.71)” (  From these findings it becomes easy to see why Scent Marketing is popular.  When you walk into a certain store, you may notice a certain cologne smell wafting through the place.  The idea is to associate that smell with those clothes so you buy both.  This idea was also used in a teen pregnancy prevention campaign.  The smell of dirty diapers was put on a scratch-n-sniff and distributed to teen boys.  This has proven to be somewhat effective in early survey results.  (, January 27, 2010)This challenges me to incorporate smell as much as possible.  But how do you do that in youth ministry?

One simple way is to incorporate a smell into your youth room.  Hopefully it is not dirty socks smell!  Designate a smell whether through candles, plug-ins, incense, etc., and consistently keep it wafting–consistently for years.  When you walk into a public school, does that smell immediately remind you of your school days?  This is what you are going for in your youth room.  It is such a smell that they will always associate to a safe place where they learned more about their faith.  A smell that when they smell it at age 30, it will bring a smile to their face as they remember what they learned associated to that smell.  Unlike that public school smell, this will hopefully bring back happy thoughts.

Taste is another strong sense.  For example, think of your favorite home-cooked meal from your childhood.  When you taste that food as an adult, does it bring back some memories?  Or do you have unpleasant taste memories such as when you ate something just before you had the stomach flu and that item became your toilet content.  Just the smallest taste of that food the next time can make you nauseous.  Taste and smell are closely related. If you’ve ever had a cold during Thanksgiving dinner then you know that this great taste experience is lessened when you can’t smell it.  I’ve recently challenged you to incorporate the church kitchen into your youth ministry plans.  This is all about using this taste sense.

Another sense that is easy for us to incorporate is hearing. Teachers have incorporated hearing into teaching methods for years such as by encouraging students to read aloud or say vocabulary words aloud.  This helps improve the memory of such words for that upcoming vocab quiz and hopefully throughout life.  Historically Black churches have also long incorporated this in their preaching methods by having the congregation repeat back a certain phrase from the sermon over and over again.

Lastly there is the sense of touch.  The skin contains more than 4 million sensory receptors–mostly concentrated in the fingers, tongue, and lips–that gathers information related to touch that gets sent to the brain for processing and reaction which then becomes memories.  For example, holding a 9-inch nail becomes much more memorable than simply hearing how that nail pierced Jesus’ skin.

As you may be surmising, incorporating the five senses into your programming is a bit of work, especially for some of the senses.  Some youth workers will spend a great amount of time and labor on an edited video used for one week’s lesson which provides a visual and audio memory when in that same amount of time maybe a simpler video could be used while adding another sense or two with it which would actually make the lesson even more experiential and memorable.  I’m hoping to encourage you to simply discipline yourself to process your plans through all five of the senses and see what you can add to enhance the memories.

To help here are some ideas you can use:

Write Your Story (uses all five senses)
Ask your teens to write a short autobiographical story about the summer mission trip. But instead of the traditional event reporting, challenge them to incorporate all five senses into their telling of the story.   Some of your mission trip experiences come equipped with strong smells associated to them!  Be thankful for those strong smells now.  Having your teens write down such memories will help solidify those.

The Thread of Habits (sight, touch)
This is originally a “children’s message” but the point is still powerful and useful.  The only supplies you will need are a spool of thread and a pair of scissors.

Find a volunteer.  Wrap the thread once around the arms and body of the volunteer.  Ask the volunteer to break the thread.  It will be easy to do.  Wrap the thread around 3 times.  Have the volunteer attempt to break it.  It will be more difficult.  Continue upping the wraparounds until the volunteer is no longer able to break free.  Using your volunteer as an example, transition to how we easily get entangled in our sins and cannot get out.  Ask the group some pointed questions such as “Does anyone set out to develop bad habits on purpose?”  Keep your volunteer tied up during this because he/she will have great insight to add to the discussion.
After a good discussion, use the scissors to set the volunteer free.  Teach how our best efforts are not enough to stop our bad habits but God is able to set us free.

Candles in the World (sight, touch, taste)
Before your meeting, purchase large birthday candles and a large plain-frosted sheet cake.  For the message ask:  Who has been a light in your life?  Who has shared with you a better understanding of God?
In response to the message invite everyone to celebrate the candles in their lives by having them light one candle in honor of that one person and placing it into the cake.  When the candles are all on the cake, turn the lights off and notice how much light all the candles give off together.  Point out how you may feel like a little light in the big world but if we are all such lights for other people like the ones the candles represent, we all can be this bright.
Then eat the cake!

Hungry for God (sight, smell, taste)
A George Foreman grill or other tabletop grill works great for this. Use Matthew 5:6 and talk about being hungry and thirsty for the things of God. As you are doing this, start cooking steaks on the grill in front of everyone.  Make the steaks as fragrant as possible.  Keep teaching without mentioning the grilling steaks. As the smell grows and mouths water and stomachs growl, discuss the same kind of desire and yearning for things that please God.  For closing, give everyone a bite of the savory steak.

Crucifixion Cross (all five senses)
For a Good Friday service or another cross time, pass out a 9-inch nail for everyone to hold.  As they are silently pondering that nail going through Jesus’ feet, have a person out-of-sight hit a nail with that echoing thud into the cross or piece of wood.  While this is happening have another person or two drop red rose petals along the aisle every time that nail is hit.  This will give the appearance of drops of blood after hearing the heavy hammering.

In the story of the crucifixion there is reference to a mixture of pain killer and vinegar.  Something else effective is having the strong sour smell of vinegar waft through the room.  It is tough to smell but the crucifixion is tough to stomach already.