Don't Give Me The Stage

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Originally published in 2002.

“Don’t put me on a pedestal, just give me a stage.”

No true youth pastor would ever say this. I believe we consciously try to not put ourselves on a pedestal. However, this phrase came from a youth who grew up in a youth ministry. It was her perception of her youth pastor. And isn’t there always some truth in perception?

Another question: How did youth ministry evolve into something with a stage set up? Some youth groups even have soundboards and stage lighting. When did this stage set up be desirous for successful youth ministry? For those who get a say in building a youth room, they most always have a stage built in.

Let me try to piece together this progress. As youth ministry matured, we left the games and “talks” to feature a more solid teaching. Youth ministry was no longer just “babysitting” but challenging youth to be a part of the church today. Solid teaching meant a lectern (or music stand) and the audience seated in a way for them to learn. We worked hard to prepare life lessons based on Biblical truth so our teens could rise up and be what the Bible declared them to be.

Because we are so much more technologically gifted (it has much to do with our entrepreneurial spirit that keeps us in this crazy and wonderful position), we became the sound experts, the lighting experts, and eventually the PowerPoint experts. Anything to help with the meat of teaching. All of this out of true motives.

What has been the fruit of this evolution, in my opinion? Christian teenagers have become unable to think critically for themselves. They know how they feel about an issue, but they are not able to construct a rational argument to defend their opinions. They sit in our meetings and consume the message. It is similar to how they consume MTV or a shopping trip to the mall or even their schoolwork. They listen, choose what they like, and spit it out when it will give them the right feedback. Of course, that changes in various settings.

As for the youth group audience feedback, teens have learned when to laugh and when to be moved at the right times during our poured-over lesson plans. The youth group experience has become something like leaving a movie theatre after a touching, warmhearted movie. You try to hold on to the fantasy the movie brought about (or the truth of the lesson), but soon reality slides back in. The impact of the message is felt but it evaporates like a movie memory in the theatre parking lot.

Thus our youth are easily swayed to do what suits the moment. Whatever gives them the feedback they want. Whatever it takes to achieve that feeling. And we, out of our love for them, counter that with another message about being sold out for Jesus or whatever. Consume that word and hopefully it will change their lives “this time.” Then they go home again, back to school again, without asking a question or having been asked to give input into this reasoning. The youth have not personally invested themselves into our stage teachings. This is why mission trips are so life-changing. This is why just “hanging out” with you is so lifechanging. The youth had to invest themselves into it.

So how do we help teens invest themselves into the teaching?

  1. Make your messages more dialogical or at least more narrative. As Chad Hall wrote in “All This Postmodern Stuff“  “You might use the sermon to introduce people to various characteristics of God as a way of getting them started. But for heaven’s sake, don’t finish the conversation for them. …The same is true for powerpoint-based outlines for your sermon. That kind of stuff just comes off as unreal. Life is not fill in the blank. God is not fill in the blank. A more productive use of technology for sermons is to use a single projected image as a backdrop while you preach without ever making reference to it. For instance, if your text is on the birth of Jesus, use an image of a newborn with all the gunk and blood and stuff. That’s real.”
  2. Remove the stage. Do you really need to stand “up” there? Do you really need to have that divide from the audience? If you have a large group, then remove the stage lighting and keep the house lights up. How can you share the message if you can’t even see the faces of those you are speaking to?
  3. Ask questions. Try to avoid “how” questions. Ask even if you only ask a question to them at the beginning as a crowdbreaker. Ask anything to allow them to have some input into the evening. Ask anything to allow them to be heard on something. Ask anything to make them think on their own. Some good opening questions are: “What’s the most worthwhile thing you did in the past week?” “Who here (in this group who is present) would you most like to trade places with for a day and why?” “If you could give any gift in the world, what would you give to the person on your right?” “Would you rather fail in business and end up bankrupt or fail in marriage and end up divorced?” “Would you rather be Michael Jordan or Mother Teresa?” “What is one thing you have learned from your parents lately?” These questions require an investment of thought.

Or make the message part of the night one good question. Such as, “When it comes to the point of choosing right from wrong, how do you know which is which?” There may not be enough to time to fully discuss that but your youth will certainly learn a lot as they will have to wrestle with that question. Your role: bring up questions that refer to Scripture and questions to keep the discussion in alignment. You don’t need a stage for that.

4.Allow for open-ended responses. This may be uncomfortable. It may appear that you don’t have the answers for everything. (Do you really?) Someone may go home with unanswered questions. But that someone may on his/her own try to find some answers. And it would be the journey to find the answers that that youth just grew to a new level in his/her faith. What a valuable gift you have just given as well as a lifelong tool in the learning process.