“Why aren’t they getting it?”
The youth pastor who emailed me this question was frustrated and confused. He prepares well. He makes the right moves in his sermons. But his students still aren’t “getting it.”
Why aren’t his sermons making disciples?
Maybe you have that question too.
Maybe you spend several hours every week, in prayer and study, working to create a message that informs and inspires your students to trust in Jesus and follow him. But then, when the dust has settled and the weeks pass by, you don’t see anything that looks like genuine Christianity being produced as a result of your efforts.
It’s enough to make many youth pastors want to quit. And many do.
However, the problem might not be your sermons or your students. The problem that I see in many ministries is the strategy. The strategy being deployed is simply counterproductive to the way that students actually learn.
What is the trivium?
A few years ago, I met with one of my small group leaders for coffee. His wife was out of town, so he had to bring his young son along to the meeting. When we finished discussing the things we needed to discuss, I commented about how well-behaved the man’s son had been during the meeting. The boy looked up and proceeded to tell me about an assignment he was working on for school.
I was intrigued, so I asked the dad about it. He explained a concept that was new to me: the trivium. He said that the boy’s class moves through three levels of learning that begins with knowledge (facts and figures), moves to understanding (discussion and conversation), and finishes with wisdom (articulation and application).
I had never heard such a clear presentation of the way people grasp new information, so after they left I immediately opened my computer and tried to learn more about this way of learning. That day was a turning point for me.
Why do sermons fall short?
It is safe to say that many people know more than they do. That is to say, a person can know a lot about prayer but spend little time praying. A person can know many things about God but show little interest in worshipping God. A person can hear many stories about Jesus but lack any desire to follow him. When these things happen, it is safe to say that a person’s knowledge about a subject has outpaced their application of it.
That is the situation in which many students find themselves. They can hear a moving message about the power of prayer, feel a desire to pray more often, and still never actually start to develop a personal time of prayer.
That’s why I said earlier that the strategy many youth pastors have is counterproductive, especially when that strategy is overly reliant upon sermons to do the bulk of the work. Sermons fall short because they aren’t able to do all the work when it comes to helping students learn how to follow Jesus.
How students learn:
After a great deal of reflection on how students really learn, I have come to see the trivium as an important idea for youth pastors to grasp. My current application of this idea takes the form of a three-step learning loop: 1) Information, 2) Conversation, and 3) Articulation.
For clarity, I will explain the importance of each step:
It is clear to me that a person can have knowledge without action but they can’t have action without knowledge. In other words, a person can’t do what they don’t know. Because of that reality, your sermons are an important part of helping students become disciples of Jesus.
In your sermons, you are informing students about who God is and what God has done, as well as how they can live as a response to God’s grace in their lives. But all of those things remain at the level of information. Sermons increase students’ knowledge, but they aren’t enough by themselves. Disciples know they need more than sermons to help them follow Jesus.
To help your students become disciples, you have to provide them with opportunities to discuss what they’ve heard in your sermons. They need to be able to ask questions, seek clarifications, and discover the “why” behind the “what.” This often happens in small groups or Sunday School classes.
In this stage of learning, the students examine what they’ve heard and start to talk through what it might look like to live as if it were true. If they don’t participate in this opportunity to discuss the information they’ve heard, then they will not really learn to apply what they have heard from you.
It’s been said that the best way to learn is to teach. The reason why that’s true is that when you teach someone else, you have to synthesize the information in your own words, in a relevant way. Students can take notes on every sermon they ever hear and not cross over to this level of learning. This level of learning is only accessed when a student begins the process of trying to articulate and apply what he or she has heard in a different context from the initial hearing.
This is why I am such a big fan of enlisting older students to lead and teach younger students. When they lead and teach, the older students in your ministry have to move beyond regurgitating the words you’ve said and really work with the material to say what they mean with some degree of precision. That process forces them to think, and ultimately to learn.
Your sermons aren’t making disciples if they allow students to remain at the first level of learning: information. You must create easy opportunities for students to get the second level: conversation.
In conversation, students are able to examine the information you’ve shared in the context of small groups. If students aren’t able to attend a different program in order to make that happen, then it is incumbent upon you as their leader to create that kind of opportunity in the program they already attend. It might require an adjustment to your program, but the results far outweigh any headaches a change might cause you.
Beyond information and conversation, ask students to articulate the message – in words and deeds – in ways that are understandable to other people. Only when they arrive at that level – level three: articulation – can you be sure they have grasped what you have been saying all along.
Again, the three levels of learning are:
The sermon is only one part of that process (information). If you’re serious about making disciples and helping students follow Jesus, then you have to find a way to help them access levels two and three.
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