Several years ago, I participated in a multigenerational mission trip to India. As our young students boldly shared before large groups of people there, they often began by saying, “I’d like to thank you guys for inviting us to come to your country.”
Unfortunately, the English word guy sounds quite similar to the Hindi word gaay . . . which means “cow.” So what our audiences heard was, “I’d like to thank you cows for inviting us to come to your country.” It’s important to tailor your message to your audience! And we tried—but breaking American teenagers of the habit of saying guys proved near impossible.
I recently received a text from a younger youth pastor I’ve coached, asking me for advice on how to tailor a message to middle school students. I love working with middle schoolers, but I know that for some people, middle school feels like a foreign country. Understanding your audience and appreciating their culture will help you tailor a message for them. Here are four ways you can prepare and deliver a message that will move middle schoolers:
1) YOU MOVE
There’s nothing static about a middle school student, and so there shouldn’t be anything static about your talk. Make sure you’re moving as you communicate with middle schoolers. Walk toward your audience or from one side of the stage to the other, kneel or sit down to draw your audience’s attention to a new place on the stage, or extend your arms to make a point. Movement doesn’t need to be unnatural in any way, and it shouldn’t distract from your message. Done well, movement on the part of the speaker can help keep your middle school audience connected and focused.
2) THEY MOVE
Along the same lines, getting your audience to move is effective as well. When I speak to middle school students, I may throw in a quick question with instructions to “Stand up if you’ve ever _____,” or I’ll ask the audience for a round of applause after another student has shared. (Clapping acts as a stimulus.) Middle schoolers need to move. Giving them opportunity to do so within the context of listening can actually refocus and refine their attention.
3) BE MOVING
Be passionate about your subject. Middle school students want to hear your story as it relates to the story of God. As you share from Scripture, make sure you talk about how God is transforming you. There’s a fine line between being moving and seeking to manipulate. Be truthful, be honest, and invite students to see the active movement of God in your life.
4) INVITE THEM TO A MOVEMENT
I believe the best way to put an exclamation mark on a good middle school message is to invite a student to action (movement). Give them something simple, practical, and doable. Sometime this movement can be specific, such as inviting them to come to a service project, but I believe the most effective movements are the ones the students initiate after being inspired and invited to dream and to do.
As you get to know your middle school audience, put these four movements into action—take some risks in your talks. Just don’t call the students cows!
BRIAN AABY is the director of YS SEARCH & YS COACHING, assisting churches with personnel placement and provides coaching guidance for youth leaders. Brian served for 17 years as a youth pastor and then founded and led Youthmark since 2008. Brian speaks nationally at churches, camps, conference, and events. He and his wife, Elisabeth, have three children and reside near Seattle.