A few weeks back Stephen Colbert pointed out research about the decline of the reading level of the State of the Union address over the years. The latest Presidential address came in around an 8th grade reading level. By comparison, John F Kennedy’s speeches averaged around a 12th grade level, and the Constitution was written around a 17th grade level.
It shouldn’t surprise anybody that our literacy is losing it’s eloquence, especially any of us that are blessed to be around teenagers. A few minutes on Facebook and one could very easily be driven to become a literary missionary traveling cyberspace to explain the difference between your and you’re.
I think one of the dangers in this cultural shift is that we assume students are not capable of, or desire to seek depth in their communication. It would be very easy to write-off a student who’s texts barely qualify as english, as a ‘surface’ thinker. And why not? Media outlets that have invested billions of dollars into entertaining our teens certainly seem to believe in aiming for the lowest common denominator when it comes to depth of thought.
Growing up, one of the things I remember, and liked the most about my youth minister was the depth of conversation we had over the years. That was his calling card, and it resonated with so many of the students that he worked with. When we began our youth ministry program last year, one of the big goals was to seek and foster deep conversation. Over the past several years I’ve noticed a chasm developing between the complexities of our culture, especially for teens, and our ability to process these complexities. Students may gravitate towards communicating in a ‘cuL8r’ language, but they are increasingly in the midst of difficult situations. Our goal was simple, foster deep thought to help equip students navigate difficult times.
There are plenty of reasons to shy away from going ‘too deep’ with a youth ministry. We tend to worry about how students, especially younger students, will track with conversations that may be a little over their head. We can also get worried about dealing with difficult questions that could arise. Here are a few of my goals, tips and thoughts on fostering deep thinkers:
- It’s okay for the younger students not to get everything right off the bat. Obviously there needs to be a time where they are completely engaged, but it is okay to challenge the younger of the herd. That’s how growth occurs. If we let younger students off the hook now when it comes to deep thought, how long do we wait to ask them to engage their ‘deep thinking’? My experience says that deep thought is something that has to be groomed over time, through constant care and guidance. One does not simply become a deep thinker overnight.
- In my experience we tend to underestimate students’ depth of thinking. We do a comparison to our own level of thought at their age and assume because we know so much more now, that they can’t handle our conversation. Realistically, what we used to expect to be on the minds of our college students is probably what our high-schoolers are dwelling on, high school to jr high, and so on.
- Talk about difficult or complex subjects or situations, and let students surprise you. If the group as a whole isn’t tracking it’s okay to tone it down a little, but don’t sell students short from the start.
- Encourage and equip parents to talk to their children about complex issues. What better place than the dinner table to discuss some of life’s more difficult questions.
- Not every question needs to be answered. If you don’t have a straightforward answer to a students’ question it’s okay to say ‘I don’t know’. It’s even better to let them know you’ve been thinking about the same thing.
- Don’t answer every question immediately. Let the kids wrestle with difficult ideas. I’ve got my own views on what it means to ‘love your neighbor’ but I am constantly impressed by the varying answers my students give to applying that principle.
- Make students explain their response. If they give a great answer to a question, follow up with, ‘can you explain what you mean?’ or my favorite, ‘that’s a great answer, can you tell me why’?.
- Joke around. I put a time limit on deep discussions to let students (and if I’m being completely honest, myself) time to let new ideas take root. In the mean time, seek laughter and levity. Even watching Saving Private Ryan can get old if you don’t throw in Dumb and Dumber every once in a while to bring in some laughs.
- Speak from an overflow of thought. Challenge yourself to pursue writings, authors, poets etc that push your depth. You may not need to have all the answers, but you should be a few steps ahead of your students. Trying to play catch-up to your students would be a difficult task to overcome.
I’d love to hear your thoughts, suggestions, and where you agree or disagree. And yes, I realize this was probably written at a 6th grade level.
One love, one heart.