inviting teens to make decisions without being manipulative

brad hauge, a brilliant and thoughtful youth worker friend and YMCP grad, sent me an email the other day with a great question:

You tweeted this from the camp you were speaking at last weekend:

“Amazing night at the Fairfield County Winter Summit. About 40 teens decided to follow Jesus tonight.”

I’m honestly interested in what the looks like when you are speaking and leading those moments. Not sure if you have the time/ability to type that out… but man, I trust how you speak and lead (e.g. not manipulating emotions, making promises that may not hold up, etc) and have been struggling with this for a while. Which seems weird to type…

But I’m really working at how to lead moments at camps/retreats/trips that aren’t manipulative, that aren’t gross, that aren’t about numbers… but still give kids a chance to confess their desire to know and follow Jesus in a healthy both in that moment and then in their future contexts.

my response:

yeah, i went back and forth about including that number 40 in that tweet, for all the reasons you list. it’s been a journey for me also. many years ago, i found that i was really good at manipulating teens (especially JHers); and, disgusted with that, moved away from calling teens to a decision (though i probably still focused a good bit on application and ‘next steps’ stuff). but i eventually came back around, in a way. i realize that most teens need to make decisions (heck: most adults do also) that feel like important place-in-time commitments. and i’m not all that concerned any more about whether that decision “sticks” completely — most need to make a series of decisions. in my thinking now, i see those commitment points as ebeneezers on their journeys — points in real time where they sensed that they were experiencing god, and wanted to mark that in some way.

so — i’m VERY careful not to manipulate. i use common language and am not overly emotive. but i do offer an opportunity to respond — usually a first-time commitment as well as a recommitment of sorts. i tell them they can express that desire to god however they want. and then i offer that if they’re not sure how to pray, i’ll suggest some words, and they can “grab them out of the air and make them their own.” i try to avoid overly churchy words (i don’t talk about a ‘personal decision to follow christ’ or ‘get saved’ or anything like that at all; i usually use wording that connects with whatever talk i’ve just given).

i RARELY do ‘come down front’ (alter call) responses anymore — i don’t like them, but am willing to if the event hosts really want me to. but i’ll often ask for students who made a commitment to raise their hands and make eye contact with me. i take time, looking around the room and intentionally try to point to each one and make eye contact and say “i see you.” this past weekend, i actually had them stand up too (just what i sensed i was to do in the moment — this group felt like it needed a little extra action step). i have found that some sort of physical action (even as tiny as raising a hand) goes a long way to make the moment more impactful and memorable. sort of like the action of physically building an ebeneezer.

so, what are your thoughts? have you struggled with this tension?

8 thoughts on “inviting teens to make decisions without being manipulative”

  1. Love this. Something that I’ve developed in the past couple years and see as an appropriate way of leading these types of moments is the idea of teaching that we are all taking steps towards something. Whatever trajectory our life is on that is what we are stepping towards. Therefore the decision is to take a step closer to Jesus, being like Jesus, living like Jesus, loving like Jesus. So they can make their first step towards Jesus or their thousandth step and encourage them to continue stepping, walking with others on the way towards becoming more like Christ.

  2. Great thoughts Marko and I agree. Working with middle schoolers is an adventure in emotions and extreme ones at that. To help them on the journey is much more important than a one time anything. As I tell my team – we just want to give them opportunities to take spiritual steps forward.

  3. Growing up fundamentalist Baptist, I loath altar calls. The song “Just As I Am” causes me to get nauseous. I agree that people need moments – but I don’t need to know. Those moments turn into moments to make the speaker look good.

  4. Yeah, they sure can! I would say that I don’t ask for a raise of hands for my benefit, though. I purely do it because I know that the physical action helps create a memory for the teenager.

  5. As usual, Marko – I really like the thoughts you’re bringing to the table, asking everyone to think a little deeper. :)
    In the past couple of years I’ve been more aware of students who “want to put a stake in the ground”… but it’s not necessarily a first time decision for them. And so we’ve experimented with not only giving students a chance to privately “raise a hand” to make a first-time-commitment to follow Jesus…but also for students who want to declare their intention for something else. (and I’m not necessarily talking about “recommitments”… which is another word that makes my skin crawl!

  6. I’m not sure how effective it was, but I had each youth group at the event to circle up with their group. I invited them to commit in that context, because I wanted to make sure there was follow-up not only from leaders, but other students they are walking with back home.

    It made it easier this was an event where most stayed in tents (in the middle of the mountains of Pennsylvania, so gorgeous), where they had some great debriefing time afterwards. I gave each of the youth pastors some debriefing questions in case they got stuck.

    Again, I don’t know on the effectiveness, but this was handling the manipulation question in my mind, in addition to the follow-up question, which was one of my biggest criticisms of the method in the first place. Like I say at all events I speak at, “You can make these moments a tombstone, where you bury it and leave it there, or you can make it a milestone, a time where you said, “I was forever changed here.” Hence, the Ebenezer.

    I had many youth leaders tell me the way I did it was great for them because it gave them space to follow up TOGETHER in their community. I found many of them talking with their friends more about their decision, in addition to their adult leaders.

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