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Fuller Youth Institute, US
Sophia Network, UK
Pushing the Senses
You don’t need me to tell you how different our world was to the one that our young people currently live in. But how does your youth work reflect against the sophistication and ingenuity of the mediums that dominate youth culture?
Mobile phones have become mobile computers, with a welcome animation more graphically advanced than most computers we grew up on. Games consoles now require our touch and motion to play and imitate life itself. And with not one screen remaining the same for more than 30 seconds, the internet is more addictive than ever!
So why are these mediums so absorbing? How do they keep young people’s attention for hours on end when we struggle to have 10 minute interventions? One answer… they push the senses! They connect with young people’s senses of sight and touch in ways that deserve our applause – even if it is with envy!
Some may condemn and shun these mediums, putting them into the receptacle of self-centred consumer-culture, but there is much to learn from them. If you want to know how young people think… spend five minutes on ‘myspace.com’. If you want to know how much young people like participation, play a ‘Wii’. And if you want to know how much young people relish choice, buy the latest phone.
I’m not saying we have to compete with the pixels, gigabytes and infra-red – we can’t – but we can learn from their impact. How many of the senses did your last youth talk incorporate and how were they utilized? Unfortunately we live in a time when a PowerPoint slideshow with random animations would probably not class as ‘visually engaging’ to a lot of young people.
The good news is that we don’t need to panic, nor do we need to let God know – he’s been doing it for thousands of years!
An example of this In Jeremiah 13 where God tells Jeremiah to buy a linen belt, hide it in a rock crevice and come back to it days later. When Jeremiah digs up the belt it is rotten and useless. God tells Jeremiah that like the belt, Judah will become useless because of their rebellion. So why use a belt? Why make Jeremiah go through the motions? Why not just tell him?
The difference is that Jeremiah wouldn’t have just heard what rebellion was like. He would have seen it, felt it and even smelled it. Having felt the smoothness of the linen next to his skin, it would have upset him inside when he saw that same piece of luxury reduced to rot. God’s prophecy was no longer a mere message to deliver to Judah on his rounds, but now an urgent burden that had engulfed his whole being through his senses.
This instance and many others (Jeremiah 18, 19, 24, 32, Ezekiel 4, 5, 12, 24, 37), show us not only about God’s creative nature but are a nod back to our very existence. God’s creativity was not in how he utilises Jeremiah senses, but in the truth that he designed him to have senses!
In the beginning, God created a world that resonated with his own nature. Not an accidental, two-dimensional, silent, bland landscape but a purposeful, loud, multi-dimensional, living, breathing masterpiece that cried out to be embraced. Therefore, we live in an ever-changing world that grabs all of our senses, because it was made by a God who is alive, creative, purposeful and reachable.
When God made Adam and Eve they were instantly ready for a physical, living world that they could feel. For example, God brought the animals to Adam so he could interact with them – he didn’t just tell him about them – he let him engage with them (Gen 2). Our senses are not something that theme parks or Nintendo® have discovered!
So what about us? Has the ‘burning bush’ become a gimmick to us? Have the instances where God communicates other than through the ‘audible voice’ become invalid because of their over-use in children’s stories? – a donkey, angel, guiding star, fleece, writing on a wall etc.
God did not use these means just to help us create a children’s bible or action songs on Sundays – he used them to connect with his people with sober and intimate impact.
Furthermore, Jesus was always referring to everyday items for his listeners – seeds, bread, corn, figs, coins, sheep, fish, cups, swords, clothing etc. Not just to relate to them, but because they were things people saw, touched, smelled and tasted!
If you ask a young person to withcall one of their favourite talks, it would highly likely be one that involved a well-told story, an object of some kind, a video clip or one where someone had to volunteer.
In conclusion then, it shouldn’t surprise us when the most talked about sessions are ones where young people weren’t just spoken to. God purposefully made us with five senses, so using them all shouldn’t be a ‘gimmick’… it should be a ‘given’.
Connecting… please wait!
So next time you plan a talk or a study or a detached session, ask yourself:
- Is it engaging the young person through more than one of their senses?
- Will the intervention remain with them for longer than the event?
- Are you just communicating with young people or are you ‘connecting’ with them?
- Is your youth work ‘pushing the senses’?