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Six elements of a sticky message: credibility

[This post is part of the series on Preaching for youth]. We’re delving into Made to Stick, the book by the Heath brothers on how to make ideas and messages stick, and applying this to preaching for youth. There are six elements of a sticky message and so far we’ve looked at simplicity, unexpectedness and concreteness. Today we’re looking at making your message credible.


We don’t just believe any idea or any message. Whether we believe a message or not, whether we take it seriously or not, is influenced by many factors. We believe friends and family over strangers. We believe what we know over what we don’t know. We believe what fits into our thinking ‘schemes’ over what contradicts them, or even nullifies them. We believe in authorities more than the common man.

The common denominator is trust. We believe messages from people and sources we trust.

Gaining your audience’s trust

That makes gaining your audience’s trust a big goal. Why should they believe what you’re saying, why should they take you seriously?

1. Be authentic

Authenticity is a big, if not crucial, element of gaining trust. If you are not yourself, if you are in any way pretending, the students you’re talking to will pick up on this and they’ll distrust you. Don’t try to be cool if you’re not, just be who you are.

2. Be personal

If you want your audience to trust you, you have to share a bit of yourself. This is especially true if the students in your audience don’t know you that well. They have to like you before they trust you, so you’ll have to find some common ground. That doesn’t mean liking the same music for instance or pretending so (honestly: I wouldn’t listen to R&B if they paid me – really dislike it, even though it’s very popular). I’ve discovered that emotions are often a good place to start. If you share being insecure, feeling like a failure, making mistakes, etc, they will relate to you.

3. Be real

I’ve learned that being open about your own struggles and weaknesses, especially in your relationship with God, gets you a lot of trust from students. They can’t identify with someone who has all the answers, who seems to have no problem living a perfect life, who always has it together. Life is messy and we as youth leaders fail all the time as well. Being honest about this will help our students trust us, because we’ll be real to them.

Because trust is such a big issue, personal testimonies often work well in getting a message across. If you want to preach on the dangers of drinking for instance, having a teen or young adult share his or her story about struggling with alcoholism of the effects of drinking too much will by much more effective that sprouting off Bible passages.


Vivid details

But there’s more to creating a credible message. Research shows that vivid details reinforce a message’s credibility. Those urban legends that have vivid details are the last ones to die, because we believe them since they have so many details.

What can you do to include vivid details into your message? The Bible shares many vivid details in its stories, are we always including those, highlighting them? If we want our students to believe in the truthfulness of God’s Word, perhaps we should stress the vivid details that the Bible shows more often. A sermon in narrative form is a wonderful way of doing this.


Statistics are also a good way to make your message more credible, but here you run the risk of making it too dry. If you have relevant statistics to share, make sure you translate them to the ‘human scale’, use examples from every day life. For instance: 1 in every 10 teens is depressed is a cold statistic, but if you say to you group of 40 teens: “look around you, statistically speaking 4 of you are suffering from depression right now”, it’s suddenly a lot more real.

There’s more in Made to Stick about creating a credible message and I really encourage you to read it for yourself. Our message, God’s message to our young people that He loves them, that He sent His Son to die for their sins, is so important, we can’t afford to mess it up.

There’s a contradiction here because the Bible says itself that the Gospel is foolishness to those who don’t believe it (1 Cor. 1:18). Ultimately, it’s God’s Spirit who has to convince hearts of the ‘credibility’ of the Gospel. We have to do our part of making it as credible as we can, removing all obstacles that may hinder students from taking the Gospel seriously. But after that, it’s up to God…fortunately, because He is able to do far more that we could ever come up with and He can and will bless even our weakest attempts at getting it right!

[Image: Joel Kingsbury via FreeImages]
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