The art and science of persuading teenagers

Chap Clark's perspective on communication theory and youth ministry

Mark Maines Image Mark Maines | Jun 12, 2006

“Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others.” [2 Corinthians 5:11, NRSV]

The Apostle Paul’s own writings to the people of Corinth couldn’t be clearer. He understood his role as an agent of change in people’s lives. As a result of being captured by the awe and wonder of the Lord, Paul unapologetically tries to persuade others.

As youth workers, we too are called to be agents of change in people’s lives. This may be the precise reason you entered ministry in the first place: you had a strong desire to partner with the Holy Spirit to help bring about godly change in students. Like Paul, it’s this desire to have others know “the fear of the Lord” that motivates you. But I wonder how many of us think of ourselves as agents of persuasion? How many of us view persuasion as a primary tool to help introduce others to the wonder and awe of the Lord?

Do we think of persuasion as a weapon used to warp students’ minds, or a cultivating tool used to prepare “good soil” for receiving the truths of the Gospel?

In short, do we view persuasion positively or negatively?

The Greek word Paul uses for persuade can be generally defined as “to convince someone to believe something and to act on the basis of what is recommended.” [The Greek word is peitho. Definition from J.P. Louw & E.A. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on semantic domains,(New York: United Bible Societies, 1996).] When Paul writes persuade, he means to “convince”, “win-over”, help others “trust” or even “obey”. In Paul’s ministry, we glimpse what is possible when persuasion is used effectively: people in the Corinthian community move toward Jesus and become more like Him. These are the positive outcomes of effective communication.

However, this same word also carries negative connotations and has the potential to produce very negative change in people. In other places in Scripture it means, “to mislead”, “to entice”, “to prevail upon”, or even “to talk-over”. There seems to be a very fine line between persuasion and manipulation. One of my best friends (who no longer attends church and whose profession is in medical sales) likes to tease me that I am a better salesman than him, saying things like, “Mark, you must be a great salesman if you can still keep selling Jesus to the public.” He is expressing the reality that even our best attempts at “persuasion” can quickly turn to or be received as “manipulation.”

In one of the chapters in their book Deep Ministry in a Shallow World, [Chap Clark and Kara Powell, Deep Ministry in a Shallow World: Not-So-Secret Findings About Youth Ministry, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006).] Dr. Chap Clark and Dr. Kara Powell from the Fuller Youth Institute explore how to use communication theory to better minister to today’s adolescents. They answer questions like:

  • How do we use communication to foster positive change in students’ lives?
  • How do we keep from manipulating them in the process?, and
  • What can we learn from social science to help us become better communicators of the Gospel?

The following discussion includes excerpts from that chapter as well as other material Chap has presented that can help us better understand the role of communication in youth ministry and how to more faithfully live out this calling as agents of persuasion.

What is Social Judgment Theory, and how can we learn from it?

Social Judgment Theory, first studied by Muzafer Sheriff and his associates, [C. Sherif, M. Sherif, & R. Nebergall, Attitude and attitude change: The social judgment-involvement approach, (Philadelphia: Saunders, 1965).] states that the more a person cares about something, the more entrenched they will be against a differing opinion. Every person comes to any discussion, small group, class or program with a fairly sophisticated system of beliefs, attitudes and values (this is true of both adults and adolescents). Beliefs are what we think is true, attitudes are our predispositions to respond to a given situation, and values are those things that we hold up as important. The more strongly and deeply someone holds onto particular beliefs, attitudes, and values, the harder it is to disrupt them or challenge them. The goal in utilizing Social Judgment Theory is to determine the initial perspective of the person you are trying to reach so that you will have the best shot at inviting them to consider a change.

What happens next?

Every time we are confronted with a message that tries to persuade us, we have to make a choice, or actually a series of choices. We have to first decide whether we will allow this person or message to get through to us (in youth ministry we’ve seen that one up close!). We then need to decide how much of our own opinions and feelings we are going to let get dragged into what is being asked of us. And finally we need to decide how much of our carefully-crafted perspectives we will allow to be confronted by the message and whether or not we are willing to change our minds about whatever the message is saying. Given this series of choices going on inside your students’ minds, your task as the persuader is to help them consider saying “yes” at all three points of decision.

Considering these choices, and how our students are hearing us, what is the best way to help them connect with our communication?

Let’s say you are trying to get across a message to Juan, a high school sophomore who you have a great relationship with, but also he has let you know that he “has his own opinions.” The more “ego-involved” Juan is in a particular topic, the harder he will work to avoid being persuaded to think differently. But Kerry, who generally doesn’t care as passionately about most issues (in social science terms, is not too “ego involved”), will be somewhat neutral to any persuasive appeal, unless something causes her to sit up and take notice. If either Juan or Kerry become convinced that the issue does somehow matter to them, Kerry will move from apathy to engagement and Juan will at least give the message a hearing.

What else is going on behind these choices of whether or not to receive a message?

The logic behind the Social Judgment Theory is best described by the Assimilation-Contrast Effect. If someone with high ego-involvement (i.e., Juan whose initial attitude is entrenched against our position) feels like a message and appeal is too far from where he is now, he will probably feel like his position is being threatened. This will, more than likely, push him even further from your desired change than when you started (this is called the contrast effect). [Ralph Rosnow, “Magnitude of Impact,” Experiments in Persuasion, (Ed. Leon Festinger, et al, New York: Academic Press, 1967), 399-408.]] But if Juan feels like a message and appeal respects him and only tries to get him to move a little toward you, more than likely he will move closer to your position (the assimilation effect). [Richard M. Perloff, The Dynamics of Persuasion (New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1993).] The key is Juan’s initial attitude and how open he is to changing his mind. In youth ministry, most of our students resist engaging in our messages either because they don’t see a need to care about the topic at hand or they think what we say may go against what they feel strongly about.

The best way to picture this is on a 7-point scale that measures initial attitudes: [Sarah Trenholm, Persuasion and Social Influence (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1982).] For instance, when teaching passages like 1Thessalonians 4:3-8 (about holy living), and Philippians 4:8 (about examining the focus of our thoughts), you may want to persuade your students toward a certain biblical truth. If most of your students are between 2 and 4 on the above scale, the Social Judgment Theory suggests that the best way to convince them is not to try and get them to a 7, but rather to get them to think about, discuss, and pray about moving one point toward your position. After they have responded by moving closer to your perspective, then the next message should try and persuade them to move a little more (like, the next small group meeting can follow up on this teaching), and so on. In other words, even while we try and persuade someone, out of respect for them (1 Peter 3:15) we should not try to push them further than they are easily able to go. Our intent, rather, is to guide them into honest dialogue with the Spirit through the Scriptures. Certainly, the Spirit of God can and sometimes does move someone all the way from 1-7 quickly, but given the way people normally respond, this probably shouldn’t be the goal or method of all of our communication.

How can we address the fact that the Assimilation-Contrast Effect is happening all the time in our youth ministry communication?

If we can anticipate and recognize students’ initial attitudes or level of ego-involvement, we will have a far better chance at getting them to allow their minds to interact with our message. We have to make sure our speaking or teaching is, first, compelling and interesting enough to warrant them even giving our message a chance. Second, we need to make sure our message lines up close enough to their initial attitude that they are not threatened (but not so close they just flippantly agree with us) while at the same time pushing them a little bit closer to the end goal of what it is we are trying to communicate.

If our job as youth workers is to help persuade our students, how do we not manipulate students in the process? What, really, is the difference between persuasion and manipulation?

The only difference between persuasion and manipulation is the intent or the ethic of the persuader. The goal of persuasion is to get someone to move from one way of thinking to a different way of thinking. Manipulation is the same thing, but it is trying to trick someone into doing it. The issue becomes: do we want someone to make up their own mind, or are we trying to trick them into agreeing with us? Persuasion is ethical, and can certainly be loving. Manipulation is neither.

Assuming our intent and motives are pure, what is the most effective mode of persuasion?

The most effective way to make an appeal is unexpected disclosure. Some research suggests that this practice has up to an 80% chance of success. Unexpected disclosure is simply revealing information that is surprising or seems different from the expected “script” of the message in the mind of the hearer.

What makes “unexpected disclosure” so influential?

As any appeal progresses, the receiver of the message begins to build up internal counter-arguments to the appeal. Unexpected disclosure confronts the person’s internal dialog and can temporarily erase any counter-arguments that have developed in the person’s mind. This is why testimonies can be such persuasive modes of communication, because they include real-life examples of struggles, failures, doubts, or other unexpected insights that aren’t readily known just by looking at the person or knowing them peripherally. This new information can often counteract the expected flow of information and cause a person to reconsider their initial beliefs, attitudes or values.

Another example of unexpected disclosure is speaking frankly about the failures of the Church to someone who is skeptical about Christianity. When the “believer” says, “Yes, I agree. The Church is broken in so many ways, and has really missed the point of Jesus’ message over and over again,” the person hearing that message has been given an unexpected gift that counters the assumed script of the conversation. Now that “skeptic’s” ears are open again to hearing what the real message of Jesus might be about, and how the Church can still be a community of reconciliation.

What are common mistakes you see people make that promote defensiveness in others?

Defensiveness occurs when we believe someone is attacking us or is out to change us. When defensiveness occurs, it is the interplay between the person who is being attacked and the person presenting the data. There are a number of behaviors that promote defensiveness in others when we use them. Here are a few:

1. Superiority: When we take positions of superiority, we imply “I am further down the road than you on this, and therefore better than you.” The difficult thing about superiority is that it is the perception of the receiver that defines superiority. That means we’re not entirely in charge of how we come across as senders. We can, however, evaluate our own words and attitudes that might create barriers of superiority and try to remove those.

2. Certainty: When we portray an attitude which communicates, “I am so certain about my position that anyone who doesn’t see it my way is obviously wrong.” Even if a person agrees with us, this attitude of certainty will cause them to be defensive, and therefore less likely to hear our message.

3. Control: When you control the dialog or interaction in such a way that you communicate, “I’m in charge. You have nothing to contribute,” the other person then feels like they are being boxed in or that the conversation is too one-sided.

4. Strategy: If someone smells any hint of strategy, they will get defensive immediately – especially high school students! Strategy feels manipulative, and often is. This is why many apologetic tools for “sharing the Gospel” that we teach students (or use on them) prove ineffective. Right away, the “strategy flags” go off in their heads and their internal counter-arguments start flying. We have to be careful that we don’t use “unexpected disclosure” as a manipulative strategy, either. Again, there is a fine line here that mostly involves our motives.

Becoming Gentle Agents of Persuasion

With all of this talk about disclosure, defensiveness, and manipulation, you might be feeling fairly helpless as a communicator. Contrary to what you may be thinking, however, we do not have to walk around on eggshells when we’re talking with students. Our best bet is to be authentic and transparent in our communication of the Good News of the Kingdom of God revealed through the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is responsible for His own words, and we do not need to make excuses for Him or sugar-coat His difficult teachings. At the same time, we are responsible to use the Word of God wisely and lovingly, never as a weapon or an instrument of oppression.

I Peter 3:15 becomes our guide. “In your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience…” Our call as communicators is to be as respectful of the image of God in others as we possibly can be in the way we speak the truth to them. As a result, our “reason for the hope we have” will come across as genuine and humble. While sometimes the truth of the Gospel is also offensive and disarming, the offense should never come from our inability to persuade without manipulation.

Action Points:

  • Do you think that there is a real difference between persuasion and manipulation, or are we just interchanging terms? If you think there’s a difference, how would you describe it in your own words?
  • Thinking back over your own typical approaches to communicating new messages to students, how do your practices match up with these insights from persuasion theory?
  • Looking at the 7-point attitude shift scale, do you tend to take a “next steps” or “baby steps” approach in discipling students, or more of a hard-charging “1-to-7-right-now” approach? What are the implications of either?
  • What is one practical way you can apply a new practice from this article to your communication with students this week, either in a teaching presentation or in a conversation? What discipline can you practice that will make your persuasion more authentic and perhaps more effective?

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Photo by Melanie Pongratz

Mark Maines Image
Mark Maines

Mark Maines is a Navy Chaplain currently assigned to 1st Battalion, 5th Marines. He is committed to helping individuals and organizations thrive in both their leadership and their followership. He holds an MDiv from Fuller Seminary, and serves on the Advisory Council for FYI. He can be reached at

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