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Three-Phase Experiment

We conducted a three-phase experiment at Rockford College, and used over 100 college graduates who were preparing for youth ministry.

In the first phase, we took a young volunteer from the room and blindfolded him. We simply told him that when he returned, he could do anything he wished. He remained outside the room while we instructed each audience member to think of a simple task for the volunteer to do. When the volunteer returned, they were to shout their individual instructions at him from where they sat. Prior to this, we privately instructed another person to shout a very specific task at the blindfolded volunteer as though it were a matter of life and death. This person was to attempt to persuade the blindfolded volunteer to climb the steps at the back of the auditorium and embrace an instructor who was standing at the door; he had to shout this vital message from where he sat in the audience. The volunteer was oblivious to all instructions and previous arrangements. The volunteer represented our young people, the audience represented the world of voices screaming for their attention, and the person with the vital message represented those of us who bring the message of the Gospel to youth. The blindfolded student was led back into the room. The lecture room exploded in a din of shouting. Each person tried to get the volunteer to follow his or her unique instructions. In the midst of the crowd, the voice of the person with the vital message was lost; no single message stood out. The blindfolded student stood paralyzed by confusion and indecision. He moved randomly and without purpose as he sought to discern a clear and unmistakable voice in the crowd.

The second phase: we told the audience about the person attempting to get the volunteer to accomplish the vital task. At this point we chose another person from the audience to add a new dimension. This person’s goal was to, at all costs, keep the volunteer from doing the vital task. While the rest of the audience was to remain in their seats, these two people were allowed to stand next to the volunteer and shout their opposing messages. They could get as close as they wished; however, they were not allowed to touch the volunteer. As the blindfolded volunteer was led back into the room, the shouting began again. This time, because the two messengers were standing so close, the volunteer could hear both messages; but because the messages were opposed to each other, he vacillated. He followed one for a bit, then was convinced by the other to go the opposite direction. In order for young people to hear our message we must get close to them. Even then, there are others with opposing messages who also are close enough to make their messages clear. Sometimes they are peers, relatives .The main lesson: only the close voices could be heard. Even though the volunteer took no decisive action, at least he heard the message.

The response to the third phase was startling. In this phase everything remained the same except the one with the vital message was allowed to touch the volunteer. He could not pull, push or in any way force the volunteer to do his bidding; but he could touch him, and in that way encourage him to follow. The blindfolded volunteer was led into the room. When he appeared, the silence erupted into an earsplitting roar. The two messengers stood close, shouting their opposing words. Then, the one with the vital message put his arm gently around the volunteer’s shoulder and leaned very close to speak directly into his ear. Almost without hesitation, the volunteer began to yield to his instruction. Occasionally he paused to listen as the opposition frantically tried to convince him to turn around. But then, by the gentle guidance of touch, the one with the vital message led him on. A moment of frightening realism occurred spontaneously as the one with the vital message drew close to the goal. All those in the audience, who up to this point had been shouting their own individual instruction, suddenly joined in unison to keep the volunteer from taking those final steps.

Goose bumps appeared all over my body as students began to chant together, “Don’t go!” “Don’t go!” “Don’t go!” So many times I’ve seen the forces that pull our youth in different directions join together to dissuade them from a serious commitment to Christ. The chant grew to a pulsing crescendo, “Don’t go!” “Don’t go!” But the guiding arm of the one with the vital message never left the volunteer’s shoulder. At the top of the stairs in the back of the lecture hall, the one with the vital message leaned one last time to whisper in the ear of the volunteer. There was a moment of hesitation, then the volunteer threw his arms around the instructor and the auditorium erupted in cheers and applause.

When the volunteer revealed how he felt as he went through each phase, it became apparent that if our message is to be heard, we cannot shout it from the cavernous confines of our church buildings. We must venture out and draw close to those with whom we wish to communicate. If we really seek a life-changing commitment from our young people, we also must reach out where they are and in love, gently touch them and lead them to that commitment. We asked the volunteer why he followed the one with the vital message, the one who touched him. After a few moments he said, “Because it felt like he was the only one who really cared.”

Ken Davis, How To Speak To Youth, pp. 19-23