I was scrolling through my Facebook the other day and a question popped up on my news feed:
“I’ve been asked to give a talk to parents of first graders beginning formal religious education at breakfast after Mass this Sunday.
When I prayed about what to speak about to these parents, community keeps coming to me. And relationship. (Which I feel is so lacking in the Church, at least where we live.)
If you were in my shoes, what is the one simple message you’d want to impart to these parents?”
I didn’t have a lot of time to respond, but I made a quick reply:
“Happiness. What does every parent want for their child? They want them to be happy. Impress upon them that ultimately their children won’t be happy without God.”
The answer was quick and dirty. There was so much more to say and it’s been eating at me for the last day to write up a more detailed response. I also think this one example can serve as a case study for anyone with a similar question.
We all have had a version of this question at some point in our ministry. Whether we are a pastor trying to think of what to say for a homily, a youth minister thinking through our approach on a retreat, a speaker trying to prepare for a major conference or mission, or even just a parent trying to talk to our kids. Some version of this question is there.
At the root of the question in it’s various forms is this: what do I say that will make someone want more?
We know instinctually that we can’t say everything and we know that the work of conversion and discipleship takes longer than this one brief moment we might have with this person or group of people. The hope is that this will be one more step in their journey of becoming a disciple.
And to that point, I want to point out that the woman who asked the question started in the right place. She asked for what “one” and “simple” thing she could share.
The biggest trap in these moments is to try to get away from those two words. Either we say too much, or we make things too complicated, or we try to sound too smart.
When our opportunities seem limited, we want to make the most of them. It seems backwards, but the best way to use our limited opportunities is to make them as focused and purposeful as possible, not to try to cram everything in. Don’t try to say ten things. Don’t try to say five things. Just say one thing. Have one helpful and hopeful point that everything drives back to.
The worst thing we can do in communicating anything is make it complicated. The mind yearns for simplicity. Be as focused and clear as possible. Do NOT go off on tangents. Discipline yourself to create a well thought out and logical outline that makes the points easy for the listener to digest.
Everyone loves to sound smart. But sounding smart doesn’t get us anywhere when it comes to evangelization. No one is impressed with how smart you sound. Keep it simple. Keep it focused. Keep it practical.
Okay, so now, what do we say?
In this case, I recommended she speak on happiness. Why? Because all parents want their kids to be happy. If you ask most people what they want for their kids, this will be their first answer. I don’t care what they do, where they live, where they go to school, what they accomplish…I just want them to be happy.
Healthy is certainly another answer that is up there, and if they care about their faith then holy would be another desire. I usually say I just want my kids to be happy, holy, and healthy. But remember: one thing, not three things.
If you want people to be intrigued so that they will come back for more, the best place to start is always what the other person wants. Show them how what you have to say will help them get what they want.
There are other routes of course. Things that threaten us usually grab our attention. Things that make us feel guilty grab our attention too. Something that amazes or surprises us can also work. But surprising people with the gospel is hard. And I hope we can agree that threatening the group or making them feel guilty isn’t the right way to go. So appeal to what they want. That’s the easiest and most effective route.
The easiest way to screw this up is to try to appeal to something they don’t know they want. For example, do these parents want God? Absolutely. In the depths of our hearts our souls yearn for God. But do they know that or feel that? No, possibly not. And in the ways they do feel it, they probably don’t know that God is their real desire.
A lot of people get messed up with this. They believe - and rightly so - that the people they are trying to disciple want God in the depths of their heart and soul and so they try to appeal to that desire. But it doesn’t make sense. Why would you try to convince someone of a desire they don’t know they have, rather than appeal to a desire they do know they have?
Focus on a good and healthy desire they already know they want, and show them how God’s going to get them there. In the case of parents, it’s a good and healthy desire for them to want their kids to be happy. So show them how only God can ultimately lead them to happiness.
I use a basic five part model for figuring this out. I use this model when I’m giving a talk, writing a blog post, or even just thinking through a situation in my personal life. I’ve developed this model over the past fifteen years of ministry and use it in my work at Dynamic Catholic everyday.
Here are the five parts of the model:
You want: (the good and healthy desire)
God wants: (how God’s desire aligns with my good and healthy desire)
Problem: (why we don’t have what we want)
God’s solution: (how God helps us get it)
We have to do: (how we cooperate with God’s solution)
Here is how we can use this model as it applies to the parents problem:
You want: Your kids to be happy
God wants: Your kids to be happy
Problem: We struggle to choose the things that will make us happy. Sometimes we choose the things we absolutely know will not make us happy, and other times we struggle to choose the things we know will make us happy.
God’s solution: he has a plan for our happiness. If we live according to God’s plan we will be happy.
We have to: look for ways to be more open to God’s plan for happiness in my life. Easy ways to do that: prayer and Mass
And there I have it. I know exactly what I’m going to talk about. And not only that, you’ll notice that it gives me an entire outline for the talk. I’ll build out a few points around each of these main ideas, maybe throw in a personal story to emphasize one or two of them, and make sure I have some helpful and hopeful takeaways, and there it is.
How could I screw this plan up? I could go on a philosophical tangent on what it really means to be happy. I could dive deep into the theology of original sin and talk about how the reason we struggle to choose happiness is because of the fall. But those points steal away from the one simple message.
The next time you are prayerfully planning out what you are going to say and how you are going to say it, I hope this model will help you. Please shoot me an email or leave a comment with any thoughts or questions. I’m always happy to help in any way I can.
And, as always, thanks for reading!
My name is Dominick Albano and I'm an author, speaker, and consultant.