There’s an old adagio for writers, a golden rule if you wish. It’s this:
Show, don’t tell.
It’s about the difference between telling a reader what he should know, conclude, feel and showing him the situation, allowing for room for his or her own interpretation and emotions.
As a writer (while my main activity is non-fiction writing, I’m very much in love with fiction writing as well), this rule is very familiar to me. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to execute.
You see, telling is a lot faster than showing. Instead of finding the exact right words to picture someone being disappointed, I just write: He was disappointed.
Telling is more controllable than showing. Instead of hoping that the reader concludes for himself that the main character made a bad decision, I simply say: That was the biggest mistake he’d ever made.
Telling is more comfortable than showing. If I can just tell a character experiences pain, I don’t have to try and imagine what feeling pain looks like, feels like, shows up like.
And you know what, it’s exactly the same in youth ministry.
We can tell teens what the Gospel means, or we can show them.
We can tell them we love them and value them, or we can show them.
We can tell them what they should do, or we could show them what a disciple of Jesus looks like.
We can tell them what they should think, or we can show them what a transformed mind thinks like.
Showing is messy however. Showing costs time and energy. Showing has no clear, controlled outcome, not defined process, no one-surefire-way to success. Showing requires trust, patience and the art of letting go. Showing is a lot harder than telling.
But it’s so worth it. If we want true change, real discipleship, radical transformation, showing is the only way…
p.s. Richard Dunn talks about this principle at length in his book Shaping the spiritual life of students, though he uses the terms pacing and telling. I’ll be posting a review of his book sometime in the next few weeks, but it’s a great read for people who want to change their style into more telling and less showing!