A friend from my seminary days recently contacted me to ask if I had any suggestions on ways to engage youth in discussion so that they don't get bored. A tall order, as the last thing most teens want out of youth group is to feel like they are at school. And nothing is worse for the discussion leader than to be met with a long unending silence each time you ask a question. Below I've listed the top ten ways I've used in the past to help teens get beyond the awkwardness of sharing their thoughts in front of a group of people and start talking.
1) The Continuum - A non-threatening way to get teens thinking without the fear of saying something "stupid" is to indicate an imaginary line down the middle of the room. One end represents "agree," the other "disagree" and every gradation of opinion in between. Start off by making a statement related to your discussion topic such as "It's okay to be dishonest to avoid hurting some one's feelings." Teens then place themselves anywhere along the line that indicates how they feel about the statement. You can even ask some people to explain why they placed themselves where they did on the line. This is a low-stress way to get kids thinking, for them and you to see where other group members stand on the topic, and gets them moving around.
2) Hypotheticals - Write up some very brief (paragraph long) hypothetical situations that relate to your discussion and invite small groups to discuss their reactions.
3) Graffiti wall - Put up blank sheets of paper around the room, perhaps with different questions on them. Invite the youth to stand in small groups at each sheet, write or draw their responses, and then when you say "Next!" they move to the next sheet and respond there, also taking time to see what other groups have written.
4) Fishbowl - Put kids in a circle and take turns pulling questions related to your topic out of a hat. Then you pass the question around the circle and each person either passes or responds. I usually don't allow any feedback on any one's responses until everyone has had a chance to share.
5) Vote - Have a mock election with a ballot covering the issues you want to discuss and have everyone fill out the ballot at the beginning. During the discussion, have someone tabulate the votes. You could divide groups up into those who are pro/con on the issues and have them develop their arguments and give stump speeches. At the end, either reveal the results of the vote, give them a chance to vote again and see if you get different results now that they are (hopefully) more informed, or simply ask for a show of hands of those who have altered their opinion since the beginning of the discussion.
6)Posters - Before discussing a particular issue, invite small groups to brainstorm how they might illustrate the topic graphically. Invite the small groups to create a poster that promotes their ideas and questions and then show the posters to the whole group.
7) Images - provide images that relate to the issues you want teens to discuss and ask them to select one or more that corresponds to their feelings or thoughts and explain why they connected with those images. (e.g. on a discussion about gay marriage you might get photos from magazines of different types of couples, a wedding cake, a single person, a church, etc).
8) Talk Partners - Many people, particularly introverts, are uncomfortable just sharing their thoughts to a question off the tops of their heads but given time to think through their answer, they are more likely to respond. When posing a question to the group, invite teens to turn to a person next to them and share their thoughts. This gives each person some time to "rehearse" their possible answer without the stress of sharing it in front of the whole group. After a minute of two, call the group back together and invite those who are willing to share their answer or share something thoughtful that their partner offered.
9) Role Play - If your youth are uncomfortable or shy about sharing their own thoughts, ask them to share the thoughts of someone else through role playing. Create a "persona" for each participant and provide them with a written description (e.g. "Cory is 18 years old and works for his dad. He has no plan to go to college when he graduates so he doesn't see anything wrong with cheating on tests in order to pass his senior year.") As you discuss the topic, invite youth to respond as their character might.
10) Talk Tokens - Sometimes the challenge to getting teens talking is that some talk too much and some talk too little. To try to break that pattern, provide everyone with the same number of tokens. I like to use poker chips but you could use anything: pennies, buttons, playing cards, etc. During your discussion, each time a person speaks he or she must toss a token in the middle of the circle. Once their tokens are gone, they become a "listener" while they wait for everyone else to use up their tokens. The tokens are only redistributed after everyone has used up their turns to speak.