Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Danger of the “I Versus YOU Syndrome”

A couple of weeks ago I was taking part in a Bible study discussion group at a fairly traditional church in a nearby town. We were studying a very powerful passage of scripture that I have enjoyed studying in the past. We were given a Bible study book published by a major Christian publishing house to use as a basis for the study. While I agreed with much of what the study book said, it was difficult to get past the constant "I" and "you" statements made by the author. The author would relate how he had learned some truth and how he had put it into practice. Then he would challenge his readers to do the same thing. While that is certainly appropriate in certain contexts, the constant use of "I" statements gave the impression that the author somehow thought he was "holier" than the rest of us. The text, perhaps unintentionally, seemed to imply that he had all the answers and had figured everything out. The lesson was filled with such statements as: "you need to do this," "you need to do that," "you need to stop this behavior," "you need to change the way you think, feel, act, or believe." It became clear that the writer assumed his readers could not possibly be living correctly until they had read his book and followed his teaching. After a while, the lesson became insulting.

Please don't misunderstand me, I actually agreed with what the writer said from a theological perspective. It was HOW he said it that was a problem. As we moved through the lesson, it occurred to me that there was no one in the room other than me who was under age 45. In fact, most of the others present were nearing retirement age or were already past that point in life. While there may have been many reasons why there were no young people there, I'm fairly certain one of them was the "I versus you" style of teaching. I have found this style of teaching fairly common in traditional conservative churches. The impression given by such lessons is "I" (referring to the pastor, teacher, or leader) know it all and "you" (referring to the audience) must be ignorant. Furthermore this style of teaching implies that if "you" will listen to how well "I" am doing, then "you" can have a great life like "I" have. Young people don't respond well to this style of teaching. If we want to reach postmodern young people, we must learn to use "we" and "us" statements instead of "I" and "you" statements.

Most postmodern teens want to feel like they "belong" to the group. When the teacher creates an artificial division between himself and the hearers, that sense of belonging disappears. Teachers and preachers seeking to connect with postmodern young adults need to retrain themselves to use statements that help those young people feel part of the group instead of isolated from the group. This does not mean that we cannot warn them about dangerous behaviors; it just means that we cannot create a "you" versus "them" atmosphere. They will perceive that type of atmosphere as judgmental and it is unlikely that they will return for a second dose of hearing how great the pastor/teacher/leader thinks he or she is.

Here is a practical example:

An ineffective statement might be: If you continue in your addiction, you will never have a happy life. Trust Christ and He will help you overcome your addiction. I trusted Christ and it helped me I overcome my addiction and I have been happier ever since.

A more effective statement might be: Many of us have struggled with various addictions in our lives. We know what it is like to overcome such addictions and we know what it is like to give in to those addictions. But as we have learned to trust in Christ we have found new strength to overcome our addiction.

Older generations were more willing to be lectured or instructed by a person who had it all figured out already. Young generations want to journey together with their leader and figure it out as they take that journey together. This requires us to retrain ourselves to teach those important truths of our faith in new and fresh ways. Learning to retrain ourselves to use "we" and "us" statements instead of "you" and "I" statements can be a challenge. But it is a challenge worth accepting because it will help us reach more young people for the Lord. 

Let US work together to practice this new style of teaching and in the end WE will see greater results!

Learn more about reaching young people in Dr. Terry Dorsett's book, Mission Possible: Reaching the Next Generation through the Small Church.


  1. Allen Burns, CEF missionary to South AfricaFebruary 20, 2010 at 9:07 AM

    Interesting. You are, as they say here in South Africa, “Spot On.”

    It was important for me to learn how to write like you suggest way back when I was in sales. It is far less offensive and it creates more of a bond with the reader.

    Let’s pray for all Christians, that we would show more sensitivity to the unbeliever. There but the grace of God go we (or is it us?).

    Thanks for the reminder!

  2. As usual, we have received sound advice from a trusted brother.

  3. How often when we write or speak we will refer to I or you. This makes me think. What did Christ do he became one of us. If we want people to understand God's word then we must identify with them. Thank you for your insight.

  4. Dave Bentley, Springfield, VTFebruary 20, 2010 at 4:27 PM

    Right on, again! I know some people I'm going to tell "you need to read this article."

  5. Jerry White, North CarolinaFebruary 20, 2010 at 5:53 PM

    Great insight Terry, Oh so true. Thanks for sharing

  6. David Russell, Burlington Street MinistriesFebruary 20, 2010 at 5:55 PM

    I have recently been reading a couple of books by Brian Mclaren. His latest is "A new kind of Christianity" and it poses the same type of questions as you discuss here.

    While I don't agree with everything Brian Mclaren writes, he does ask some interesting questions. Lots of them I have wrestled with for years. And a lot of the people, especially young people who have dropped out of Church, are also asking those same questions.

  7. Phil Steadman, Capstone Baptist Church, North Bennington, VTFebruary 20, 2010 at 5:56 PM

    I agree with everything you said here. It does make me wonder though, if my older members might be more comfortable with a more authoritarian way of doing things. My style is to teach a "we" message all the time. I have never considered that this might be disconcerting to older folks or certain ethnic groups more accustomed to that other more authoritarian style.

  8. Couldn't agree with your critique of "I versus YOU" statements more!

  9. Connie Justus, missionary to JapanFebruary 20, 2010 at 7:39 PM

    I like this.

  10. Zach Hoag, Burlington, VTFebruary 20, 2010 at 8:32 PM

    good thoughts man, very helpful

  11. Frank Rothe, St. Johnsbury, VTFebruary 21, 2010 at 3:38 PM

    I like this.