I am sure, like me, you have all been there. You feel like what you have to say is literally from the Spirit of God. You have prepped all week; you carefully crafted your talk, studied the text, prayed through the text, and even created some of the greatest tweetable one-liners. You are convinced that your picture with a great quote is showing up on Instagram this week. The evening comes and not soon after you begin your greatest message ever, you begin to feel like your words are vanishing before they ever reach the ears of your students.
Attention spans are dropping; faces are not illuminated with the Spirit of God—like you had hoped—instead with the LED glow of their iPhone. Your point is lost, your motivation lacking, and once again the seemingly only viable solution is to cut down on the amount of teaching. Research is now showing that the attention span of the average student is actually less than that of a goldfish. And more often than not, we believe that the solution is less teaching time. After all, doesn’t that make the most sense? Less attention span means I should try and say more in less time so that what students need to hear isn’t lost while distracted by the endless stream of notifications on their phones.
Although that makes sense in a way and I have heard many youth leaders express precisely that problem and have resorted to the same or similar solution, I would disagree.
As youth disciple-makers, we are all caught in a bit of a conundrum because we feel like there are only two options. Do I run the risk of losing their attention for the sake of the message or sacrifice the message for the sake of their attention spans? It feels like either way, you lose. Because either way, you do lose. Unless of course, you modified your delivery method. The reality is that your students’ attention spans have less to do with content and duration and more to do with delivery. How we teach is just as important as what we teach—sometimes even more so.
Tell Great Stories
We are all captivated by great stories. It is why we are drawn into movie franchises like Star Wars, James Bond, and Marvel. It is why we love great books and why we love to tell our own stories. Stories have a way of reaching an audience when other methods seem to fall short. No matter the age or learning style, story telling can fit them all. And guess what? Jesus told stories. Lots of them. In fact, using stories is a long time and honored Jewish teaching method—a maggid is a skilled Jewish religious storyteller whose role is built off of an entire theology of telling stories. It is the study of God told through story. Sound familiar? It is precisely how the Old Testament is crafted.
Much of its popularity and longevity is because through stories you have a better chance of hitting more than just one or even two learning styles. A well-crafted story can hit three or more. They help our brains not only absorb and recall information, but connect how to interpret and use the information. And of course, the more learning styles you hit, the better chance of holding their attention and your students retaining information, and therefore making better disciples.
While story telling is great, it can often leave out one vital learning tool that invites students into the story or experience—demonstration. There was once a time when the only way to enter into a story was through one’s imagination. Today, technology has invited us into the imagination of others. We no longer view stories as a third party observer; we are invited in to participate. The higher level of participation, the higher level of engagement. The higher level of engagement, the greater chance of higher levels of learning from students. Demonstration on your part can help serve as a vehicle to invite students into the story of Scripture or the truth you are trying to convey. Think about it. The whole of idea of God becoming man is a demonstration of love. To make certain we fully understood the meaning of his love for us, he demonstrated it rather than just told us about it.
Years ago I was doing a middle school retreat. The organizers wanted me to speak on identity and renewal. While I was onboard with that idea, I wanted to be sure I could get across the impact that others have on our lives and how we put way more emphasis and importance on what others think of us rather than what Jesus thinks of us. So all day I carried around a clay pot. Every so often, I walked up to a student, handed them a sharpie and asked them to sign my pot. Later that evening, just before the session started, I had a hundred or so signatures all over the pot.
I spoke for twenty minutes or so on what it means to have an identity in Christ while holding the pot. But there was only one problem–what everyone else thought of me was getting in the way. I could repaint the pot; the signatures would still be there. I could re-purpose the pot; the signatures would be there. So there was only one solution. I went backstage and grabbed a twenty-pound sledgehammer. After building the tension for another few minutes, I shattered the pot, so that a new pot could be remade. Many students grabbed pieces to keep as a reminder. They didn’t forget the point, and the truth that only Christ can renew us and our identity is only in Him.
Just like a very good coach knows, showing is more powerful and lasting than telling.
Learning Through Self-Discovery
Think for a moment about how a young child learns to walk. Mom and dad sit their daughter down and explain thoroughly how one foot is placed in front of the other, the art of stopping and starting, and even the advanced stages of jumping and running. No wait, that’s not right. Children discover how to walk through trial and error. They try to stand and then fall. They take a few steps and fall again. They run and eventually trip over their own feet. Mom and dad’s job isn’t to explain what to do, but to provide a safe environment so that when they fall, they will fall safely. So that they can learn from the mistake and have the confidence to get back up and try again. Mom and dad watch in eager anticipation for success and celebrate all of the little victories along the way.
Now think about some of your students. How do they know how to navigate their phones and computers faster than you? Discovery. How can they beat the latest video game? Discovery. How do they learn and keep up with the latest trends important to them? Discovery.
Students learn more by discovery than we often realize because it is done so effortlessly and in step with the rhythm of their everyday life. Teach them truth by the same means. Allow them the time and space to discover Jesus and to experience him.
There is nothing more important and life-changing in your youth group than teaching them truth through the Word. Remove Scripture, and you are left with nothing more than a safe place social club for students to gather in. Your job as youth leaders is not to provide a social club but to change lives and make disciples. Our methods and tactics may need to change, but the message remains central. So this week, take just one of these ideas and try it on. Once you are comfortable, add another. Focus on continually honing your delivery of gospel truth. Students will pay attention, they will retain the information, and they will begin to live differently.