Teaching preteens can be intimidating! The larger the group, the harder it can be to gain and keep their attention. They just might pull out their smart phones and start texting a friend or fiddle with an app if you don’t engage them and capture their attention. So how do you hold the attention of these busy bodies and minds?
The good news is, preteens provide the best of both worlds. They still enjoy the fun of stuff from the world of kids (they aren’t “too cool” to have fun), and yet they are ready to get serious and be challenged, if you are willing to take them there. They don’t want to be treated like children. So you have to walk the line between fun and seriousness—it’s an exciting line to walk!
Here is how I approach teaching this age group.
1. Come out of the gate strong and fast. (HOOK*)
Don’t start like a slow locomotive and gradually speed up. Preteens quickly evaluate whether you are going to be interesting. If you are boring at the beginning, they are going to check out mentally. Getting them to check back in will be a challenge. Demanding their attention from a place of authority hardly works with this age. While it may work with kids, it doesn’t with preteens. You have to earn their attention, not demand it. You can’t lead by authority; you have to lead with authenticity. Command, rather than demand, their attention.
So, don’t introduce your lesson by saying what you are going to talk about; just start talking about it. Don’t say, “we’ve been doing a series about…” or “for the past few weeks we’ve been looking at…” or “today we’re going to continue our study of…” Zzzzzzzz (boooooring)
Instead, capture them from the get-go! You need to engage them IMMEDIATELY with a story or question or joke that will head into the topic of your message. Don’t meander into your lesson. Start with a ZOOM or BANG or POP! Basically, never give them a chance to even start to decide if they are going to listen or like the message because they will be hooked from the first 10 seconds! (Hint: they won’t even realize it is a lesson!) They’ll just get sucked in. It won’t be until the end of your story or joke or question that you will bring it around to the fact that it is actually an intro to your topic, and POW, they will be IN to your lesson! And suddenly, it will be too late for them to check out, because they will already be in and wanting to go for the entire ride. The moment you walk onto the stage, begin as though you are in the middle of a story…or just telling the joke…or asking a thought provoking question. DON’T INTRODUCE IT. Just begin it. At a horse race, the horses don’t come out and stroll a bit, nibble at the grass, and then start running. Rather, the doors crash open and the horses burst out of the gate running full speed. Start your lesson that way, and your preteens will all be listening!
(By the way, this is an important “tip”—I’m not making a separate point, because I’m considering it assumed. Your lesson should be planned and printed. As the saying goes, “If you don’t have a plan for the kids, they’ll have a plan for you!” If you wing it, you’ll always come off looking weak. So with preteens, have a written lesson plan so that you will have a structure you are following. You’ll come off as more prepared and have more control during your lesson time. You’ll also end stronger, instead of just fizzling out. If you start strong and end strong, the middle will take care of itself.)
2. Walk out and among the kids.
Don’t stay on the stage. Think of kids brains as screen savers that will turn on to something else if they aren’t jarred constantly. By walking around, looking every kid in the eye, and making them move around and look around, you keep “bumping the mouse” and making them stay alert and engaged. Use your whole body as you talk. Gestures and voice should be exaggerated – both excited and then minimized for emphasis. It makes your audience listen and concentrate. Engage not only their ears but their eyes and entire bodies in the listening.
3. Use props! (LOOK*)
People often think that props can only being used as “object lessons,” but this is limited thinking. Jesus used objects all the time. I use them even when I preach in “Big Church.” Why? As soon as you pull out an object, you suddenly have the attention of everyone in the room. It causes a reaction—anything from curiosity to laughter, depending on the object. It doesn’t have to be a full blown object lesson, as helpful as those can be.
This past Sunday I taught on John 3:19–21. It was a message on how people don’t like the “Light of Jesus” shining into areas of their lives that they aren’t ready for Jesus to have an influence on. Throughout the lesson, I simply held a flashlight. However, at the beginning of the passage it says, “This is the verdict,” so I pulled out of my bag a GIANT judge’s gavel. The kids cracked up laughing. I talked about what a verdict was and just held it as I read the passage. While not many people have that prop, it sure helped keep their attention. (Be a collector of props!)
Later, when we turned to Romans 12:1–2 and talked about not being “conformed to the pattern of this world,” I brought out my Star Wars pancake molds and talked about how the world would like to make them into one type of mold, but by letting Jesus shine the light of His conviction into areas of their lives that need change, the mold of their life can be transformed to be more Christlike—by the renewing of their minds. There was more to the lesson, but I’m just giving you examples of the props I used.
Using props engages the audience and holds their attention. Jesus the Master Teacher did this with adults. It is especially effective with preteens.
4. Use humor.
Preteens love to laugh! Tell stories, especially about yourself at their age—mistakes you made, funny things that happened to you, and lessons you learned. It makes you real, and it lets them know you aren’t teaching as one who is perfect, but one who has also made mistakes and is in process like them, and can relate to them. Be willing to be silly and make a fool of yourself. (I’ve been know to put on my Chicago jersey, a knit cap, and shades and break into 80s style rapping with older kids!)
5. Teach with and from the Bible. (BOOK*)
Let the Bible be your authority. Kids get lots of advice from adults. Everywhere they turn “grown ups” are telling them what they think they should do or not do—at home, at school, and now at church. I think it is very critical that older kids see and hear that our “advice” is coming from the Word of God. I strongly believe we should be preaching from a physical Bible. Let your students see you holding a Bible. Because I refer to a lot of Scripture when I teach, I will often print out the Scriptures I need to save time flipping around in the Bible, BUT I will still put my lesson plan in an open Bible so my students see my looking IN THE BIBLE throughout the lesson. (I’ve attached my lesson from last Wednesday below as a sample.)
Remember, God promises power and effectiveness when you use His Word to teach, so make sure your lessons are loaded with His Word. It will not return void! (Isaiah 55:10-11, Jeremiah 23:29, Hebrews 4:12)
6. Provide a practical application. (TOOK)
Always give the kids something real and practical that they can DO as a result of the lesson you taught. Never just talk at kids without providing an opportunity for them to respond in some real way during the upcoming week. Otherwise, you are just being a performer. If there is no way for the “rubber to meet the road” in their life in the next week, what good is your lesson? Give them some time to close their eyes and reflect on the lesson and to pray and listen to God and to allow the Holy Spirit to give them a thought or idea or application. It only takes 30 seconds or so, and if they are sincere, God will always provide that practical application for them. Then pray for them, and include yourself in that prayer so they know you too are always in process as well. You aren’t talking down at them, but praying with them as you too are still working on these things as a fellow disciple of Jesus.
Start out high energy and fun and entertaining, but by the end of your lesson bring it down. You can even come out into the center of the group, sit on a stool, and have the kids pull in close and get serious. You will have earned their attention and be able to have a heart to heart with them. Get down to business and then give them your challenge and have them reflect on what truly matters as it relates to the lesson. Older kids feel respected when you take them seriously. Many adults don’t do that. So when you honor them by talking to them as peers, they will step up to the plate and surprise you with how serious and grown up they can be.
7. Bathe your lessons in prayer.
Last, but NOT least, pray earnestly that God would speak through you. You are only the messenger. It is the Holy Spirit who changes lives, not you or your amazing lesson!
May your prayer be the same as that of the Apostle Paul, who wrote:
And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ… Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Colossians 4:3-4
BONUS TIP: Don’t use video.
I didn’t make this one of my seven tips because I know in #Stumin culture it might freak some people out. But my opinion is that in today’s world, our kids are inundated with luminous rectangles, and they are constantly viewing video. Today’s preteens are starving for real geniune relationship (whether they realize it or not), and we ought to deliver that to the max during the little time with them. That doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t ever use a video clip, or that I won’t ever, but I avoid it as much as possible, and I only use it if I think it is the BEST tool for communicating something that can’t be communicated better live. Simply put, I think we depend on visual media too much.
* These tips all flow from the classic HOOK, LOOK, BOOK, TOOK teaching technique that has been around for a century and is expounded upon in detail in the Kidology Handbook.