This post is part of the series on Preaching for youth. We’ve been thinking about ways to keep your audience’s attention when preaching for youth. In the previous post, we looked at several things you can do in advance. Today, we’ll discuss things you can do while you’re preaching to keep student’s attention or get it back if needed.
A key aspect here is that you actually know when you’re losing your audience’s attention. Whenever possible, watch your audience while you’re talking. First of all, eye contact makes people feel seen and valued and will help to hold their attention. But even more important, you will be able to pick up signals that you are losing your audience and will be able to do something about it. These are some indicators that you need to grab their attention again: whispering/talking to others, shuffling their feet, getting out their cell phones, looking down/away, focusing on something other than you/the stage/the screen, looking at their watches/the clock, grabbing bulletins/Bibles/anything else to read, etc. When you see your audience do this, you’ve lost their attention. Now get it back.
1. Make your point and get out
I’ve said it before: your sermon should be as long as it needs to be and not a minute longer. As soon as you lose focus, your audience does too, and if you start repeating yourself, they’ll mentally check out. That means you should focus on the point you want to make while preparing your sermon, but it also means staying on track while preaching. Fight the temptation to include all kinds of examples, illustrations, Bible verses, statements, etc. Make your point and get out. If you catch yourself going off track, get back to where you were and get on with it.
2. Watch your language
A quick way to lose all interest from you audience is by using difficult language. And that, dear people, includes those overused church words we preachers seem to be so fond of throwing around, like redemption, salvation, righteousness, etc. Kids don’t understand these words if we don’t explain them and will lose interest. So be sure that you’re using the right kind of language when preaching for youth. Preventing difficult language is something you can do in your preparations, but it’s also something you need to keep checking while you’re talking. Especially when we’re nervous or stressed, we fall back into familiar patterns. So stay vigilant while you’re preaching that your language is understandable for your audience.
3. Ask questions
This takes some guts, and I don’t recommend it if you’re just starting out in preaching, but interaction with your audience is a great way to keep them engaged or to get their attention back. You can do this simply by asking a question (and I mean questions of the non-rhetorical kind, questions you would actually like an answer to). The best kinds of questions in this case are not knowledge-based (because then it can become fairly intimidating for people to answer, afraid of getting it wrong), but experience-based questions (example: Who here has ever had his bike stolen?). Like I said, this takes guts because you don’t know what they will answer, and you may have to be quick on your feet to correct some wrong or inappropriate answers, but it is a great way to get kids involved. Obviously, you can plan questions ahead, but if you see you’re losing the students’ interests, you could spontaneously throw in some until they’re awake again.
4. Be funny
This is a tricky one, because boy, have I seen people crash and burn here. Humor is an evasive thing, hard to get right and easy to get wrong. Still, humor does work to get people’s attention, when it’s done right. Let’s start with the obvious: never use jokes for the sake of it, never insult anyone (and that includes any racial or cultural stereotypes that so easily come up in jokes!), stay far away from the dirty jokes, and make sure you can actually deliver the joke. In my opinion, the best way to be funny is not to tell jokes but to joke about yourself or your experiences. And yes, it’s perfectly okay to prepare jokes in advance, just make sure you can deliver them spontaneously. If you have any doubt whether you can pull it off, don’t try it.
5. Change something
One thing that will always get people to pay attention is change. So if your audience is falling asleep, change something. Take off your jacket (gentlemen), walk to the front of the stage instead of staying behind the pulpit, change the volume of your voice or the speed with which you’re talking, or just stay silent for a little bit. Turn off the screen, change the slides, or find something else to change. The key here is to change something so your students will look at you again.