God has blessed me with the privilege of speaking to groups of teenagers for the last twenty five years or so. From small youth groups to medium sized camps to arenas full of students I have known the thrill and terror of trying to get and keep the attention of adrenalin-filled, twitchy teenagers.
Here are seven lessons I've learned when it comes to getting and keeping their attention:
1. Hook them with humor then impact them with truth.
During the first 5 to 10 minutes of my talk to a teen audience I'm usually telling a story about something I did that was really crazy/stupid/funny. I can't tell a funny joke for the life of me but I can tell funny stories. So I tell the funniest story I can think of for that particular audience and, once they're laughing hard, I flip the switch. I use a transition statement to turn the talk toward the spiritual point I'll be preaching on in that particular message.
For me, humor is a means to the end. It's a door opener for the Word of God to do it's work. Once you have them laughing you can quickly turn that energy into getting teens excited about the subject you'll be preaching/teaching on that day.
2. Preach sound truth in sound bytes.
At our Dare 2 Share conferences every 6-8 minutes we use a video clip, an interactive exercise or a sketch to keep the audience engaged. In a youth group this could be using an illustration every 6-8 minutes to keep the teen audience tracking with your point. It could be an interactive question you have them wrestle with in groups of three. It's important to do more than just hook them in at the beginning. You must keep them engaged all the way through your talk. We don't want our teenagers to miss any of the life-changing truths we are teaching from God's Word so we must work hard to keep them riveted to every word.
3. Be painfully authentic.
I have found that when I share with teens an area of struggle that I have (losing my temper, relational mess-ups, missed evangelistic opportunities, etc) they identify with me in a deeper way. Too many times too many youth leaders only share their "victory" stories. But hearing too many of these can actually discourage a teenager. If they always hear stories of how we conquered our spiritual mountains they may think that they're losers because they seem to be stuck in the valley all the time. It's okay to share overcoming stories but also share ones where you failed miserably.
4. Preach with intensity and authority.
500 years ago or so the great Puritan preacher, Richard Baxter, exhorted pastors to preach every sermon as if it were their last "as a dying man to dying men."
That's how I try to preach. Veins pop, sweat drips and arms flail because I want to grab the audience by the heart and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, get them to embrace the truth I'm preaching on. The authority I preach with has nothing to do with me but everything to do with the Word of God. It penetrates with power and cuts with conviction into the hearts of those who hear it. Hebrews 4:12 reminds us, "For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart."
Our job as youth communicators is to wield it with precision, intensity, humility and authority.
5. Prepare like you're going to war.
Because you are going to war. When you or I stand before a teen audience of ten or ten thousand we are in a battle with Satan, cell phones and a myriad of other distractions and attractions that vie for the attention of those teenagers. Every point of our talk should be prayed over and thought through.
Struggle through your text, illustrations and application until your talk is fully ready. Winging it is for wimps. Sharpen your sword and strap on your armor because you are fighting the Prince of Darkness for young souls every time you crack open your Bible to teach teenagers.
6. Take them seriously.
One of the things that makes Dare 2 Share work as a conference is that everything we do screams to teenagers, "We believe you can do this through the power of Christ!" We don't dumb down the content, we amp it up! We don't water down the challenges, we fire them up! Its almost as though I can hear the teenagers thinking, "These dudes really believe we can do this!" It is this unstated feeling that encourages them to go for it.
Do the same thing when you speak to teenagers. Take them seriously. Raise the bar then expect them to rise to it...and they will!
7. Don't forget to tie your shoes.
Before I walk out onto the stage to preach I tie my shoes. As I kneel I'm reminded to pray. In this bowed position I remember that any impact from my preaching will be due to the power of the Holy Spirit, not from my own powers of persuasion. I ask God to fill me up with the Holy Spirit and then fully use me to impact every teenager in the audience.
When John Wesley was asked to describe his preaching style he answered, "I set myself on fire and people come to watch me burn." My prayer is that these seven practical truths will become fuel for you to set yourself ablaze every time you speak to teenagers. From this fire may an inferno of revival consume your teenagers and your community for Christ!