4 Ways to Keep Students’ Attention During Your Sermon

4 Ways to Keep Students' Attention During Your Next Sermon

It stinks, doesn’t it?

You spend hours researching, writing, planning, preparing a sermon. Or maybe you invest hundreds of dollars in cool curriculum with fancy graphics and all the bells and whistles.

Whatever the case, you’ve spent time and money. You’ve prepared to share something important with your students. Then, when you’re standing in front of your group, delivering that all-important, eternally meaningful message, you recognize that your students aren’t paying attention to anything you’re saying.

That stinks.

Over time, it can gnaw away at your confidence. In some cases, it can even undercut the credibility of your ministry in the eyes of your volunteers. What good is all of that investment in time, attention, and money if students aren’t even going to listen to what you’re saying?

That’s why you need a couple of go-to strategies to help keep their attention. Without strategies like the ones I’m sharing in this post, you’ll preach your heart out and students will continue to walk out unchanged.

Part of the problem is their short attention spans. Researchers who know about attention spans say that a student’s attention span should be about two minutes per year of age. So, if it’s a 14-year-old student, the attention span ought to be hovering around the top end of around 28 minutes.

But, keep in mind, they can only stay focused and attentive for that long when they’re actively, intentionally engaged in the subject matter. When students’ attention drifts, it’s because they’ve stopped tracking with what you’re saying.

So, what can you do about it?

4 Ways to Keep Students’ Attention When You’re Preaching

1. Tell them a story.

The first strategy is to tell them a story. There’s something about stories that just kind of draws us in and it makes us curious about where it’s going to go. That’s why I wrote a book called Sermon Starters for Student Ministry. In that book, I share 25 different stories that I’ve used through the years in different student ministry settings to start my sermons.

Even though in that book I talk about using stories at the front end of the sermon to draw students into your message, any one of those stories could be used in a different spot in the sermon or in the message to keep their attention.

2. Get them to say something.

The next thing you can do is to get them to say something. What might you get them to say? Well, maybe you have a keyword or a phrase that you’ve introduced during your message. One of the best ways to help them remember it and keep tracking with you is to ask them to repeat that word or phrase. Just say something like, “Okay, everybody say that together,” and they’ll say it.

This isn’t complicated. It’s just a way to get them to vocalize something. Another way to get them to say something is to ask them to share something with someone on their right or left. You could say something like, “Share this with your neighbor,” or “Share this with the person next to you.”

All you’re trying to do is interrupt the pattern. To keep students engaged, you have to help them shift from passive listening to active involvement.

3. Get them to do something.

The next strategy is to get them to do something. Ask them to respond in some way. You could say things like:

• “Raise a hand if this is true of you.”
• “Get up and move to this side of the room if this is true of you.”
• “Get up and switch places with somebody who’s had the opposite experience of you.”

You could also call up a volunteer to join you on stage to act something out. Just get them to do something. You’re just trying to get them to stand up or somehow or another physically participate in what you’re talking about. That is a great way to reboot their attention.

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4. Get them to look at something.

A fourth way to keep students’ attention during your sermon is to get them to look at something. Using a prop to go along with your message is a great way to make this happen. A couple of fun props that I’ve used might stimulate some ideas for you.

One time, I was talking about the power of words and how sometimes our words can tear things apart or smash things. So, I bought a little wooden birdhouse from Home Depot. It was just sitting there on the table next to me, and right around the time when I wanted to drive home the point, I took that hammer and just started smashing the birdhouse and wood! Little wood chips were flying everywhere. That got their attention and it kept their attention at a very key point in that message.

Another time I brought a toilet on stage and let it just sit there next to me during the whole introduction of the sermon. There’s no doubt that the students were thinking, “What is that toilet for? That’s weird.” And that’s great because I’ve created an open loop in their brains that they want to close. Creating that opening is the key to keeping attention.

They want an answer to that question: “Why is there a toilet on stage?” Then, at just the right moment, I introduced the idea of flushing negative thoughts down the toilet. That’s when they all recognized, “Oh, so that’s why the toilet was there! I get it!” So, a prop is always good for this.

Another thing that you can do is show a video clip to illustrate what you’re talking about. Or you could have different images on the screen that keep changing as your progress through your message. That keeps students visually engaged.

Your Move

You don’t want to waste your time delivering sermons that don’t stick with your students. They’re going to lose interest; their attention will fade. They will get distracted. Don’t be surprised when those things happen. Instead, try to interrupt the pattern in their minds.

Pattern interruption is the key to keeping their attention.

Once again, four ways to keep their interest and reboot their attention are:

• Tell them a story.
• Get them to say something.
• Get them to do something.
• Get them to look at something.

Which of these will you try in your next sermon?

Suggested Resource

Stories and Illustrations for Student Ministry Sermons

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Trevor Hamaker (DMin, McAfee School of Theology) is an author, adjunct professor, and youth ministry coach. He helps youth pastors see their potential, develop their skills, and reach their goals.

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