5 Hacks To Capture And Keep Students’ Attention

Jeff Harding
February 13th, 2020

When I think back on my teenage years, I can remember several variations of the following phrases:

  • “Listen up!”
  • “Quiet down!”
  • “Eyes on me!”
  • “I’ll wait until you’re ready.”
  • “If you speak one more time, I will chain you up and throw you on my front porch.”

Wait…was I the only one who had a friend’s dad make that threat?

You get the picture. Attribute it to hormones, disregarding authority unless they show teeth, or simply being hyper…girls (and guys) just wanna have fun. And with an attention span of eight seconds, the characteristics of this technology-enveloped generation present even more challenges. Biggest generation ever, with the shortest attention span ever. What could go wrong?

Here are five methods of capturing and keeping our students’ attention:

Integrate Intentional Interaction

I heard about the “7 Minute Rule” a few years back, which is implementing a different element in your message every 7 minutes to draw attention. I have employed the heart of the concept into my entire ministry structure. Game. Changer. Plugging in several points of interaction throughout large/small groups keeps the students more interested. This generation views tangible means of interaction as a novelty, since most of their interaction is swiping and tapping on screens. The glass half-full approach to that reality is that even simple activities will capture substantially more attention than convincing them to hang on every word you say. The Word of God is active, so let’s make sure the students are too!

Know When to Utilize and Minimize Technology

I eventually banned phones from all trips after rules were broken year after year. I realize this may seem harsh (and impossible) for some, depending on the make-up of the church and parents. I am not saying phones should always be avoided. But you have to learn when and how to use technology based on the habits and tendencies of those in your ministry. I have actually had students thank me for not allowing phones on trips anymore. Outside of trips, we use technology all the time! The ways to enhance your programming through technology are only limited by your imagination. However, it’s best to aim for having just as many non-technological activities. Show them that technology is a tool, that our identity isn’t based on filtered posts, and what addiction of any sort does to us on all fronts (mind, body, etc.). Part of maturing as a follower of Jesus means learning how those electronic squares impact us.

Change it Up & Keep it Fresh

I have been told it’s never safe to assume, but I assume that most of our regular programming looks the same week in, week out. Greeting, announcements, game, worship, message, small groups, peace out. Routines can be great—many students enjoy the structure, especially those who fall on the spectrum. However, throwing off expectations every so often, even subtly, can provide enough variety to spark the curiosity and attention we desire. This method tends to have greater efficacy with junior high students, but it can certainly work with high school students. One Sunday morning, the stage and chairs have swapped positions, or perhaps the students meet in a different room. Small groups move to the top of the flowsheet, and the content from those groups fuels the game, worship, and message that morning. Skype in a missionary. Convert the room into prayer stations, or perhaps an empty room with just instructions for a campus-wide prayer walk or scavenger hunt. When students stop assuming they know what’s going to happen only to go through the motions, they wonder what’s going to happen and experience renewed appreciation. 

Ditch Closed Questions & “Church Answers”

Just as Paul preached the gospel to confidants nearly two decades into ministry to make sure he was still on track, it’s good for us to reflect on the fundamentals of what drives deep conversation in ministry. Hold students accountable for their answers. Don’t let them off the hook, even if the answer seems obvious. Craft small group questions for leaders to facilitate, not a monologue for them to deliver. Explanations can easily glide on the surface and sound hollow, so push back when they’re offered. Remind students that no one can have faith for them.

Facilitate, Delegate, Mediate

The best way for students to discover what they are unsure of is for them to stop being spectators and consumers. Give them the reigns. Don’t offer immediate correction, but tell them later what they did well and where they can improve. Allowing students to take ownership of the ministry will help them realize what goes into discipleship and leading others to Jesus. They could also give you feedback on how elements might be improved. Teach them how to mediate conflict that naturally arises in the group. When we turn their head knowledge into lifestyle habits, the lack of attention gradually fades in the midst of renewed perspectives.

While we will always wrestle for the attention of students, these methods will help cultivate an atmosphere of intrigue and excitement. Also, with parent permission, feel free to chain someone up and toss them on the church steps. If that doesn’t draw students’ attention, nothing will.

Jeff Harding

Jeff has been working in youth ministry since 2004. He is a Phoenix native, ASU Sun Devil, Dallas Theological Seminary graduate and Chipotle fanatic. He currently serves as the youth minister at Trinity Fellowship Church in Richardson, TX with his wife, Faith, and their son, Deacon. You can hear him on the Youth Ministry Maverick podcast, and connect with him on social media @jeffdharding.

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