Making Your Message Stick With Preteens
by Patrick Snow
Patrick works at Christ In Youth where he is the Director of SuperStart!, a national-touring weekend event for preteens. Since graduating from Johnson Bible College in 1999, he has been involved with preteen and children’s ministries for more than ten years. Patrick is the author of the book, Leading Preteens. He lives in Joplin, MO with his wife, Samantha.
“This is not going well!”
I was teaching a small group of fifth-grade boys and those five words were continuously running through my head. I was about three-quarters of the way through a lesson on teamwork when utter chaos erupted around me. On my left, two boys broke out into a back-slapping contest; to my right, three other boys began lapping their tongues at the floor like dogs; and right in front of me, one more boy was attempting to slam dunk a foam ball into the trashcan. I remember thinking as I climbed into my car to go home, “That was insane! Did anything I taught get through?”
When it comes to sharing the gospel message with preteens, I’m a junkie. I’m seriously hooked on understanding who they are and what their culture looks like. I lie awake at night thinking about ways to help them understand where God is moving in their lives. But despite my passion, I still walk away from many lessons feeling as if the only thing my preteens were interested in was what time class would be over. So what could I do better? How could I effectively teach preteens about Jesus in a way that sticks with them?
In my quest to find the answer to this question (and through the gracious wisdom of God), I’ve uncovered a few helpful tips. Every week I learn something new and every lesson is a time of growing, but here are a few techniques I believe to be most effective. By the way, this is in no way an exhaustive list.
Tip #1 - Understand What You’re Up Against
If teaching preteens was a battle (and a lot of times it feels that way), then there would be two adversaries that you would constantly fight against.
The first adversary is a preteen’s attention span. I once heard that the average attention span of a nine to twelve-year-old is 30 to 45 minutes. Whoever came up with that obviously hasn’t been around the preteens I’ve been teaching. In my experience, the average attention span of a preteen is 1.2 seconds. Unless, of course, there is food involved. Then I’d bump it up to 2.2 seconds!
Familyeducation.com states, “During the preteen years children experience a plateau in brain growth, resulting in periods of excessive daydreaming, frequent listlessness, and short attention spans.” This means that their struggle to pay attention is due in large part to what is going on with them physically.
The other adversary you’ll often encounter when you teach your preteens is their energy. Let’s face it, preteens are energetic! They’re like unstable sticks of dynamite that can and will go off at any time. It’s important to know, however, that these volatile amounts of energy are also a part of their physical makeup. The body of a preteen is constantly changing. As it grows, it builds up energy that will eventually need to be released. If this energy doesn’t get released, the preteen explodes! This is why trying to keep preteens seated during small groups is a lot like playing a game of Whac-a-Mole.
Tip #2 – Include Counteractive Elements
Short attention spans and explosive energy are big reasons why many teachers turn pale and flee at the mention of preteens. But instead of being afraid of these obstructions, we need to purposefully include elements in our teaching that will counteract them.
Counteractive Element: Student Interaction
Preteen students are instantly attracted to what’s being taught when they are actively part of the teaching. They love being involved and they love watching their peers be involved, so allowing them to be a part of the lesson is one of the best ways to counteract their short attention spans
There are a million ways to be interactive. You could do anything from asking them questions to using them to tell the Bible story. One of my favorite ways to involve preteens is to ask one to get in front of the group and read a verse from the Bible out loud. Then (still in front of rest of the group), I’ll take a few minutes to help them work through what the verse is saying. Not only does this instantly connect the meaning of the verse to that particular preteen, but it also allows the rest of the group to hear what it means from someone who speaks their language.
Counteractive Element: Energy Injection
Preteens can be extremely focused once they’ve gotten rid of their bottled-up energy. So it’s important to build elements into the lesson that allow them to become focused. These elements need to be physically active, which means that keeping your preteens in their seats won’t cut it. They need to get up and get moving. Chip Wood, in his book, Yardsticks, says “Physical energy drives twelve-year-olds. Both boys and girls are now in growth spurts. A five minute run around the building or a ten minute game on the playground can rejuvenate and send needed relief to the oxygen starved brain.” Does this mean you should stop in the middle of the lesson and let the students run around the church? Not necessarily. The key is to include these physical activities as part of the lesson.
Play a quick game that helps illustrate a teaching point or lead a dance that also tells a Bible story. Have your preteens shout out scripture verses. Shouting is an extremely effective way to help them release energy. And don’t forget worship. Moving and singing as they worship and praise Jesus is a wonderful way for preteens to release their energy.
However, as you’re planning elements that inject energy, be mindful of the limitations of your preteens. The last thing you want to happen is a complete loss of control. Make sure they can handle the physical activity you’ve chosen. Also remember that the longer they sit the more energy they build up, so be timely about when and where you include these elements.
Counteractive Element: Theme Repetition
Repetition is a major part of the learning process. Think about it. People don’t learn to ride a bicycle the first time they try. It’s only after hours of repeating the same steps over and over that they’re able to steer, pedal, and balance on two wheels. The same thing goes when teaching biblical truths to preteens. To get them to grasp what you are teaching you’ll need to say it more than once.
I would suggest bringing your entire lesson down to one point. With the preteen attention span being so short, that’s all you’ve got time for anyway. After you’ve gotten it down to one point, come up with a creative way to phrase it that will be easy for your students to remember. Put it in a rhyme or a song or use crazy hand motions. Be sure what you do is fun. Also, make sure you use words they can understand. Finally, take that easy-to-remember main point and repeat it multiple times during your lesson. Teach it at the beginning, revisit it during the lesson, and have them say it before they leave. It also helps if you have them say it again the next week before you begin the lesson.
Tip #3 – Get Creative
Using counteractive elements works best when they’re seamlessly woven through the teaching without the preteens ever knowing they exist. Pulling that off means you’ll have to get creative.
Creativity doesn’t always happen when we want it to, so make sure you’ve given yourself a good bit of time to prepare. As you prepare, get away from the places that are familiar to you. In his book, Holy Wow, Jeff White says, “Ideas generated in unexpected, unusual places are unexpected and unusual. When you operate within a process that imitates (or better yet, exaggerates) these circumstances, you significantly increase your creative capacity.”
Also remember to include other people. Many times an idea gets sharpened as it’s passed from one mind to another. Most importantly, allow God’s Spirit to guide you. In Psalm 25:5, David seeks God to “Lead me in truth and teach me, for you are the God of my Salvation.” Creativity is ultimately a gift from God which is given through the Holy Spirit as we continually live in response to His salvation.
Tip #4 – Remember Where the Real Power Comes From
In Acts 16, Paul and Silas are preaching to a woman named Lydia. The scripture says, “the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said” (v. 14, ESV). It doesn’t say Lydia listened because of Paul’s amazing ability to speak or because Silas used the next great creative idea. She listened because the supernatural power of God drew her in.It’s important for us to keep in mind where the real power of transforming preteens comes from. Not from our abilities to teach but from God working in them. What a great comfort it is to know that when all our efforts and creativities fail, when our lessons sometimes end up in shambles and we find ourselves walking to our cars wondering if anything got through, it’s ultimately Christ that focuses, speaks to, and changes the heart of a preteen.