A few months ago a 13-year-old girl approached me after I preached and excitedly proclaimed, “Good sermon. I actually paid attention to your whole message! I didn’t get bored once!”
My first thought was, “Thank you Jesus! I have witnessed a miracle! A 13-year-old girl’s fleeting attention was held by a sermon over 30 minutes.”
But then I thought, “Hey, wait a minute. … What is she saying about all my other sermons?”
Engaging the short attention span of teenagers (and even adults) is not easy. But if you are a senior pastor, and there are teenagers in the room, you better engage them or you will lose them.
I’m not saying that I have mastered this, but here are some tips that I have found helpful.
How Senior Pastors Can Keep Teenagers Listening to Their Sermons
1. Be Authentic
The most important thing you can do in your sermon is be the same person on stage that you are off the stage. Teenagers have a gift for spotting a fake. They will know if you are really practicing what you preach.
The best way to do this is to be vulnerable about shortcomings in your life. Don’t pretend like you have it all together. Tell us where you struggle. Tell us that you aren’t perfect. Let us know how you are wrestling in your own life with your sermon’s topic.
2. Be a Story Teller
Stories grab our attention and imagination. When told well, stories have a powerful way of capturing both the mind and the heart. The better you become at telling stories, and the more stories you tell, the more likely teenagers will be to listen to you.
This goes along with being authentic. Whenever possible, use stories from your own life. Give us a window into how Jesus is impacting your world. Let your personality show, and allow the audience to get to know you through sharing surprising, emotional, humorous or even embarrassing moments from your life that apply to the message.
3. Update Your Illustrations
World War II illustrations are great. Many illustration books and online resources are full of them, because they were incredibly powerful, back when the people in the audience had lived through the war. But if all your stories today come from a time period before the people in your audience were born, it’s time to get some new illustrations.
An example from a current event or popular culture can go a long way with a teenager in showing them that the Bible is still culturally relevant. Use illustrations that connect with their world. And please note that pop culture references from your teenage years will not translate.
4. Step Away From the Podium
I may get some pushback on this one, but nothing looks more boring to a teenager than a talking head behind a large podium reading lots of notes. If you want to engage teenagers, step away from the podium. Be more animated. Move around a little. Make eye contact. Don’t just use your hands. Gesture with your entire body.
Our brain was created to pay attention to movement. That is why when you play hide and seek, you find a spot and don’t move. Conversely, if you are stranded in the wilderness and spot a rescue helicopter, you would jump and flail your arms. Motionless things get ignored while moving things capture attention. This is true for preachers too.
5. Talk to Them
If you want to engage teenagers, talk to them. If you know that teenagers are in your audience, apply points of your sermon to their life too. Don’t just use examples of how this works in marriage or business. Look at a section of young people and apply the message to their friendships, school or relationship with their parents.
If you make a point to speak to teenagers, they will make a point to listen. Show them your sermon is not just for adults.
6. Use Words They Understand
Avoid big words. If the average teenager needs a dictionary for your sermon, you need to change your vocabulary. Academic and theological terms are helpful if you define them. However, if you don’t explain big words, you immediately alienate anyone in your audience who isn’t as educated as you.
7. Vary Your Tone and Pace
There … is … nothing … more … boring … than … a … monotone … preacher. Please, don’t be that pastor!
Speak at a solid pace, then slow down or speed up for emphasis. Don’t be afraid to raise your voice for excitement, make sound effects when telling a story, or whisper in a tender moment. Moving your voice, like moving your body, captures attention.
So here is your homework. Look at your next message and ask:
• Am I being authentic?
• Am I telling stories?
• Are my illustrations dated?
• Am I hiding behind the podium or my notes?
• Is there a moment I can speak directly to teenagers?
• Am I using any words they might not understand?
• Am I varying my vocal tone and pace?