5 Ways to Grab and Keep Students’ Attention

By Tim Downey October 23, 2014

Teaching the Bible is challenging, to say the least. Gaining and keeping the attention of students while teaching the Bible can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are five principles to keep in mind:

1. Keep it short. As a rule, think about the age of the audience. Whatever the average age is, that’s the amount of time they can stay with you. One of my professors in preaching once said, “If you can’t say it in 20 minutes, you have two messages.” I’m not sure that’s always accurate, but it is a good rule of thumb, especially with adolescents.

2. Keep it personal. Adolescents are not nearly as interested in us as they are in themselves. We must reveal enough of our personal side to create a relational identification with the audience. The key is to help your students realize that, in many ways, we are just like them and that the prevailing truth of the passage we are teaching crosses all generations, situations, and people.

3. Keep it connected. We must be intentional about creating tension within our introduction that leads to the topic; otherwise, we will lose much of the audience before we ever get started. A good hook will not only draw students in, but it will also get them asking questions in their own heads (that you will hopefully answer by the end of your teaching).

4. Keep it moving. We often complain that a movie is slow or boring because the tension is lost through complicated layers or monotonous details. One or two plot twists are exciting; five or more make audience members’ heads spin. So pick one major topic, two or three interesting sub-points about that topic, and nothing else. One of the keys to an engaging movie or play is a storyline that keeps moving. When the movie becomes stagnant, we turn it off. The same goes for teaching biblical truth to teenagers; if we stagnate through myopic details or pointless rabbit trails, we’ll put students to sleep.

5. Keep it clear. Work on making the pages of the Bible come alive through:

  • Explaining the context, characters, and tensions of the text. Creating a journey through the text is essential to understanding relevancy. Not every passage of the Bible is a story, but you should always be mindful of the story elements that might engage your students. All good stories have interesting characters, some kind of problem to solve, and a resolution to that problem. Even if you’re teaching from one of Paul’s letters, you can still find and point out main characters: at the very least, Paul and the members of the church he’s writing to. And Paul isn’t writing whatever random thoughts come into his head. He’s tackling real-world issues. What problem is Paul trying to address by writing what he is? How does the biblical message resolve that problem?
  • Exposing the main idea. Be careful to stay with the main idea that the author intended for the audience at the time. Otherwise, we could stray towards misinterpretation. Students are sharp—if we bend the to text say what we’d like it to say instead of what it’s actually saying, they will nail us for it every time.
  • Encouraging personal application. Never end your teaching without showing the students personal applications of the main idea. Think through various settings, situations, and relationships for potential student application. That’s not as hard as it sounds. Start by thinking about how the passage applied to its original audience. How would it have changed their day-to-day lives? What would they have done immediately after hearing these words? Then think about how it applies to you. If you can’t see how a section of Scripture affects your life, you will never be able to explain its relevancy to others. Finally, put yourself in students’ shoes. Think about the questions they’ve asked you and the worries they’ve confided in you. How might this passage help them resolve those questions and concerns?


About the Author

Tim Downey

Tim Downey is an Associate Professor of Youth Ministry, specializing in the areas of discipleship and leadership at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. For 30 years, Tim has served the Christian community as a youth pastor, missionary, college professor, and international speaker. He and his wife, Kaye, have three daughters and one granddaughter. Tim…  Read More