How Many Minutes Will Kids Actually Listen?

Posted on: 05/31/11 10:10 AM | by Jonathan McKee

Why talk for 25 minutes when you can say it in 5?

Seriously. Think about it for a moment. Picture a typical youth gathering where an adult has the opportunity to share the truth with kids. Now imagine this. A woman in her young 20’s walks to the front of the room and opens with these words. “Last year I realized that the friends I surrounded myself with were dragging me down, so I made one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever made in my life…”

For the next four minutes she shares a story of how surrounding herself with the wrong crowd led to disaster. Then she shares a scripture out of Hebrews 10 stating that we need to surround ourselves with people of encouragement—people who will help us with our faith walk, not hinder it. She closes with these words. “Think of the handful of people you spend the most time with? Are they drawing you closer to Christ… or dragging you away?”

She sits down.

Total talk time, 6 minutes and 22 seconds.

Let me ask you a question. Would that talk be more powerful if she blabbed for another 30 minutes? (I really want to know your thoughts? Please use the comment feature on this blog to chime in.)

This subject is dear to my heart. This fall I’m actually teaching a workshop on “Speaking to Teenagers with Short Attention Spans” again at the National Youth Workers Convention. In that seminar I always say, “Wouldn’t it be nice if all of us could communicate the scriptures like Francis Chan or speak with the clarity of Andy Stanley? Francis goes about 45 minutes… Andy averages about 40 minutes… I should do the same, right? Newsflash: You aren’t Chan! You aren’t Stanley. They are one in a million. So stop trying to talk as long as them!”

Every month I get the opportunity to hear youth workers speak to kids. The typical youth worker will talk to kids for about 25 to 45 minutes…. yes… sermons that feel longer than the last Lord of the Rings film. Sadly, regardless of the length and style, most of the speakers I hear today lose their audience within the first 3 to 7 minutes.

Why do we insist on torturing our kids with bad communication?

I wish this was just limited to a few isolated cases. Unfortunately, bad communication is abundant. I receive DVDs every month from people that want to be national speakers. Most these DVDs are from guys who insist that they have the gift of communication and want to speak for a living. Sometimes, watching these DVDs feels like watching the American Idol gag real. (You know, when the person applying is the only one that doesn’t realize they shouldn’t quit their day job!)

Maybe it sounds like I’m being harsh. After all, many youth ministries are run by volunteers that might not have the gift of communication. Does effective ministry require dynamic communicators?

Speaking candidly, wouldn’t most ministries prove to be much more effective if they simply knew the gifting of their leaders. In other words, Chuck isn’t a great communicator, so please stop giving him 40 minutes to talk to our kids every Wednesday night.

So what should we do?

I’m going to be blogging about this topic this week. So let me hear your comments. What are your thoughts on this subject? What should we do about this glaring struggle?

32 Replies to “How Many Minutes Will Kids Actually Listen?”

  1. Jonathan,

    Thanks for your post. I recently have found myself speaking as if I were speaking to a Sunday morning congregation. I guess being in seminary, the attitude is to prepare your messages and preaching for the big group. I am a student pastor and I know that my teaching needs to be around 20-25 tops. For me the thing that I struggle with, maybe some others do at times, is that I have so much content that I want to say but I don’t need to say it all. I am learning to condense my message and let the students speak more and get them engaged more in the lesson. I want them to learn the main point without me teaching. If you expect students to sit and listen to you after sitting listening to teachers all day at school, they are not going to like that. Engage them, keep the message short, get feedback, get interact and then shut up! (I got that from Andy Stanley’s book “Communicating for a Change”)

    So anyways, I think that the way that students today are wired technologically and everything being at the touch of their fingers, we have to be careful that they don’t become drones listening to a robot. But if you were to only speak for 10 mins, then what do you do with them the rest of the time? That might be the only drawback to a student ministry because we have them for over an hour.

    Good post!

    Aaron Smith

  2. As a youth leader, I don’t really give talks to my youth. The most I do is leading Bible study for them where I do some talking but it’s broken up with group discussion, Bible reading, etc. Sometimes when youth ask about certain topics I’ll talk about it for a few minutes, but I’m not up front giving messages. May just be my church’s culture.
    Personally, I don’t think most adults can sit through a 25 minute message. If adults get fidgety after 20-25 minutes, why should youth last any longer? Maybe if a message is going to be longer, break it up with some music or video clips that apply or a quick small group sharing or something. Plus, how much should you really throw at youth in one message? Shorter, to-the-point messages can be just as powerful and memorable. That being said, I also think even the short messages should include a Christ-centered Gospel message.

  3. Jonathan,
    My pastor and I have gone round and round on this for years. I’m in agreement with you to the point that a speaker should realize his abilities, how long he’s generally able to hold his audience (no matter their age). There are some speakers who can keep a teen’s attention for 30-45 min. However, most of us can’t, and, like you, I think many things can be said in half the time if you think about it in advance. There are those who would argue that we shouldn’t cater to our culture’s short attention span. That’s always an issue with many parts of our culture – how do we raise the bar/expectations, while also addressing the reality.

  4. On Sunday I start teaching the teen Sunday school class. Ages 12-18. I have the impression that they think I am old fashioned and a stick in the mud. I’m 33 years old. I’m nervous……I do NOT feel like I have the gift of communication, although a lady in my church came up to me once and said that I do. Any advice? How to fill our hour if I only do a 5 minute talk? So far I have: eat, 5 minute lesson, game, take prayer requests and pray while a song is playing on a cd. What else? I think we are going to be sitting there staring at each other waiting for time to leave.

  5. Amy… thanks for your honesty. I love your eagerness and willingness to serve. I’m glad you ask about this specific situation (teaching Sunday School). This week I think you’ll find some good suggestions- like the ones I’m seeing so far in the comment stream, and I’ll chime in with a few in the next few blogs.

    Keep the comments coming!

  6. I volunteer with inner-city kids, and getting them to pay attention when the pastor is preaching is tough. I think that all kids have trouble listening to speeches, but kids from the suburbs just zone out, and act like they listen. When you hit the attention span limit of inner-city kids, you know it. So it is good to remember that even if everyone is quiet, it does not mean people are listening.

  7. I work on the basis of 5-10 minute sections including: games, bible study, talk, prayer, worship/reflection and movie clips all based around one bible passage and theme. This means that everything builds towards the teaching point but remains varied.

  8. I strongly dislike the idea of 5 to 10 minute talks. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think they can be occasionally effective though. The reason I strongly dislike the idea is that the Bible isn’t made for 5 to 10 minute consumption. It’s a book that’s designed to be deeply dove into, not a book designed for wading in the shallow end for a few minutes. Obviously youth have shorter attention spans, but if we cave to that and just give them short bits of the Bible what are we teaching them about the nature of Scripture? That Scripture only deserves as much of their time as they’re willing to give it? May it never be!

    I’m the director of 5th and 6th grade ministries at my current Church and yeah when I do a 20 to 25 minute talk with video mixed in their will be kids that zone out. But my bottom line has always been that you cannot communicate the glorious truths of the Gospel in 5 minutes or less. Perhaps I shouldn’t say that you CAN’T as much as I should say that they are not designed to be communicated in that way. We need to be teaching the youth that God is deserving of more attention than anything else in their lives. My kids that come out each week have no problem devoting 30+ minutes to video games or TV each day, notice that no one questions their “attention span” when they sit still through movies!

    The problem often isn’t attention span, it’s that many teachers teach glorious truths in a tired and bored way. The Gospel is glorious, more glorious and more deserving of attention than anything else. If that’s communicated to the youth most of them will listen, if it’s not than they won’t listen because they have nothing worth listening too.

    Just my ten cents, sorry if it was a little ranty!

  9. I tend to agree with both Jonathan and Grant. Sometimes less is more powerful. BUT, that doesn’t have to negate the “longer” messages. Sure, teens attention spans are usually about 10-15 minutes, but that’s with staying engaged with one particular thing. What if your “message” was actually 30-40 minutes but wasn’t only you talking? Sometimes I try to mix things up by presenting different parts of my lesson in different ways. I may talk for a bit, then have them write something, then me talk again, then some discussion amongst themselves with leaders…things like that. If you’re breaking up the way they’re receiving the message their attention spans lengthen and you’re constantly re-engaging them. Thoughts?

  10. Grant… I appreciate your honesty.

    You bring up an interesting subject. On one hand, if someone books me to fly out to a camp, speak to a bunch of kids share the Gospel with them, I want WAY more than 5 to 10 minutes. So I hear ya!

    But on the other hand, I think that for most of us, who aren’t necessarily speakers who “speak for a living” and/or have the gift of speaking… I think keeping it 10-minutes can be way more effective (such as the young lady in my example above). But I’ve probably tipped my hand already when you see that I wrote a book called 10-Minute Talks which provides 24 talks that are all just 10 minutes long. I’d encourage you to look at that book and tell me if you think any of those talks water it down. (You can actually click on the link for that book on the left hand sidebar of this page and read one of the talks in its entirety with its small group questions that we provide. Take a peek for yourself.)

  11. I don’t think the teen attention span is much shorter than the average adult. Students are just more obvious when they tune out.

    If a youth minister can’t meet the 40min requirements effectively that are part of a particular job, apply for a different one.

    I believe you should stop speaking when people stop listening.

  12. In a talk the first seven minutes are for everyone, the second seven are for the devil and the third seven … you’re the only one listening to yourself. Simply ask a teenager.

  13. I like Erin’s comment and our set-up is similar. But, we are a small church with only about 6-12 high school youth at any given night, so small group study discussions kind of lend itself to our group anyway. I imagine it would be a much greater challenge when your group is 30-plus.

    Thanks to Jon for all your work in this area. Your website (and the comments of other youth pastors / workers / volunteers have been most helpful for a small church guy like myself.

  14. I don’t think it’s about time but about content. Kids will sit through a 3 hour movie because it holds their attention. Youth leaders need to go back to their college speech course and re-learn how to deliver material in a way that will connect with their audience. Some talks will take 6 minutes others, depending on the content and the knowledge base of the audience, will need to take longer. We just need to remember who we are talking with.

    Jonathan, thanks for this. Let’s get you back on the air at WRAF -it’s been too long

  15. I like to think that I can talk for 30-40 minutes and hold students’ attention, however I know that is the exception for me and not the norm… Most of the time 20 minutes is plenty long enough, it primarily depends on the topic and how much preparation I’ve managed to find (a rarity since I’m a volunteer youth director.)

    Sure, some folks can give pretty reliable, interesting talks for 40+ minutes but it takes a LOT of preparation, editing, and even they will have off days… I’ve seen plenty of bored teens listening to talks by even the big guys…

  16. Jonathan, thanks for your comments here. I understand communication is a weakness of mine. I have improved greatly since I began interning as a youth worker at age 19, took on my first full-time ministry at 22, and am now 1 month away from 28. My former style consisted of, “I talk, you listen” (and I wondered why they were bored). That’s all I was used to growing up, so of course that was what I’d offer. After attending several training seminars (and seminary) I learned a few “tricks” of making my speaking better, and it has improved some. I now still teach for approximately 45 minutes; however, I only actually talk for about 20, but never all at once. The teaching time is broken up into “I talk, you discuss, I talk, you watch a video clip, you discuss, I conclude” or something of that nature. Sometimes, even with that format, things still don’t seem to go as well. I’ve JUST started reading Andy Stanley’s book about communication. Do you suggest any others? I know my strengths are in caring for kids and in detailed written communication. This doesn’t alleviate my responsibility to teach the Word of God, though. I don’t want to be “okay.” I want to be good. Suggestions?

  17. I think we need to consider that talking at people is not the only way that we can teach. Sermons are important and have their place, but there are other methods that can be just as powerful. Games, activities, discussion, videos, and creative prayer stations can all focus on one central theme. Coming at one theme from several angles can provide depth and reach a wide variety of learners.

  18. For us the key is switching how we teach from series to series, keeping them learning/participating in different ways.
    Has to be more than just listening.

    Part of it is the time of the year and their related attention spans (is it almost Christmas or Summer Break? Are they stressed for finals?)

    1. Straight Bible Study – ask questions about verses, how they relate to life, applications, etc.
    2. Short videos with Q & A
    3. Teaching with help of whiteboard with questions throughout (helped a lot with our series on the Trinity).
    4. Long sermon videos with a few questions at the end. Going through the Book of Acts this way via Andy Stanley’s Big Church DVD. Treating them like adults and they are used to watching video.
    5. Lessons with physical interaction (tasks, stations, object lessons, etc).

    Obviously, these all have some discussion, small group, etc tangled in. But, length of teaching varies widely.

    I then try to get a lot of feedback via texting from our student leaders and from kids who are pretty new.

  19. I suppose I fall more on the side of agreeing with Grant. There is a lot to be said for training this young generation to receive the Word as God gave it and learn to be disciplined, just as we expect from adults. That said, the gift that Chan and others have (and XBox and TV have for that matter) is to draw people so deeply in with their IMAGINATIONS that they entirely FORGET THE TIME! For us more average communicators, we need to aim for that in a time frame realistic to our skillset (and/or what the Holy Spirit is doing through us / despite us that day).
    My conclusion: Creativity is great; Holy Spirit is greater. Aim for both! I have been surprised that kids have learned when I thought they were checked out… and have been checked out when I thought I was on fire! 😉

  20. I look at your site so frequently (and it’s no mistake that I was browsing on a Wednesday!), and I love the candidness of your ministry to us as we come alongside of you and minister to teenagers. I’ve recently been burdened to stop all the lecture/teaching methods and utilize more hands-on methodologies and small group facilitated times of teaching – where kids and adults alike are engaged in life-changing topics. Teens get lectures every day of the week at school, on Sundays from the sermon, Sunday School type classes, even small devotions we have during the week at activities – they’re still made up of us teaching them for 5-10 minutes and them sitting and listening (fingers crossed!). Let’s change it up, involve them and do whatever it takes to make the gospel real, applicable and an everyday occurrence for them! Thanks for all you do, Jonathan, we appreciate it greatly.

  21. So here’s what we do. I have been working in youth ministry for about 15 years now and have been paid to do it for 6 or 7 of those years. I have learned, over that time, that talking for ANY length of time to a group who doesn’t want to hear it is rather useless. I am currently running a ministry half time as the other half (or three quarters) of my time is in other ministry areas of the church. I don’t run as many events as I did as a full time youth pastor but I have still done the same thing with study’s. I run full on bible studies with interaction and questions etc. every so often (I try to do every other week for older students) and the students know when those are. They then can show up if they want some deeper digging. From there I do smaller talks for the younger students on a more regular basis but try to keep it to 10 minutes and 15 max. I then leave the major speaking to the big time guys at bigger confereces. Less isn’t always more but if the audience doesn’t want to be there nothing is what will get through. (regardless of what certain parents may believe;)

  22. I recently heard a Lady speak at an assembly in the Australian School I work at about an America trip. She went on for about 5 minutes telling every detail of the trip to about 1000 peoploe between the ages of 12-18. Needless to say she spoke much more than needed and even the principal was cringing about the length.

    It’s true that people will get bored over time with any speaker, but I don;t think length is so much the problem, as the involvement. I mean, if a person breaks up their talk with comedy, voices, interactive analogies, starts off with a grabber,and shares with the audience…that being said, 20 minutes would be the limit, if there is interaction. Part of the problem with giving talks is there is no opportunity to respond. response, in a physical or verbal way is important, otherwise,the audience just feels talked at or entertained…

    I think for talks to be effective we need to do what the apostles did at pentecost and speak their language, not try to speak their language, but allow them to respond, even if it;s just putting up phone number for them to text questions (if it’s a large group) or if someone asks a question while we give a talk, answering that question in the moment (if it’s on topic) or even just using what they say impromtu, they will listen more if they feel like they are being heard.

    That’s my experience of it, but then again, every audience, group, crowd, etc. is different, most jokes work with most groups, but the message needs to be believed fully and personal by the presenter.

  23. This post should include adult pastors. Just because the “famous” preachers speak 45 mins – 1 hour doesn’t mean every Sunday’s sermon should also be so long.

  24. Right on!! I’ve been a strong devotee of conciseness all my ministry. Extremely rare to have a complaint when I preach only 15 minutes or so as compared to the old 19th-20th century expectation of 25 or 30. Of course, it’s a challenge in a congregation like ours to balance
    70-plus folks with under 30’s. Anyway, THANK YOU for bringing this out!
    Ole but brief Pastor

  25. I appreciate what you are getting at, but your example is unfairly biased. As an example of brevity, you refer to a woman who is able to excellently communicate a personal story in 6+ minutes and then wrap it up with a scripture. Then you go on to say that if she talked for another 30 minutes it would be “blabbing.” So, in your example, anything less than 7 minutes is scintillating while anything more than that is just “blabbing.”
    This is a false dichotomy. Teens can listen to a 7 minute speaker and forget every word they say. They can also listen to a 30 minute speaker and hang on every word.
    You’re treating attention span as an absolute that is not affected by it’s environment. This simply isn’t true. Teens and tweens are absolutely capable of giving their attention for more than 7 minutes. But we have to give them reason to.
    The key here is not to set some arbitrary time limit, but for speakers to understand their limitations and be given the knowledge and tools to make use of their strengths. As you say, not everyone is Francis Chan. Of course, not everyone is Blabbermouth Bob either.
    I agree that “blabbing” is always bad communication. But I don’t agree that “blabbing” is solely measured by the amount of time talking. A person can talk for 5 minutes and blab the whole time. They can also talk for 25 minutes and not blab once.

  26. Yes Dustin… keep reading. Some communicators can pull off more than 7 minutes. Unfortunately, many of those who can’t, DON’T KNOW that they can’t. Or to use your lingo: Blabbermouth Bob doesn’t realize they aren’t Francis Chan.

    Read the following day’s blog entry about the story. I expand on this topic.

  27. I was thinking about submitting a video… but after reading your comments about others’ videos, I’m not so sure. 😉

  28. Ha… don’t be scared Richard. After reading this little series in my blog I think you’ll know exactly what NOT to do. If speaking is your gifting, then I’d be happy to take a look at your DVD. I actually am working with a few people right now on their speaking, giving them feedback, having them work on content development, etc.

  29. There seems to be several people concerned about what to do with all the extra time if you give a short talk. My teen group is supposed to be youth run/youth lead. However, that does not really happen on the thoughtful pieces such as learning. So I come prepared with topic and questions. All I have to do is throw out questions, responses, nudges and then another question and they can become 5 deep in the que to talk. They learn a lot from each other and you simply guide the direction with well placed questions.

  30. We should know our gifting and should cater our talks to our strengths. We should be life long students. We should learn to communicate well. It is not just a gift it is a competency that those of us in teaching ministries should develop.
    We should know our audience. Yes, the average teen has a short attention span, but that is a base line. My growth level teens can handle more, indeed they want more. My fringe kids like it short and sweet. Maybe part of our problem is we try to often to meet all the needs at one meeting?
    What I don’t see mentioned, though we all would silently give a nod toward, is the roll of the holy spirit in our preparation and delivery. When we partner with God’s agenda I would dare to answer the question, “How many minutes will kids actually listen?” with “As many as He wants… =)

  31. Jonathan,
    I’ve enjoyed this series communicating with clarity. Aside from “10-Minute Talks”, the book “Made to Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath is a great resource for crafting effective communication. It is an excellent resource.

  32. One of the biggest problems with preaching/teaching is not “shutting up” when the message is finished, whether 5 or 25 minutes have passed. If you finish early, use the time for relationship building with your teens. This is just as important as your messages. They need to know you as a real person, not just an orator. I’m 39, and my studies in journalism while finishing my undergrad changed my prep for messages. I don’t read many Christian books outside practical ministry resources (Go Jonathan, love your books!) because you get the main point in the first and last paragraph of each chapter in most books. The rest is fluff and filler. On the other hand, I can read a Vince Flynn CIA thriller and never lose a beat. Why? Vince is a master storyteller. Jesus is the master of all storytellers. And none of us– even Chan and Stanley– are Jesus. I can count the sermons that I remember on one hand and have fingers left over. However, I remember visuals, music videos, movie scenes, and hands-on exercises. Jesus taught in parables. Doing this same is the way to help kids “zone in” and hear His precious message. And BOLDNESS in God’s Word is critical to delivering powerful messages– in Christ’s image!

    Let the Holy Spirit guide your preparation. And don’t be shy about utilizing great resources that are out there such as Interlinc, Jonathan’s stuff, Simply Youth, and so on.

    And by all means, get creative and get to the flippin’ point with a bang!

    Blessings on you all,

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