Practically Speaking: Message-Length and Different Age Groups
When I first got into youth ministry, I had a larger than life mentor, “Big Don,” who routinely dropped nuggets of wisdom on me. Big Don stood at 6’8 and rolled 290 pounds. He also happened to live on my street and would host me at his self-title home, “Club Don,” on Sunday nights for talk of football, theology, and practical youth ministry wisdom (over the occasional cigar).
One of the smartest things Don ever said was, “You have as many minutes of a person’s attention as they have number of years in their life.” Therefore, if you are teaching the Bible to ten year olds, you have about ten minutes of their attention. If you are teaching thirteen year olds, you probably have thirteen minutes. With that being said, I never teach more than about eighteen minutes (high school seniors) to any students in my youth ministry. The exception is if we are on a retreat, or if I know I have a very engaging story or video that can bring students in.
Young Life trains teachers with a good maxim: leave ‘em wanting more. If you had to choose between cutting a talk a little too short or going a little too long, you’d rather err on the short side. The emergence of the technology age has heightened the need to lean on the side of brevity.
In a June 2015, the Wall Street Journal examined the cutting edge strategies of the NFL franchise, the Arizona Cardinals. Relying on current neuroscience, the team realized that the majority of their players were millennials, who learned in a different manner than previous generations. The management began capping the length of meeting and film sessions to twenty-five minutes before breaking, rather than the traditional forty-five minute or hour length.
I have observed summer youth camps or conferences where the speakers talked to teenagers for forty-five minutes to an hour. I would kindly deem this an ineffective means of communication. Most kids zone out after about twenty-five minutes and are totally done after a half hour. We may feel like we need to “give kids their money’s worth,” but that may actually result in a brilliant message from which our kids retain nothing.
In the context of a regular, weekly Bible study or Sunday school, I’d stick pretty strictly to Big Don’s maxim of teaching for as many minutes as students have years in their life. On a special occasion, like a retreat or an important Sunday night talk, I would aim for no more than twenty minutes (maybe twenty-five on rare occasion if you know you’ve got a real zinger of a talk).
Remember: the point is for kids understand and learn God’s word and the Gospel. That will occur most effectively by operating within a child’s cognitive capabilities, while trusting in the word of God and the Holy Spirit to do their living, powerful, redemptive work.