Follow these five rules to get kids engaged, and you’ll ensure that your kids become fully absorbed in your ministry.
I had just finished what I believed to be another rather inspiring and compelling lesson about God’s purpose for our lives. Over and over I’d driven it home: “Love God; love others.”
As the kids filed out the room, though, I watched as Jackson grabbed and then hurled Shellie’s stuffed alligator 20 feet across the room.
I knelt down and asked, “Remember those two things we just talked about? Those two things that Jesus said matter most? What were those two things, Jackson?”
Jackson stared hard at me, his brow furrowed, searching for the right answer.
I sighed. “Love…? Love Guh…?” I hinted further, trying to give him some phonetic inspiration.
“Oh yeah!” Jackson’s brow unfurrowed and his eyes lit up. “Love girls!”
Right then I realized that too often I’ve made the mistake of assuming that Jackson, who’s always sitting quietly, facing forward in the front row of my room, is attentive and fully engaged in my lessons. Yeah. I was wrong.
Did Jackson truthfully believe I’d just spent the last 15 minutes talking about the importance of loving girls? Did he? I became acutely aware that Jackson — and who knew how many others — actually didn’t know what I’d been telling him for weeks. Jackson was a front-row sitter, totally quiet, staring right at me the whole time, completely and fully…disengaged.
The reality is that engaging kids is a little more complicated than delivering great lessons and profound truths. So don’t make my mistake of assuming your kids are tracking right along with you. Follow the five rules of engagement I’ve learned, and you’ll ensure that your kids become fully absorbed in your ministry.
Rule 1: Learn what’s likable.
Engaging kids begins the very moment they walk into your room. Kids are highly discerning, and they tend to decide quickly whether they like or don’t something — often before that something has a fair chance to win the child’s affections. You, your children’s ministry, and your room are no different. I’ll hold up a gold-standard example here: Disney can teach us so many things when it comes to appealing to a child’s intellect, beginning with its remarkable ability to engage the audience. If you’ve ever visited a Disney theme park, you probably noticed that the likeability factor begins before you set foot inside the gates, even as you approach the property on the freeway. You see signs welcoming you. The parking structures are tastefully designed with beloved characters. The strategic décor draws people in and captivates them the moment they arrive.
You’ll sway the likeability scale in your favor if you strategically work to attract kids — in other words, think like a kid. Whether it’s in the form of a child-friendly environment with right-sized chairs and friendly decorations or in your likeable, friendly demeanor, see to it that kids will like whatever they encounter. Don’t assume budget has anything to do with this; you can create an engaging physical environment on any budget with a little creativity…and being friendly doesn’t cost you a thing. Look to your church body for talented and creative people or people who know talented and creative people who can help you with your room design and setup. If you work at it, you can develop an all-around likeable environment and atmosphere that’ll engage kids and give them a fun and non-embarrassing place to bring their friends.
Rule 2: Speak the language of fun.
There are no laws that say church can’t be off-the-chain, hysterical fun. I’ve heard feedback from parents (who are often your best gauge) who’ve confirmed this rule for me time and time again. There will always be the occasional eyebrow-raiser parent, but much more frequently I have parents going out of their way making appointments with me during the work week, all just to tell me that their child has never liked coming to church before now. They tell me their kids are dragging them out of bed on Sunday mornings. They tell me stories of how their children are learning about the promises God has for them. They’re excited about the ways they see their kids integrate faith into their day-to-day lives.
Kids are naturally drawn to what’s fun. (So are we, for that matter.) And fun comes in all kinds of packages. It comes in all forms — shared leadership with kids, great media, challenges kids actually relate to, and all number of things specific to today’s kids. When you take fun — the language of children — and use it strategically to draw kids into your ministry, it gets their attention. It communicates to them that you value them and the things they like. It opens their hearts to the really important things you — and more importantly God — have to say to them.
Rule 3: Speak the language of the day.
When you’re attempting to engage kids who are wired up to their eyeballs in interactive entertainment…well, you just have to try harder than you used to. Meaning, you’ve got to be able to speak — or at least understand — the language kids do. Your history, expertise, and life experience all make you a valuable influence in kids’ lives. But if your examples, language, or references feel outdated to kids, they’ll likely also seem not applicable to kids’ lives. So keep up on pop culture. Keep up on kids’ trends. Know what’s happening in the world as it relates to kids.
Use of stale pop-culture elements in your lessons can actually work against you and quickly lead kids into the tailspin of disengagement. If you’re going to truly engage kids, be passionate about persistently discovering what they’re interested in. Their interests change relentlessly, so that means you can’t slack in this area. It’s well worth your time-and it’s fun — to stay in touch with what engages kids outside in the real world. The more you can incorporate last week’s quotes from Nickelodeon’s latest hit show or make use of one of Disney’s hottest pop star’s songs, the more you’ll speak the language of your audience. Regularly use key quotes, characters, and fresh video clips when you teach, and you’ll snap those kids back into engagement and better drive home your point.
If you always take time to get acquainted with the latest in appropriate pop-culture, kids will notice. And when kids notice that you’re interesting, fun, and in touch with reality, it sets you up well for your communication and dialogue with them. When kids know you’re plugged into their world, they’ll be engaged before you even start talking because they already know they can relate to you.
Rule 4: Inspire to engage.
I believe today’s kids truly want to make an impact on this world more than any other generation before them. Kids care about many social justice and global issues today’s world faces. They feel an obligation to do, not just consume. Empower them. Your kids need you to motivate, inspire, and challenge them to change their world. It’s not enough to simply teach life application; you must engage them with a real challenge. Kids want to make a difference, but they need the spur to do it. You’re that spur. You may be surprised at how your kids engage when you set before them an opportunity to make an actual difference in this world.
Rile 5: Make sure you’re really relating.
The most significant thing you can do to keep kids engaged is to offer them authentic relationship. So focus your efforts on reaching children and engaging their hearts by demonstrating a genuine interest in their lives. But it has to be real interest. Kids can spot a phony faster than you can say, “Flarp” — and they can tell when you really aren’t interested.
Just think of my friend Jackson. I thought, based on his seemingly rapt attention, that I was making a real connection with him because he appeared to be listening. But sending the occasional smile and nod his way didn’t cut it — and it won’t cut it with your kids, either. Though Jackson was sitting less than five feet from me, he was really miles away because I hadn’t made a real connection with him. So make sincere efforts to relate to kids that go beyond the class. Truly invest in kids with your words, time, and actions.
Investing in kids is like investing in your retirement…a few nickels and dimes at first, but over time and with persistence, kids’ engagement and interest will compound. Best of all, you’ll likely find that kids become the ones making an effort to engage you.
Engaging kids takes practice, persistence, and awareness. If you work to engage kids on every level using these rules for a guide, you’ll see their eyes, hearts, and ears open up-as they soar to new heights in their faith. cm
Kirk Morgan is a children’s pastor in Houston, Texas. He’s been involved in children’s ministry in some way since his childhood.