Urban Myth: Inner City Young People Can’t Listen to Sermons!

Urban Myth: Inner City Young People Can’t Listen to Sermons!

by Mike Stark

Most of us are familiar with the terms  ADD or ADHD (attention deficit disorder, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). We work with and know many local children who have been diagnosed as such, placing them in a box and giving them a medical label to help them understand their (so-called) deficiency. Closely tied to these conditions is the issue of “attention span(s)”. Much is said, and has been published, about the length of time young people can really concentrate on something. The average young person, apparently, has an attention span of around 10-20 minutes. In our local High School, lessons last 50 minutes. In the High School where my wife teaches, periods last 35 minutes. The theory being that young people can only concentrate on a topic for a short period of time before needing to move on to something else.

So, when we see these articles that pop up from time to time, telling us that children can only concentrate for short bursts, and that their minds are being eroded by TV and video games, we may naturally begin to think about our context within the church and, specifically, our preaching on Sundays. Are our sermons too long for our young people? Are our sermons even too long for the adults?

Since the start of the year, our average sermon length at Niddrie has been 29.5 minutes long (yes, I have counted!). We often have a group of people from the community coming along to services on a Sunday morning. In recent months, we’ve also had a few young people as a direct result of  our school’s work and the other activities we do, such as our Youth Café. These individuals are not Christians, they’re ‘un-churched’, and they’re generally not in the habit of sitting and listening to a 30 minute sermon.

Bearing this in mind, we’ve been careful about our preaching recently, and those that bear the bulk of the teaching responsibility take great care each week to contextualise their message, often meeting together to run through it on the Friday beforehand to share ideas. They’ve also been careful about the length, although I’m not even convinced that the length of a sermon is necessarily the defining issue. Many of us will have experience of 10 minute sermons that have bored us to tears within the first minute. My old minister always says, in preaching: “If you’ve not struck oil in the first few minutes, stop boring”. On the other hand, I’m sure we’ve sat through 60 minute sermons that seemed to fly by. So the length isn’t everything.

Recent experience has shown me that even a group of Niddrie young people can sit still, listen to, and learn from a 30 minute sermon. Without going into too much more detail about some of the technical and structural changes the preachers have made (that would be an other blog post), I’d like to share with you just a few things that have worked well for us in Niddrie with the young people who have been coming along each week.

  1. Sit with the young people throughout the service. Be deliberate and make sure other youth leaders in the church are being deliberate too. In our church, some of us have to get up to play instruments; we have to make sure that when we get up, the young person we were sat next to isn’t left by themselves. Young people don’t like being a Norman-nae mates – sit with them!
  2. Try and ensure young people have the freedom to make a little noise. They’ll need someone to help them find their way through the Bible, they may not understand something that’s been said and sometimes they’ll want to ask a question. This can be done quite easily and without being a distraction to the rest of the church if, (a) you’re putting into practice number 1 above, and (b) the young person is capable of whispering – which is never a guarantee. Hopefully whoever is preaching will be sensitive to the situation and not get too distracted and/or irate. I’ve tried to speak to whoever is preaching beforehand to be sure they’re aware. One young man who came for the first time last week (after a number of invites) needed to leave early to visit his dad. He told me beforehand, and so I told Mez beforehand; that way he wouldn’t be distracted when he got up to leave. Sometimes a short answer to a young person’s question isn’t possible, and will have to be explained further after the service. Be sure and remember what the question was!
  3. Finally, give them a notebook and a pen. This has been the most helpful thing we’ve done. Mez said that the best thing anyone did for him when he started coming to church was to put a notebook and pen in his hand. It gives them something to focus on and it helps them to process what’s said and even reflect on it later. Two of the boys that have been coming along recently will testify to the difference it has made for them. It helps that I also take notes, so there is a sense in which they’re watching me and doing as I do. So far they have been copying points that I’ve noted down, but that’s because they’re not used to note-taking. With time, they’ll be able to jot down their own thoughts and points that have challenged or encouraged them throughout the sermon. It’s a skill that needs to be learned, but it first needs to be put into practice.

None of these are particularly new or revolutionary ideas. There’s still much more that could be said on tweaks and changes that the preacher could make in order to help maintain young people’s attention; but perhaps these are a few helpful suggestions if you’re the one  sitting in the congregation each week, wanting to help your young people engage more with what’s being taught up front.



    Interesting Mike..but some questions: what about those young people (and older) who struggle to read and/or can’t/won’t write notes during a sermon? What strategy should we be employing with them? Should they even be in listening or should we be doing something different with them? What is the advantage of them sitting in during services? maybe there isn’t one. What do you think?

      Mike Stark

      Let me start with your last question. We definitely want to be encouraging young people (and older) to be sitting in during services – it’s the time when we get together as a group of Christians, to sit under the ministry of the Word, to be challenged, instructed and encouraged in our faith. This might be the only time in the week where the bible is opened and explained to them, it may be the only time that week that they hear the gospel. And we shouldn’t overlook the encouragement they can be to others that are gathered there. It’s important that these young people develop relationships with other Christians besides me and the other youth workers – participating in Sunday services exposes them to other Christians. You could argue that you can develop relationships with other Christians before or after the service over coffee; but if some are not sitting in during the service, it’s a half-committment – there’s a barrier there that will be difficult to overcome; it becomes ‘them and us’, and it lacks the sense of togetherness that should be part of every Sunday service.

      Regarding the other points you raise, one of the boys that’s been coming along and taking notes is dyslexic and doesn’t read particularly confidently. He isn’t taught how to take notes at school, so the concept is pretty alien. Yet he sees other people taking notes and is therefore prepared to give it a go – successfully. Of course that’s not to say that this approach will work for everyone. One of the other ideas which we had was for someone to prepare a worksheet based on the preacher’s manuscript which would be prepared in advance. It could contain the main points of the sermon, with key words blanked out to be filled in as we go. This obviously still involves a bit of writing/reading, but would perhaps be helpful for some people. This could also be helpful for people for whom English isn’t their first language. I think you do whatever you can to help those in the congregation engage with what’s being taught, and that isn’t just the responsibility of the preacher.

      If it proves entirely impossible for (young) people to sit in – perhaps a bible class or Sunday school would be an appropriate step to take, but the goal would be to get them to the point where they are capable of sitting in and participating with the rest of the church.

    Shaun Clarkson

    “Without going into too much more detail about some of the technical and structural changes the preachers have made (that would be an other blog post),”

    Would like to see that other blog post too!

    Jon Gleason

    For what it’s worth, we have pretty much an open door policy in our services. The neighbourhood kids will turn up at any time — beginning, half way through, in the last five minutes of my sermon, whatever. They’ll come in, sit down, and usually stay to the end. But they may get up and walk out after five minutes, as well. As long as they are reasonably respectful and don’t start yo-yoing in and out, we are ok with that.

    Do you ever have kids interrupt sermons with a question? I’ve had that happen. I’m pretty relaxed about that, too — if it makes sense to answer it then, I will, if not, I’ll tell them we’ll talk about it later.

    The kids have little idea of “normal church behaviour” when they first come, but they have the normal human desire to want to fit in, so after a few times, they do pretty well. I don’t believe in running something separate for them — I want them to be a part of whatever we are doing.

    And yes, they listen. They might get confused sometimes — Sunday, I started preaching through Luke, and one wee guy came up to me afterwards and told me about a guy named Luke on the telly — he thought it was the same Luke. But that’s ok, too — a chance to talk. If nothing else, these kids are learning that someone wants them around, and that’s a gaping hole in a lot of lives. That’s not going to save anyone, but it is still good — and they are hearing the Gospel that does save.

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