This week, I had the chance to teach a couple of breakout sessions at The Orange Conference 2015! Here are my notes (as promised) from the session I co-led with the great and smart and super awesome Tom Shefchunas.

5 Rules (And 5 Exceptions) for Teaching Middle Schoolers


When teaching middle schoolers, we think there are 5 rules to building a great talk… and 5 exceptions to those rules.


  • We think the ideal length of a weekly talk for middle schoolers is 15 minutes or less. 
  • Think in 5 minute segments. A middle schooler needs to be re-engaged every 5 minutes.
  • When you lose their attention, they don’t know how to pretend they’re still listening. That’s helpful – we know when we’ve lost them because they get restless or start texting.
  • Keep your talks short because most of your time, and application, should be saved for small groups. The talk is a way to raise the tension. Then let the tension resolve in small groups as they wrestle with the application.


Middle schoolers can do longer talks, but long talks shouldn’t be the norm for a weekly environment. Save longer talks for camps or special events, where you can use huge visuals, craft big moments, and tell longer stories. You have to work hard to make longer talks work.



  • “Simple” does not mean “watered down.” It means a talk that is clear, practical, and memorable.
  • Say one thing. When they leave your talk, they should easily be able to summarize in one sentence what you said (the “bottom line”).
  • Begin with the “bottom line.” Write your bottom line before you write your talk. You need to know where you’re headed.
  • Middle schoolers are developing the ability to think abstractly, but those skills are not fully developed, so they don’t always understand abstract concepts, metaphors, or even sarcasm. 
  • The structure of your talk should be simple, too. Here are two methods of building the structure of your talk…



The meta-narrative of the Bible isn’t simple, but we should still teach it. The beauty of a week/weekend camp is that you can unpack a not-simple idea over the course of several sessions because you know that every kid will be there for all of it.



  • Middle schoolers need interactive and experiential learning elements to help ideas stick. Concrete visuals help them grasp abstract thoughts.
  • Engage all of their senses during your talks, not just their eyes and ears.
  • 6 tactics to promote interactive learning during your talks…

1. CONVERSATIONS. Have them turn to their neighbors and talk for two minutes.

2. PROPS. Use physical objects or demonstrations while you communicate.

3. TAKE-HOMES. Give them a physical object (not a piece of paper) to hang onto and take home with them.

4. TECHNOLOGY. Live polls, Q&A, social media, onscreen photos, interactive slideshows, etc.

5. ACTIVITIES. Create opportunities to get some, or all, of them moving and participating during your talk.

6. NOTE PAGES. Middle schoolers learn best when they can write or doodle as they listen. Create opportunities for this that go beyond fill-in-the-blanks (don’t make it feel like school!)


Don’t place interactive elements in places where it will distract from your talk. They should help you make your point, not compete with you. Only do interactive elements when it is clear and done well – not if it takes forever to explain or feels like a stretch.



  • Every talk should contain a personal story.
  • Middle schoolers need to hear stories because they…
    • Help them connect with a person.
    • Help them develop empathy.
    • Help them see how truth applies to their day-to-day lives.
    • Help them stay engaged.
  • Use stories to raise the tension… and let them really feel the tension. Don’t bail them out too quickly.
  • Good story-telling can turn an average experience into an exceptional story.
  • If you can’t think of a good story to illustrate your bottom line, your bottom line probably isn’t clear or practical enough.


Don’t tell too many stories in one talk – stick with just one.



  • Make them laugh. Fun breaks down walls.
  • Be careful with sarcasm. Often, they won’t get it.
  • Be careful with self-depricating humor. If you want them to believe they are made in the image of God, you have to model that you believe you’re made in the image of God.


Don’t distract them with a joke when you’ve got them right where you want them.

So when it comes to teaching middle schoolers, what do you think? Did we miss anything? 

If you didn’t get a chance to hear Tom and I unpack these ideas live at Orange, don’t fret. We’ll address them more in the future in a few different ways… including some training materials we’re putting together for users of XP3 Middle School!