Have you ever found yourself driving around with a car full of pre-teens, all drinking multi-colored Slurpees and singing along to the radio without a care in the world–and thought to yourself, “I could totally drive straight to Mexico right now, and these kids wouldn’t even notice”?

I once even uttered as much, when we were on our way to a laser tag center. When I told the kids we were on our way to Tijuana, three of them simply nodded in agreement while still belting out their music, and one of them turned in her seat, scrutinized the cornfields we were lost in, and said, “I think we have a bit farther to go still, before we hit Mexico.”

The idea of stealing kids away is something that is always on my mind.

And when I say “stealing them,” I mean the notion of capturing their attention completely with pure wonder at the work of the Holy Spirit, the creative genius of our Father God and the unimaginable love of our Savior Jesus.

What did you think I meant by saying I wanted to steal kids, huh?

The art of capturing the attention of teenagers in this manner is, well, an art. It’s something you really can’t learn from a book or online, and it’s difficult to even decipher it while watching someone else. But it’s something we strive for, in our ministry to youth.

After all, we have an incredible message of life-saving Truth to share. But if those ears never really tune into what we’re trying to say, they might miss it completely.

As I’ve worked with other leaders, college students and even high school students who are learning how to lead younger kids, it’s a tricky process to teach them how to capture the attention of people. I feel for them. I’m not sure it’s something you ever master, since it seems to change with every new wave of students and parents who cycle through. But, it’s an essential skill for every single leader I know.

And, from my experience, it’s a constant challenge for even the best, wisest youth leaders.

So, how do you steal a kid away and capture their attention, so you can share the splendor of God’s Word and His eternal truths?

First of all, you have to actually get their attention. That means tearing them away from their phones, iPods, and fascinating chitter-chatter with their friends. For me, I’ve tried to establish a routine–I holler for them to all get in the same place, and I stand up in front of them when I’m ready to talk. If the crowd is unruly (which, with middle school students, it usually is), I’ll give them a minute to get the energy out of their systems and settle into a seat. After that, there are a number of different ways you can use your body language, volume of voice, or goofy distraction games to alert them to the fact that you’re starting.

A simple one that a student taught me on my first day as a young intern was what I like to call the “Clapping Game”: you stand in front of the group and at normal volume say, “Clap once if you can hear me.” Only the students who are close enough to hear you will clap, but the clapping itself will catch the attention of all the other kids. Continue to repeat the clapping command until everyone in the room is clapping and listening to you.

Don’t waste any time in the next phase of capturing their attention, because this is the most critical part of keeping teenagers interested in what you’re doing: be ready to swoop in like a single-minded falcon and dive into whatever activity or message you’re sharing. This is not the time to slowly set up the supplies for your activity, or waste time on small talk that will only sidetrack your students–go in for the meat, like a falcon would.

If it seems like I’m going overboard here, trust me–these kids have much more interesting things to talk about and do than watch you flounder around, looking at your notes and stalling as you try to figure out exactly what you’re doing. Your openings should be rehearsed, polished, and interesting enough to engage the students immediately.

With middle schoolers, two things that always capture them are unusual object lessons and thought-provoking discussion questions. In trying to hit a variety of different learning styles, I find it helpful to incorporate many different elements into my lessons–not only listening, but looking Bible verses up, reading silently and aloud, passing something around, showing a picture or video clip, doing a physical activity, and sometimes even lighting something on fire or electrocuting a dill pickle.

Yes. There’s nothing quite like a flame or a jolt of electricity to mesmerize a room full of rowdy kids.

It’s essential to stick to one main idea and repeat it often when working with middle schoolers. I’ve also found it very helpful to think of lessons with these students not as a lecture, but a deep discussion. I strive to limit myself to talking only about a quarter of the time, while allowing the majority of the time to give them chances to wrestle aloud with concepts, questions, and ideas. By allowing them this much time to personally work through these lessons, they often dive in much deeper than you’d expect. Often, I only have to minimally guide the conversation, because the kids are so interested in the topic.

As a leader, it’s a good idea to always be looking ahead at your discussion questions, so you know exactly what you’re going to ask next at the first sign of a lag in the conversation. Don’t be afraid to throw in another question that’s not on your lesson plan, or tailoring a question so that it better fits what your kids are talking about. Be highly attuned to your group, watching body language to see when your kids might be drifting off into dreamland. Fidgets, glassy eyes, and faces looking down and doodling are a sure sign that you’re losing them.

But what happens when, despite your best intentions, students do get sidetracked and lose attention again?

Reign them back in, quickly. And sometimes it takes something dramatic.

I recently taught a classroom full of twelve- and thirteen-year-old boys who had apparently terrorized several other adult leaders, with their lack of engagement in the subject matter. Even with all the tricks I had up my sleeves, I came to a point about halfway into the lesson where I could sense that the boys were losing focus. Immediately, I switched gears and held up a whiteboard marker. I told them to stand up, and that the first person to get the marker would be allowed to write on the board. Then I chucked the marker as far as I could, and watched as the boys raced across the room and tackled each other out of the way. I didn’t have a single problem keeping their attention after that.

Ultimately, the goal of this entire concept of stealing kids is simply to prime them to hear and receive the Gospel. I’m not saying we need to resort to fancy tactics to share God’s Word with them, because the Word of God is powerful enough on its own. The Truth is efficacious, as it is promised in Isaiah 55:11: “So is my word that goes our from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

Stealing kids and capturing their attention: it’s difficult, but not impossible. And it’s definitely worth it, to see God’s timeless truths sink into their hearts and cause them to open their mouths in wonder and astonishment, or to see their eyes well up with emotion.

Take heart. Someone once told me that if you can handle middle school students, you can handle anything.

I would personally amend that to say, “If you can handle middle school boys, you can handle anything.”