Thanks for joining me at my Teaching Digital Natives breakout session! Below you’ll find a copy of the notes for the breakout. Have more questions? Email me at email@example.com.
The children, and now parents, in our children’s ministries are digital natives, meaning they do not know life without the existence of the internet. Marc Prensky, the creator of the term “digital native” defines them as “native speakers of the digital language of computers, video games, and the Internet” (Prensky, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants”). Technically, digital natives include anyone born after the 1980s, though some argue that the first true generation of digital natives were born after 1995.
Digital natives have spent their entire lives surrounded by computers, video games, cell phones, streaming services, and all the other tools and apps found in the digital world. They learn through observation how to use these elements of technology as they watch their grown-ups use them. Their interactions with the digital world are changing the very structures of their brains and influencing the way they learn (Prensky, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants”). Because of the ever-changing, constantly-connected digital world we live in, kids will have very different childhoods and will enter adulthood with very different experiences from a majority of today’s adults. They also learn in different ways too.
The former ways of teaching and children’s ministry were not bad or wrong, they were just designed for a different set of learners. As teachers of the gospel, we must recognize the differences in the way digital natives learn, relate, and process information, and we must update the way we teach to better engage digital natives with the Bible.
Two areas to note about how digital natives learn:
Intellectually, the very physical makeup of a digital native’s brain is wired differently than in generations past, and they need very different opportunities from a learning environment than in the past. Marc Prensky encourages teachers to think of digital native kids like rockets.
First, digital natives need speed. Not only do they learn and process information at a high speed, but even the very schedule of their lives is faster than ever before. Digital natives are born multi-taskers, often switching between tasks and ideas quickly. We can provide fidget toys and physically interactive elements during the teaching time to engage these multi-taskers while also helping them learn how to focus. As ministry leaders, we must wrestle with this tension between keeping up with the fast pace of their world and helping kids slow down to experience and respond to the Holy Spirit.
Second, rockets are exploratory by nature. For digital natives, learning is triggered by internal curiosity and spurred on by boundless imagination. Sometimes in children’s ministry, we get so focused on the Biblical knowledge we want kids to learn that we forfeit the development of their Biblical imagination. We may think knowledge and imagination are mutually exclusive, but they’re really 2 sides of the same coin. Imagination spurs a curiosity for knowledge. And in turn, knowledge allows for the expansion of our imagination. The imagination plays a central role in learning and intellectual development – especially for digital natives.
Too often we treat the Bible as something that we must memorize and defend, and not as a great mystery that we are called to discover and participate in. When we invite that sense of wonder into our teaching, we harness a powerful learning tool that fuels creativity and innovation for the digital natives we teach, giving them the opportunity to explore the Bible, not just learn about it. We have to help them explore the extraordinary within the stories of the Bible so they can discover the redemption, wonder, and mystery.
So what can we do to incite curiosity and encourage Biblical imagination when teaching digital natives?
- Share the story (and the Story) – The word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:12), and we should teach its stories as, well, stories. This means we should invite kids into the action of the plot to join the people of the Bible on their way to the climax of the story. Think about some of your favorite storytellers and utilize some of their techniques when teaching. (Also try and show the smaller Bible story in light of the overarching Story of the Bible. Where does it fit in? Go beyond just “Old Testament” and “New Testament” or even “before Jesus” or “after Jesus” and talk about how the story fits into God’s redemptive plan. Help kids make connections between the stories and see how they fit together as God’s Big Story, chronologically throughout history. I know some leaders avoid using the word “story” to help differentiate the Bible from fairy tales and fiction, but Hebrews also tells us that Jesus is the author of our faith, and He was a storyteller Himself. Framing the gospel as the best story every told invites kids into the action.
- Laugh as you learn – The easiest way to reduce boredom and encourage engagement is to make the lesson fun and enjoyable! Digital native kids are used to “edutainment” – a combination of entertainment and education – where learning is intentionally fun. Include jokes or funny observations about the story. There are lots of things in the Bible that make me laugh. For example: Matthew 4:1-11 tells us that after 40 days of fasting in the desert, “Jesus was hungry.” Ha! I’d be hungry too after 40 days of fasting! This line always makes me laugh, but when I dig deeper into that laughter and seemingly obvious detail, I see that this detail tells us that while Jesus was fully God, he was also fully human. He hungered, he thirsted, he felt pain. The silly “duh” moment leads to a deeper understanding that I can connect with.
- Identify the unknown – Present the story as part of a great mystery or adventure. There are lots of things we DON’T know about the Bible, and that’s OK. Draw attention to the unknown or unexplained parts of the story. It’s OK to leave some things unanswered. Unanswered questions help kids learn that faith is a lifelong journey and gives them room to explore on their own.
Find 10 interactive storytelling techniques here!
God can do “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20), and He’s given us minds to think creatively and wonder curiously at His Story. The minds of digital natives are even more curious and creative than ever before because of the endless opportunities they have to learn from and connect with the world around them. When we intentionally invite wonder and curiosity into the learning process with digital natives, we help them cultivate a Biblical imagination that shapes a more robust Biblical knowledge and leads to life transformation.
In line with their exploratory nature (and the developmentally inquisitive nature of elementary schoolers), digital native kids would much rather puzzle out the answer on their own than be told what the correct answer is. Rather than telling them the main point of the story, give them the questions to be answered and help them explore the answers in the Bible. Or reverse the review time and the teaching time. Ask the questions up front, then use the Bible lesson or story to help kids discover the answer. For example, rather than telling kids the 3 promises God made to Abraham in a large group setting, invite them to explore the Bible with their small group, make a list of what the 3 promises are, then move back to large group to discuss their findings. Think of digital natives as researchers, thinkers, and explorers, with you as the guide, goal-setter, questioner, and coach that helps point the rocket in the right direction. Ask questions that allow for exploration and discussion, not just questions that have one specific right answer. While some content review questions require simple, concrete answers, try to push beyond factual questions and into open-ended questions that allow for personal and practical answers. Ask “why” questions or “I wonder” questions. This type of questioning allows kids to develop their biblical imagination as well as their biblical knowledge.
Tap into digital natives’ curiosity by giving kids the freedom to explore and discover the lesson on their own. Let’s shift from the expert grown-up teacher telling kids what to think to exploring the story together, valuing what kids notice and share. Modifying teaching in this way may require an adjustment in your small group ministry and large group teaching time. Both contexts are still highly valuable. But both need some modification to better engage digital native learners and allow them to explore. Remember, when their curiosity is piqued, their engagement will be too.
Just like rockets that need to be launched into space before truly becoming rockets, digital natives learn best by doing and experiencing, not by listening, so create time and space for kids to be involved in the lesson. How can you invite kids into the teaching of the lesson itself? This may look like inviting kids to act out the story, solve a puzzle, consider a question, stand up and complete an action, vote on what they think will happen next, provide sound effects, or any variety of interactive storytelling techniques. Remember those “choose your own adventure books” that allowed the reader to have some say in how the story ended? Apply that mentality to your Bible teaching. Offer “simulations” of the Bible story and give kids options of what they think will happen next. Then explore the results of their choices and teach what really happened. Think less lecture, more partnering when it comes to teaching digital natives. Make a shift from a grown up talking and kids listening to multi-sensory and experiential learning.
In the spirit of doing, engage their bodies and not just their minds. Use gestures, play charades, or invite kids to make faces as to how they would react if they were a person in the story. What pose might represent the different people, cities, places, actions happening in the story? Seek patterns, look for repetitions, or put it to music: “If this part of the story was a drum beat, what would it sound like? If this part of the story was a sound, what would it be?” Speaking of sounds, engage the senses as much as you can. How would different parts of the story feel, touch, taste, smell, or sound? For example: ask kids what they think the ark might have smelled like.
And if you can turn learning into a game? Even better! All kids love games, but this generation of digital natives in particular find games to be the preferred way to learn. They enjoy the pursuit and acquisition of knowledge when it’s presented as a challenge to overcome rather than a list of facts to memorize. There’s no reason kids can learn 100 Pokémon cards but not learn the books, stories, and people of the Bible – it all depends on how it’s presented. According to research, using games in teaching can help increase a child’s participation and foster social and emotional learning, something all kids need after 2 years of a worldwide pandemic that left us all isolated and socially distanced. Kids are able to engage with the lesson (rather than just listen to it being told to them) when gamification is involved, and games can help keep their attention and focus. Game-based learning gives kids ownership over their spiritual learning and development, which improves both enjoyment of the learning process and overall retention of what they learn.
So whether the lesson itself becomes a game or you gamify the review time, finding ways to incorporate play into the learning process will help us better connect with the digital natives we teach and will help the digital natives we teach retain more.
Finally, we have to let go of control. We have to recognize that we can aim rockets in the right direction, but we don’t have complete control over their course or speed once they’re launched. Digital natives hold the same great potential for discovery and exploration, but it requires that leaders let go a little. As a control-freak myself, this is scary! But it’s so valuable to engaging digital natives with the gospel. How can you give leadership and responsibility to some of your older kids to help you teach the lesson? What would it look like to invite kids to create the teaching elements of the lesson or divide the story among your small groups and let the small groups come up with a way to teach the rest of the group?
One of my favorite ways to release control is through prayer stations or a worship response time. During a worship response time, there may be 1-3 prayer activities available for kids to participate in, and they get to choose which one(s) they want to do. The activities vary in type (and sometimes noise level) but they all connect to the lesson in some way or provide kids the opportunity to process the lesson with God. They allow children to express their responses to God about what they are learning and who He is. Each station looks different and gives the child an opportunity to respond to God in a different way. After the lesson, kids are released for 5-10 minutes to complete the prayer station(s) of their choice on their own, at their own pace. The first time I tried this, I was convinced complete chaos would ensue and we’d end up with a room full of crazed kids. But they surprised me, and the Holy Spirit worked through this time to speak to kids’ hearts in new and profound ways.
Some of my favorite prayer stations that work for any lesson include:
- Listen quietly to or sing along with a worship song.
- Use an old cell phone to talk to God about what you’re learning.
- Draw a picture of your prayer or something from the lesson.
- Write a prayer on a sticky note and stick it to a cross.
- Read through the Bible story on your own and draw a picture of who you’d want to be in the Bible story.
- Walk through a simple labyrinth (made from a bedsheet or tape on the floor) as you talk to God about something from the lesson. Find step-by-step instructions for creating your own prayer labyrinth here!)
Ultimately, digital native kids have huge potential. Just as a rocket’s mission to space can provide astronomical results, when we embrace the rocket-ship analogy of how digital natives learn, God can do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine with the next generation.
Launching a rocket requires a solid team of people who have a good relationship with each other. Teaching digital natives well requires a solid team with good relationships too. Kids need to feel connected to you and to your volunteer team. Just like astronauts have to trust the home base team when they’re launched into space in a rocket, kids have to trust you before you can effectively teach them.
Digital natives learn best when they feel known, seen, loved, and heard by whoever is teaching them. They must understand that their opinions matter. Kids want to feel valued for their ideas, or they will check out. Generation Alpha, born from 2010 – 2024, want to know if you know them and pay attention to their likes and dislikes. The same will be true for Generation Beta, the upcoming children who will be born from 2025 – 2039.
Build relationships with your kids, both inside and outside of Sunday morning. Building rapport increases your effectiveness as a Bible teacher. Be OK with times of fellowship and fun in your ministry that allow for connections and relationships to form.
Know the kids you lead.
- Know their names and use them often.
- Know what your kids are into and what they enjoy doing. At the beginning of each school year, consider asking kids to fill out an “All About Me” page that invites them to share their favorite candy, books, movies, games, restaurants, etc., then keep these sheets on file, share them with your volunteers, and review them from time to time to remind you about the kids you serve. Find a free All About Me Printable here!
- Then, take their favorites and incorporate them into your teaching. Do you notice that several kids mention playing soccer? You could use a soccer ball as part of an object lesson or as a teaching tool. Do lots of kids say they like Skittles? Then use Skittles as a reward for a game or to help you teach the lesson. Are there children who enjoy drawing? Make drawing the Bible story part of your next teaching time.
- Digital natives are used to customizing and personalizing everything, and when leaders can personalize the teaching time to match kids’ interests, it shows how much leaders value them. When you know what makes kids excited in their everyday lives, you can tap into those passions when you teach to better engage them with the gospel.
Invite questions and collaboration. Exploring space in a rocket naturally brings up questions. So does exploring God’s story in the Bible! Lean into that. When learning, digital natives prefer groups and collaboration to lecture-style teaching. How can you adapt your teaching time to include opportunities for small groups to explore the Bible story together as they learn it, rather than just as a review time after you’ve taught the Bible story from the platform?
- Look at the ways you are setting up the space. Where and when can you provide spaces for kids to interact more often rather than sitting in rows and listening to a lecture? Is there room for kids to move around, explore, and discuss? Consider sitting in a large circle or having small groups sit in circles. Albert Einstein said, “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” Be intentional about the conditions you provide for kids to learn about Jesus.
- Think of yourself less as a curator and provider of biblical knowledge and more as a leader or facilitator of learning experiences. Creating group-centered learning and opportunities for collaboration (with leaders and with their peers) helps create an ideal environment for digital natives to learn.
- One easy way to invite collaboration is to encourage kids to ask questions in your ministry and throughout the teaching time. As concrete thinkers trying to discover the world and their place in it, digital native elementary kids have many questions. But they don’t often feel confident enough to say them out loud. When kids know they can ask questions without consequence or judgment, it builds trust, and it’s healthy for kids to see that sometimes adults don’t have all the answers either. You and your team can encourage kids’ questions with a simple routine that lets them know it’s OK to have questions about the Bible, faith, and church. Before beginning your regular review questions or other small group activities (or even partway through teaching the lesson), ask this simple question: “Do you have any questions about today’s Bible story?” Remind kids they may want to ask questions if they are curious about a part of the Bible story that made them wonder about something or if they were unsure what it means. You must offer space for digital natives to explore the questions kids have about their faith so you can help kids discover the answers. Questioning allows kids to process and integrate their faith with their daily lives.
- Collaboration may also look like inviting kids into the creation of the lesson. Digital natives love to create, and I’m not just talking about crafts here. Kids want to use their skills and abilities to create something with intentionality and purpose as part of their learning process, not just as a way to review it. Pause during teaching time and provide craft supplies or blocks. Let kids develop their own craft to represent the story or use the blocks to build what’s happening. You could even ask kids to create the props for the story while you’re telling it. Invite kids to create the graphics (or even simple drawings) for the teaching time or give them time to make a video with their small group that retells the Bible story. Training kids to help run the technology or soundboard allows them to uniquely serve and engage with the lesson. And let’s be honest, most of them can figure out how to adjust the sound better than many adults can anyway.
Collaboration and relationships are vital to the learning process for digital learners. So, when you find ways to help them connect with others and the content, you’ll more effectively engage their brains for learning.
Whether you’re teaching kids in a large-group setting on Sunday morning, a small-group mid-week setting, or anything in between, make an effort to learn about this generation’s learning preferences and the specific needs of your group. Take advantage of the tools technology offers to update your teaching strategies. When you partner with the rocket ships in your ministry to help them explore the gospel, you create learning experiences that develop faith that lasts. When you shift your teaching times to a partnership experience, kids are more engaged and transformed by the gospel, leading to lifelong discipleship.
1. Evaluate your next teaching time by asking these questions:
- How can I be more mindful of how digital natives learn as I prepare to teach?
- In what ways am I currently partnering with kids in the learning process, and how can I do that more effectively?
- What part of this lesson allows me or my leaders to connect with the kids? What part of this lesson will enable kids to connect with each other
2. Brainstorm three methods or ways to make your teaching time interactive over the next month.