A few weeks ago a friend of mine asked me what principles I used in youth ministry, more specifically with teaching the Bible. Teaching teenagers is different from teaching children and adults because of this unique developmental paradigm they find themselves in – adolescence, the apex of the “already but not yet” of cognitive, spiritual, and emotional development. They are adults in so many ways, but still don’t have the fully adult framework that will come later as they mature and gain wisdom. So youth ministers find themselves in a tricky spot, having students who desire depth and insight but who may or may not be ready to handle the implications of those deep doctrinal issues. And as someone who lives in the academic world so much, this is an especially difficult position because the normal is to be able to use the “big words” in normal conversation without having to explain the terms or the weight behind them. Even in student ministry there is a tension between junior and senior high students, who are in the same room for spiritual instruction but are worlds apart in their academic instruction. The solution is easy, unless you have a small youth group, split them. But for those who don’t have that luxury, these principles are helpful to use to keep your students on the edge of their seat without losing the junior high to complexity and the senior high to simplicity.
I had never really codified what goes on in my head so this was a helpful exercise to really think about the why behind my what.
1) Don’t take for granted what they know
The majority of our students in our youth ministry are “church kids” who grew up regularly attending church. Maybe that’s your group too – chances are it is. But one thing that I’ve learned I can’t take for granted anymore is how much of the Bible they know. It’s the Jeopardy phenomenon, seriously watch Jeopardy sometime when they have a Bible category – they struggle with it. Here’s a website with some common Bible misquotes. It’s always a working assumption for me when I teach to assume nothing and build up from there. For a few weeks we went through a children’s story Bible to illustrate the continuous thread of Scripture and because many of them didn’t know the basics. Even in a series (been going through Exodus all fall) I always ask the same basic questions every week to bring them up to speed.
2) Don’t lowball them – they’re capable of far more than the church gives them
This sounds antithetical to the previous point, but it’s really not. So many youth studies I’ve seen from a variety of publishing houses look and sound more like they’re designed for 3rd graders than high school juniors. Just because many Christian teenagers don’t have a huge biblical knowledge base doesn’t mean they’re not capable of handling significant issues and doctrines, they just need to be brought along with wisdom and care. The corollary to this is to expect more of students than most churches admit. I joke with our group that most adults are happy if they’re “coming to church, staying off meth, and not getting pregnant.” Thankfully we have a lot in our church who recognize the capability of our students and encourage them to do more. Don’t low-ball your students, take them on mission trips, encourage them to invest in their schools and community, expect more than showing up for church on time and bringing their Bible. Churches, your teenagers are young adults, give them opportunity to serve and give them a big vision – don’t treat them like kids, they’re not.
3) If you challenge them, they’ll rise to it
Last year we went through Ephesians with our group, and I challenged them to memorize 3:14-21. I had no idea what the response would be, and as an incentive I offered our next trip covered as part of it. After a couple weeks, one after another student had memorized that passage. I had told them no mistakes could be in their quote, and I only had one who had to re-do it (which he did, he wanted to nail it!). What was their motivation? A free trip? Money well spent, even if it was more than I had initially thought. But the great thing is, every one of them is still memorizing Scripture and living on mission. This year we took a big mission trip, and our group who went raised or worked for every penny of their trip.
4) Keep one theme central
You’ve sat there before, heard a message that was great but you don’t remember anything from it. I’ve seen that look on my student’s face several times, and then I look down at my notes and realize I had 5 different main points and so much information they couldn’t process it all. I realized also that I wasn’t able to process it all either. So I started really reworking my Bible studies, funneling everything through this: If I could sum up my message in one sentence, what would it be? If I can’t, it’s too much and too complex.
5) Don’t be afraid to talk theology
Sometimes in student ministry we look at theology like we would a cobra, something to keep a close eye on and never get close to. But I would contend that we should bring in theology to our student ministries. Obviously we don’t want to get into the debate over supra or infralapsarianism, but there’s nothing wrong with introducing them to the language of theology. Here’s my reason, in an attempt to keep students engaged and coming, we water down the content to its lowest common denominator and don’t challenge the mind. Then, in college a bitter religion prof from a liberal divinity school uses enough theological language to sound like an unparalleled expert, the student questions the milk he was given in his church. Dig their roots deep, and equip them well.
Mark Driscoll Vintage Jesus
Doug Fields & Duffy Robbins Speaking to Teenagers
Josh Harris Dug Down Deep
John Piper Think
Alvin Reid Raising the Bar
Steve Wright ReThink