When I visit the zoo my favorite area is the deep-sea aquarium. The vibrant colors and exotic fish fascinate me—and for thousands of years we had no idea any of this existed, because we had no way of exploring the bottom of the ocean. The biggest hurdle to unlocking this hidden world wasn’t the obvious lack of oxygen, it was something much subtle: pressure. The pressure exerted on the human body at ocean-floor depths can kill us, literally causing our blood to boil. So to move from the earth’s surface to the depths of the sea we must adapt. On the way down, it’s not so hard—divers simply adjust their air pressure. But coming up from the depths is a different story.
Divers must decompress properly or risk death.
Decompression is the art of acclimating the body back to the pressure it is accustomed to. This is no easy task, and it can’t be rushed. On the way down to the depths we can move much faster and easier. On the way back up, it’s about patient, deliberate choices.
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Many youth ministries have never learned the art of decompression (I know, because my own ministry has been one of them). Whenever we take students out of their world and immerse them in the depths of God’s story—whether it’s a Sunday School class or a missions trip—we’re plunging them into a different atmosphere from their everyday lives. We’re changing their air pressure. And if we do it well, we can take them down quickly. But we also risk killing the growth they’ve gained by ignoring a patient, deliberate approach to their decompression.
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The “Telephone” game is a youth ministry standard—you tell the first person in a long line a message, usually a movie quote like this one from Braveheart: “They may take our lives but they’ll never take our freedom.” That person then whispers the message to the next person in line, who whispers it to the next person in line, until you reach the final person. That person then shares the message they heard out loud: “Jimmy has hives, purple monkey dinosaur.”
Of course, the game’s difficulty increases as the number of players increases. The more you have, the more the message spills out garbled and distorted. And in this way, the game reflects something that can happen in real life—the space shuttle Challenger’s flight crew got a garbled message about the craft’s frozen o-rings, resulting in disaster.
After a decade in youth ministry, I think there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that our biggest challenge is putting an end to the “Telephone” dynamic that’s embedded in most of our efforts to deepen our students’ faith.
In my ministry, we’re in the midst of a teaching series that has no “teaching.” I post Scripture verses around the room about a certain topic, then ask my students to look them up and discover what the Bible says about these things. Some like this approach, some hate it, and some just don’t show up. One night we were talking about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. I thought of an impromptu poll: “How many of you have actually read the Easter story for yourself?”
A third of our students raised their hand. Compounding this result was a glaring truth—these are my hard-core kids who choose to come to a night that’s focused on Bible study. If I added our fringe students into this mix, and those who come only for “game night,” it’d probably be much worse. It’s the most important event in human history, and two-thirds of my “solid” students had never read it for themselves. Sure, they’d heard it on Easter Sunday or when we talk about it in youth group, but they’d never actually read it themselves.
Then it dawned on me: My students are playing spiritual telephone.
As it’s become easier to own and read a Bible, it’s also become more common to simply let someone else it to us. That means our teenagers are subtly, and progressively, moving farther and farther away from directly studying the Bible. They hear these stories and truths down the line, after they’ve been re-communicated several times. And the message they’re getting at the end of that line? Often it’s garbled.
As this dynamic became clear to me, we re-doubled our efforts to fight the influence of this “secondhand faith” in our group. We’re committed to helping our students learn how to read the Bible for themselves. Here’s a map of our experience so far…
1. We embed Scripture passages in our teaching as often as possible.
We load up our teaching times with Scripture-reading. We don’t want it to seem like overkill, as if it’s a seminary class on theology, but we do want our students to experience a direct tie to the Bible in everything we’re sharing with them. We’re not making this stuff up. And we go a step further—every time we reference a Scripture passage, we ask a student to read it. We’ll put the Scripture references on note cards or flash them on our screens, then ask someone to read them. Sometimes, yes, there are insanely long and awkward pauses. But the more we can get our kids reading the Scripture themselves, the better.
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