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Do Teenagers Really Need to Read the Bible?

Did you hear?

Teenagers are reading books more than other generations.

So… why aren’t they reading the Bible?

For that matter, should they be?

(Maybe that’s a question we haven’t asked in a while.)

Apparently, only 3% of teenagers are engaged in the Bible on a daily basis, while 25% of the same demographic read it at least once a week.

Contrast that with how 58% wish they read it more, even though 86% view it as sacred literature.

This probably doesn’t surprise you.

Still, sometimes it’s sobering to look at the actual numbers.

All of this is according to a 6-year study by Barna in partnership with the American Bible Society. They recognized several other trends, including:

  • bible_teenStudents who dropped off in their reading said that the top reason was they were simply too busy with life’s responsibilities to regularly engage God through the Bible.
  • Youth who increased their Bible reading in the past year said it was because they came to understand it as an important part of their faith journey.

So let’s address the “should they be reading the Bible” question.

When I was growing up, my dad shared with me that as a teenager he had a hunger for reading the Bible but was told by the clergy in his life that he shouldn’t pick it up. “This is a sacred book that only a priest can make sense out of,” it was explained to him. Decades later after I was born and had gone into ministry (which was a controversial topic for many years between he and I), my dad ironically chose to take more personal steps in his faith and really own what it means to follow Jesus. He whispered to me over lunch one day, “I want to read the Bible, but I’m embarrassed that I don’t know what to do with it.”

biblevsphoneIn contrast, today’s teenagers are growing up in a culture where access (if not permission) to everything seems to be “a given.” They can find a song in a minute on their phones that it would’ve taken years for a record collector to locate in previous eras. Maybe having similar access to the Bible or being around people who copy-and-paste the latest theological debates waters down a fire to prioritize it.

Does someone in the Google era of finding answers only when you need them really “need” to read the Bible?

I know my answer to the question, but the real issue may be your answer… or an answer from parents of those teens.

Less than half of students said that they saw their parents reading the Bible. This is worth noting because Barna noted that teens whose parents read the Bible regularly are more likely to read it themselves.

I’d also wonder how often youth workers or pastors read the Bible beyond message prep. Are we asking students to go somewhere we don’t regularly go ourselves?

One perspective on it worth noting is through Ed Stetzer who emphasizes that reading the Bible is more about discipleship than about “reading the Bible”:

We’re in a season where a lot of people are realizing that we aren’t making as many disciples out there as we would like. Our LifeWay Research studies show a lack of discipleship among many evangelical Christians, and so people often wonder, what’s the answer to that? Issues such as preaching, missional living, and belonging to a covenant community are all part of the solution. But I think there’s no question that an essential element is leading God’s people to consistently engage God’s Word through reading, studying, and memorizing it. Biblical illiteracy is prevalent, and personal commitment to God’s Word is the only real answer…

Evangelicals in our country are just not sure of who they are or where they’re going. I think they need to engage the Scriptures to find the answers. Perhaps what Evangelicals need most right now is a strategy for biblical literacy. 

I don’t have all the answers, but there are a few things I’m regularly doing:

  • I want to be on my own journey of time with God through the Bible. I’m just as afraid of accidentally becoming legalistic about this as I am of saying, “I won’t read the Bible because I’ll become legalistic.” I need to be brutally honest about how tempted I am both ways.
  • I need to anchor my students to something that is engaging to them. This month we’re going to go through the “Back To School” LIVE Curriculum. A new school year brings lots of new opportunities, and so by making the most of these new opportunities I hope to help them see the value of choosing God’s ways so they then ask, “How do I actually do this?”
  • I hope to put the right Bible in the hand of each student. There are some great options out there that might work for any kid, be it a full Jesus-Centered Bible, Pierced: The New Testament or the Simple Truth Bible.

Bottom line, I know we need a strategy. That’s the beginning of mine.

I’d love to hear yours, if not also your thoughts on this.

Thank you for loving students!

5 thoughts on “Do Teenagers Really Need to Read the Bible?

  1. Terrell Sanders

    How in the world would a person become more legalistic through reading the Bible? In my (albeit limited) experience, the most legalist people are often those who either haven’t read the Bible except for selective proof-texting, or those who have read the Bible but through the lens of a legalistic hermeneutic. It was through being in the Bible often, asking questions about troublesome texts, seeking out cultural context, and learning to read the New Testament epistles as letters rather than lists of rules that I escaped my own prison of legalism.

    I know this is just one statement out of a whole article that I’m keying in on, but it made me stop and say, “what?” Overall, good article. I think one key to unlocking the Bible for a new generation (at least for those of us who are in faith movements that tend toward conservatism and legalism) is to get a better grip ourselves on the idea that the Bible leads us to worship the person of Jesus Christ, and is not itself an object of worship. This helps free us from the constant need to defend the Bible itself, which creates an environment where young people are afraid to ask hard questions about the word of God that they need answered, lest they be labeled as unspiritual or be the victim of overreaction from a parent or minister.

    • That’s a fair question, Terrell. I agree that in theory it’s impossible to truly read the Bible with an open heart and turn it into anything more than an adventure into the heart of God (and inviting His heart to journey into yours). Still, didn’t Jesus take issue with the Pharisees and other religious experts for their habits that put them around the Truths of God without letting those Truths penetrate them?

      I’m drawing from that, as well my own experience in seeing people who know “church-speak” and can “Scripture-their-way” through a small group by spouting off verses they memorized, and yet have very little (if anything) to show in real transformation. I’d hate to see us encourage teenagers into a habit and not the Person of God, but I also fear us not teaching them anything and hope something just “organically happens.” I like your thought that it’s the end goal of helping them become rooted to produce fruit. Any tips on how we can best aim for that?

      • Terrell Sanders

        Thanks for your reply, Tony. Personally, I believe that the answer is additive, not subtractive. Bible reading and other aspects of discipleship (prayer, meditation, fasting, etc.) should be one component of our teens’ spiritual lives to which are added service, worship, fellowship, and evangelism. Keeping a balance of these things in our ministry may help our teens see the whole picture of God as he reveals himself through His word, His worship, His world, and His people. (I couldn’t come up with another “W” on the fly there).

  2. Ahren Cahoon

    Terrell – While I agree that “Bible reading and other aspects of discipleship (prayer, meditation, fasting, etc.) ” are aspects of discpleship, I believe it is so much more. Adults taking students (or another adult) into their lives. Inviting them to be a part of the rhythms of their family life at the ball park, to the coffee shop, to serve others, home for dinner and a movie with the kids so that they see what Christians look like in their everyday lives and every moment decisions. The church has for too long applied the term discipleship to repeating a set of things to do or classes to attend and not in how to ABIDE in Christ. This is what will call students to Scriptures. I don’t mean this in disagreement just in addition to your thoughts.

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