The question from one of my teenagers was both jolting and inviting: “I’m just not into the Bible—is that okay to say out loud?”
“You can absolutely say that,” I assured him. “Can you tell me more, though? I’d like to understand what changed for you—there was a time when you read the Bible all the time.”
“Maybe that’s it—it’s pretty familiar to me now,” he responded. “I know all the stories and just don’t want to read them over and over again. But I feel like I’m not supposed to say that. The Bible’s just kind of boring at this point.”
I smiled, making sure my body language and nonverbal communication conveyed warmth and openness. “If I can offer an observation, it sounds like you have two thoughts on this. Part of you wants to be done reading the Bible because you feel you’ve tamed it. The other part of you wonders if there’s anything more to your faith than this—and maybe even hungers for that.”
At this, the young man perked up. “Honestly,” he said, “God almost seems like a needy girlfriend who always wants more of me. First we flirt, then hold hands, then walk arm in arm. And I’m just wondering when I get to say, ‘I’m good. I don’t need to hold your hand all the time or think about how we’re going to go further today.’ Again, I’m sorry if I’m not supposed to say that.”
Maybe you’ve had a similar conversation with a teenager, or suspect you could. Many of them wonder if it’s possible to love Jesus but not read the Bible. This generation’s steep decline in Bible-reading puzzles us, and (truth be told) we don’t always know what to do about it.
Barna researchers have discovered that teenagers aren’t into the Bible because it’s boring, confusing, and makes them feel guilty.Click to tweet
1. The Bible is boring. Sure, if all you do is read it. The next, crucial step is to live it. Jesus says his “food” is to do the will of the Father (John 4:34). Our faith needs exercise more than it needs another meal. My conversation with that young man took place over lunch. We were both getting full, so I asked, “Is it okay for us to stop eating at some point?” He reasoned it was, so we wouldn’t get sick. Then I asked, “What if we never eat again, though?” Obviously, he agreed that wasn’t good either. I shared that if we walked around a bit and checked out some stores, we’d eventually get to the point where food sounded good again.
The idea of exercising our faith is huge. Before this post-Christian era, the old mentality was to stuff kids with the Bible as they grew up, knowing they’d naturally “burn it off” because they were active doing God’s will. Now teenagers are busier doing other things, yet we expect them to live out truths they don’t understand in contexts that aren’t immediately friendly to Christianity.
Try these innovative ways to help teenagers “exercise” their faith and crave more of the Bible:
- Start with faith-friendly environments—Before teaching, have teenagers form small groups to brainstorm five things they know about a topic and five questions they have about it. Write those things on a flip-chart and refer to them as you teach. Or, each week ask a different teenager to share a five-minute devotional on a particular topic.
- Tap into stories—Pay attention to what brings teenagers Jesus-centered joy, whether it’s outside service projects or trusting God’s wisdom in a certain area. During youth group, pave the way for kids to celebrate these stories while also sharing a Bible verse that speaks to what they did. Discuss ways to live out that verse through each young person’s story. The entire group can begin to more practically understand the life the Bible offers.
2. The Bible is confusing. Sure, if all you do is open up the pages yourself. Think of all we gain when we explore God’s Word in a healthy community of questions, answers, and stories. How sad that this generation has the most access to the Bible and the most tools to understand it, yet seems the least-interested in doing so. Our YouTube culture tends to debunk more than engage. Even some notable Christian speakers try to put a “cooler” spin on the Bible by kicking at previous understandings of it.
So how can we find clarity? The questions we ask (and don’t ask) create either engagement or disengagement, but maybe we also need to rethink our methods:
- Explore the familiar in the unfamiliar—Meet at a local rec center and use the metaphor of a gym to highlight the importance of community on learning. Have teenagers look for someone doing an exercise they aren’t familiar with but can safely try. Then deconstruct how they learned to do the exercise, underscoring the importance of slowing down to study it. Slowly work your way through a Bible passage together, examining how Jesus wants to “stretch” and “build” you through his Word.
- Explore the unfamiliar in the familiar—Invite teenagers to share either a Bible verse they’re overexposed to or one they’re curious about. Have them write down the verse “as is” in a notebook and then write it again, changing one word. Discuss how that word affects the entire passage. Repeat the process, changing a different word. Then return to the original verse, emphasizing that God’s Word is what it is for a reason. Let teenagers talk about how each word matters as we discern a passage’s meaning. Don’t fear questions; they prime the pump for true discovery.
3. The Bible makes me feel guilty. Sure, if all you do is look for God to pounce on you. What you read, when you read it, and how you read God’s Word is key. During my chat with the teenager, I shared that when I walk into my home, I don’t immediately unload my day on my wife, nor does she do that to me. We first study each other to sense how to best engage, because the goal of our relationship is life, not exhaustion.
Jesus does that with us, and we can do that with him. He isn’t trying to make us feel guilty, nor should we look for a daily reason to shake our fist at him. The Bible is a way to better understand how Jesus’ “day” is going based on what he reveals he cares about.
- Dare to journal—Challenge teenagers to spend a week reading a particular Bible passage and then writing out their prayers to Jesus. To take it to the next level, dare kids to invite Jesus to share his heart with them as they write it down. For example, “Lord, this is what I sense you telling me based on the Bible and after I’ve prayed.” This shifts the focus from Bible-reading as an exercise in personal management to Bible-reading as an invitation to join the adventure of the narrative.
- Dare to share—Nothing helps you appreciate something more than sharing it. The same is true for our faith. Invite teenagers to look up Bible verses they can share with friends as a source of encouragement. Start with a simple online search of “What does the Bible say about ________?” Distribute a list of Bible verses on different topics so kids can hand-write cards to friends.
How have you navigated these Bible-reading tensions with teenagers? What are your best ideas for helping kids overcome these hurdles?