As the Word of God, the Bible is the foundational teaching tool for youth ministry. We can’t teach what Jesus commanded unless we teach from God’s Word. Yet many students struggle to accept the Bible’s truths, to spend time in God’s Word, and live out Scripture in their daily lives. Almost all Christian teenagers believe the Bible is God’s Word; they just have a hard time believing that every single thing in it is absolutely true.
Because the Bible can seem intimidating to young people, it’s tempting to fill our teaching time with “more relevant” topic-focused pursuits. But there’s has never been a more desperate time to re-focus ourselves, and our ministries, on the truths of Scripture.
Nothing will change a life more deeply than an intimate relationship with Jesus. And, of course, nothing reveals the heart of Jesus more clearly and powerfully than God’s Word. The Bible is an invitation into “the greatest story ever told”—it’s also the truest story ever told. If you can kick-start your students into a little Bible-reading habit, it will explode into a life-changing Bible-reading habit.
Fortunately, Jesus’ followers have the Holy Spirit in them, prompting them to want to learn God’s Word. That means we don’t have to convince Christian kids it’s important to learn from and about the Bible. Our main job is to teach it well. Young people want and need to ask questions and think deeply about important, complex concepts.
Conversely, it’s hard to beat this strategy: Well-prepared teachers who actively entice the minds and emotions of teenagers into a dialogue about an important Scriptural truth, then build little bridges of relevance into their everyday lives. Put it to the test: Consider what was happening in your own life during your seasons of rapid growth in Christ. It’s a good bet that you were magnetically drawn into biblical study, and you were artfully engaged in stimulating conversations. This is all teenagers really want, and it’s the least they deserve from us.
The Bible is so important to the Christian faith because it reveals who Jesus is, and it also reveals hard truths that Jesus asks his followers to embrace.
Jesus, the Word of God, is revealed in God’s Word, the Bible.
The Bible is often called the “Word” of God. Basically, that means that the Bible represents God’s “voice” to us. But the “Word” has a double meaning—it’s also one of the names of Jesus. In John’s gospel, the “Word” (who is Jesus) is right there at the center of creation—the beginning of all things. “The Word” became flesh and (in the words of Eugene Peterson, paraphraser of The Message Bible) “moved into the neighborhood.”
In Paul’s second letter to his co-worker Timothy, he says: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Why is the Bible “useful?” Because it “teaches us what is true” and reveals to us what is “wrong in our lives.” It not only separates dark from light in us, but it has a practical role in “correcting” us when we’re wrong, and then “teaching us to do what is right.” It’s a tool in the hand of God—one that he uses to “prepare and equip” us to “do every good work.” Most English translations of this passage say that Scripture is “God-breathed”—that means that its truths are filtered through the human beings who wrote the 66 books included in the Bible, but the Spirit of Jesus is the author hovering over it all.
What’s the main thing God wants to communicate to us through his Word, the Bible? God wants us to cherish the Bible because it all points to his Son, Jesus. For all of time, people have been longing for a Savior—someone who can rescue them from a life of sin and destruction and invite them into a life of joy and purpose. In Isaiah 53, the prophet points specifically to the coming Messiah when he writes:
- My servant grew up in the Lord’s presence like a tender green shoot, like a root in dry ground.
- There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him. • He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.
- He carries our weaknesses and our sorrows that weigh us down.
- He has troubles that look like a punishment from God for his own sins! But he was actually pierced for our rebellion and crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed.
- He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word.
- He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth. • He was unjustly condemned, he was led away. And no one cared that he died without descendants, that his life was cut short in midstream. Even though he had done no wrong and had never deceived anyone.
- He was buried like a criminal; he was put in a rich man’s grave.
- When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish, he will be satisfied.
- He was counted among the rebels. He bore the sins of many and interceded for rebels.
God reveals hard truths through the Bible.
- God gets angry.
- God speaks the brutal, honest truth we need to hear.
- God says no.
- The world is still broken.
- Life still hurts.
- We still have questions.
- Bible “heroes” are flawed by sin.
- We’re no better.
- We must accept our brokenness to see our need for Jesus.
- Hell is real.
- Jesus wasn’t a universalist.
- Not everyone will go to heaven.
- Jesus wants us to be “all-in” for him.
- We must surrender to Jesus.
- Being a Christian involves a community mindset.
- Jesus requires something of you.
- Grace isn’t cheap.
- We must respond to Jesus’ voice, as his sheep.
Jesus, the Bread of Life, offers his followers the healthy food of his Word. It’s a stark contrast from the “junk food” the world offers us. Lead students through this activity:
In Ezekiel 3:1-4, the prophet literally eats a scroll (a Bible)! So what is God trying to teach Ezekiel? The prophet can only give what he’s taken in. And the same is true for us—unless we “eat” God’s word, we won’t be able to give others the treasures that are embedded in it.
Study this interchange between Jesus and the crowd that is following him wherever he goes (from John 6:27-25):
But don’t be so concerned about perishable things like food. Spend your energy seeking the eternal life that the Son of Man can give you. For God the Father has given me the seal of his approval.” They replied, “We want to perform God’s works, too. What should we do?” Jesus told them, “This is the only work God wants from you: Believe in the one he has sent.” They answered, “Show us a miraculous sign if you want us to believe in you. What can you do? After all, our ancestors ate manna while they journeyed through the wilderness! The Scriptures say, ‘Moses gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
Jesus said, I tell you the truth, Moses didn’t give you bread from heaven. My Father did. And now he offers you the true bread from heaven. The true bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” “Sir,” they said, “give us that bread every day.” Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
The Israelites lived on manna in the wilderness—food literally provided by God. Here, Jesus is saying he’s just like manna—he gives us life. Jesus is saying, “Eat me!” Remember, we are what we eat! Some of it is like junk food to our souls. Some is like soul food.
For many teenagers, the Bible is a boring, confusing, contradictory, and complicated collection of pronouncements, truisms, and even incantations. Here are some tips for making Bible-reading “magnetic” for them:
- Begin with yourself. Your own “gravitational pull” toward reading and studying Scripture extends out to the kids you lead. Admit when your relationship with Jesus seems “dry.” Scripture is often a path out of that dry desert.
- First teach students the “how.” When you give kids a Bible and tell them to read it, they rightly feel intimidated. Some will read it as if it were like any other book—they’ll start at the beginning and attempt to plow through cover to cover. By Numbers, they’re lost in the wilderness. So provide some background and a plan for how to read Scripture. For example, the Gospels describe the life of Jesus, 1 John explores the grace of belonging, and in Romans Paul explains the weight of grace. Decide on the best starting place for your students. Send them home with one or two verses for the week; tell them to chew on the verses and then journal about what they’re learning. Have them bring back their journal the next week to share. And, most importantly, teach them to pray before they read, asking the Holy Spirit to guide them and open up the truth to them.
- Create opportunities to explore “what.” Teenagers need guided opportunities to explore what they don’t understand in Scripture. Create a small-group Bible study specifically for those who want to learn more. Bring insight to what words and ideas mean. How do these words and concepts tie into the bigger story God is telling? Punctuate every time of Bible study with this question, asked frequently: “Does this make sense to you?” The more they learn what these often-mystifying words mean, the more they’ll discover relevance to their own life experiences.
- Help them translate. We must do all we can to build a bridge of basic understanding for teenagers, from their conversational reality to the written reality of God’s Word. The New Living Translation is very readable and quickly understood. When kids are trying to read the New King James Version at home, that’s likely the reason Scripture is “unreadable” for them. Three great recommendations (available at group.com) include:
- Show them how to experience the Bible. The Bible is living and active, but as long as it remains words on paper many kids will never experience it that way. What can you do to show, not just tell, the story of Scripture? For example, to help students “taste and see” the reality of Jesus’ crucifixion, bring in steel railroad spikes that are close to the estimated size of the nails used in Roman crucifixions. Pass around the spikes so kids can handle them.
- Give them edible chunks. Reading the Bible can seem overwhelming, so encourage students to break it into bite-size portions.
- Ask them to read just one or two verses a day.
- Have them write a verse on a 3×5 card, then put it in a place where they can see it often over the course of a day.
- Suggest they pick a “verse of the week” and commit to pondering its meaning every day for a week.
- Teach them how to pray as they read the Bible, asking God to show them something new about himself.
- As they read small portions of Scripture, encourage them to grow into larger sections.
- If they have a smartphone or iPod, encourage them to download the Bible on their device. The YouVersion app, for example, offers several reading plans.
- Teach kids learn how to use study helps. Look for ways to make it easy for your kids to dig deeper into the Bible. At BlueLetterBible.org, you can help them set up a system that lets them access study tools as they read. You’ll need to teach them how to use the service, but they can literally take the Bible apart word-for-word. And consider getting a few copies of a student-focused book on reading and enjoying the Bible. Two great choices are The Word, a video teaching series by Johnny Scott and Jacqueline Pierre, and Totally Infatuated: Pursuing a Life-Changing Passion for God’s Word by Jacqueline Pierre.
- Help them find the time to read. Because of teenagers’ natural sleep rhythms, it’s almost impossible for them to get up early, and many have homework and extracurricular activities after school and into the evening. The key is to begin with a commitment to read every day for five minutes. Generally, it takes 21 days to start a habit and 66 days to make it stick for a year or more.
- Raise the bar. Give them an epic challenge and see what happens. Challenging students to read the Bible in a year just might capture their imagination and motivate them to dig in.
Unfortunately, many students play “spiritual telephone” with the Bible. They’ve heard the stories and truths re-communicated several times from other people, and the message they often end up with is garbled. That’s why it’s essential to help students learn how to read the Bible for themselves. Here’s how:
- Embed Scripture passages in your teaching as often as possible. Load up teaching times with Scripture-reading, not so it’s a seminary class on theology but so students experience a direct tie to the Bible in everything you share. Let them know you’re not making this stuff up. Every time you reference a Scripture passage, ask a student to read it. The more you can get kids reading the Scripture themselves, the better.
- Put Bible resources in their hands. Make devotional resources readily available, and help students personally connect with them. The goal is to remove every hurdle that keeps kids from reading the Bible more often.
- Equip students to lead. Preparing to teach a lesson is powerful, so give students that opportunity. Do what you can to get students teaching. It gets them thinking and researching and reading the Bible to discover what it says for themselves. It has eternal value. Kids are forced to dig into the Bible more deeply than they’d ever do on their own, and their peers see the results of that work and start to believe they can do the same.
- Re-tell Bible stories. Most students who grow up in the church remember Bible stories, but they’re the Sunday school versions of these stories. They’ve most often never read them for themselves. Students will love the stories they’ve heard their whole lives, because they either don’t remember the details or they never heard the whole story in the first place. Don’t explain the stories; simply tell them, then get in small groups with discussion questions and let kids figure it out. Most often, that forces them to look up the story and read parts again for themselves.
Over and over, you’ll hear that teenagers need to apply the Bible to their lives. That statement sounds innocuous enough, but such an “I’m-in-control” philosophy isn’t only suspect as a strategy, but it’s not all that biblical.
First, it implies that mere understanding leads to transformation. But that’s not true. Satan understands the Bible enough to debate it with Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11).
Second, this unspoken formula is based on our ability to “apply it to our life”—so what exactly does “application” look like, and is it anything like painting my house? “Apply to your life” sounds like we can simply download our transformation, but the truth is that transformation happens when we draw near to God, because he’s the only one who can really change us. Jesus defines discipleship and growth in botanical terms: We are dying branches in desperate need of attaching ourselves to a growing Vine, and the Vine is Jesus himself (John 15).
Get closer to Jesus and you’ll find life, and the life will literally transform you, and your transformation will produce fruit, which will look a lot like the fruit of the Spirit, the same stuff that we’ve been told to “apply to our life.” In the popular apply-it-to-life version of discipleship kids are supposed to grab what fruit they can and sort of duct-tape it to their souls. In the Vine-and-branch version, they produce fruit because of Who they’re attached to.
Copy and hand out the following instructions for practicing Lectio Divina as a part of your students’ personal devotions.
- Choose a text you’d like to focus on. Any text is okay, as long as the goal isn’t to “cover” a large chunk of Scripture.
- Get comfortable and silence your “inner conversation.” Some Christians focus for a few moments on their breathing, while others have a beloved “prayer word” or “prayer phrase” they gently recite, just as an aid to quieting their soul. Use whatever “silencing” method is best for you.
- Turn to the text and read it slowly and gently. Savor each portion of the reading, constantly listening for the “still, small voice” of the Holy Spirit highlighting a word or phrase. In Lectio Divina, Jesus is teaching us to listen to him—to seek him in silence.
- Repeat the phrase to yourself. Memorize it and slowly repeat it to yourself—let it interact with your concerns, memories, and ideas. Do not be afraid of distractions. When a memory or thought surfaces, embrace it and give it over to God.
- Tell Jesus how the passage is impacting you. Whether you use words, ideas, or images—or all three—is not important. Interact with God as one who loves and accepts you. Give to him any discoveries you have during your experience.
- Rest in Jesus’ embrace. When he invites you to return to your contemplation of his Word or to your inner dialogue with him, do so. Learn to use words when words are helpful, and to let go of words when they no longer are necessary. Rejoice in the knowledge that God is with you in both words and silence. It’s not necessary to anxiously assess the quality of your Lectio Divina experience, as if you were performing for God. The goal is to simply stay in the presence of God by praying through his Word.
- Consider journaling. Bring your journal to the group, or to your leader, to share what you’ve been learning or to ask questions about passages that are hard to understand.
- Find a quiet, secluded spot and go there for five or 10 minutes.
- Ask the Holy Spirit to speak to you, showing you what he wants you to see about God, about yourself, and about your relationship with God. Ask the Spirit to quiet your internal noise and fix your mind on God and his Word.
- Read the passage at least three times, very slowly.
- Wait for Jesus to speak to you. Is there a word or phrase that catches your attention? a sin that comes to mind? something to thank him for? someone in need of intercession?
- Ponder any present anxieties, longings, fears, and joys—explore whether the passage relates to your present circumstances. Then present your requests to God.
- It may take a long time before God’s Word has swept all else aside and come through to us.
- We don’t have to get through the passage in one meditation.
- Above all, we don’t need any unexpected, extraordinary experiences in meditation. This can happen, but if it doesn’t, it’s not a sign that meditation has been useless.
- There will be times when we feel a great spiritual dryness and apathy.
- Seek God and not happiness—this is the fundamental rule of all meditation. Seek God alone and you will gain happiness.