Helping Youth Understand the Bible

May 31st, 2011

To youths, the Bible is like no other book, and not only because of its content.

Just about everything about the Bible is different — the two-column layout, the crinkly paper, the lack of a clear order, the chapter and verse numbers, and the prolific notes at the bottom of the page. The context is unfamiliar, the text is often either bizarre or boring, and the understandings of God are sometimes troubling.

It's little wonder leaders frequently complain that their youths don't enjoy the Bible.

Many leaders find that resources available to teach youths about the Bible are ineffective. Often this is not because the resource is bad, but because it's no substitute for a systematic approach to faith formation.

Here are some things you and your congregation can do to help youths embrace the Bible:

Teach the Bible as story. I advocate regular (though not exclusive) use of The Message translation. Its layout and presentation resemble those of a novel and help encourage youths to read the Bible like a great story.

Scripture comes to life when we keep digging deeper. For example, do you know the cultural and political context crucial to a full understanding of Matthew 5:38-42, a passage easily misapplied without this knowledge? When youths learn to explore the Bible as story, they begin to discover the wealth of treasure within its pages.

Teach context. Teach youths the critical historical events of the Bible, such as the exodus, the periods of the judges and kings, the exile and the destructions of the temple. Knowledge about crucial political realities are important, too; for example, some background on the Roman empire. Write each biblical person or event on a large index card, and regularly use these cards with youths to practice keeping the history straight.

Use the action-reflection-action approach. Start with examples of your youths' current actions, then reflect on Scripture in community to determine new actions and ways of living the Christian faith. Repeat the cycle until the youths form the habit of looking to Scripture for guidance.

Put more effort into "afterwards." Young people will get more out of your class and youth ministry if you help them develop devotional skills, Bible study habits, and spiritual formation practices — things that happen after class is over. Unless these habits are formed during early adolescence, it's likely youths will abandon their faith in college or enter adulthood with a childhood faith that can't weather adult crises.

Teach youths to use their brains and their hearts. Refuse to "dumb down" difficult theological concepts or passages. Be honest about the fact that scholars vary widely in their interpretations of Scripture. Wrestle with difficult biblical passages together, and resist the search for simple meanings within those passages. At the same time, remember that a head-based faith won't sustain most Christians. The foundations of lifelong faith must be built in the heart as well as the head and are embodied in the love of Jesus.

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