When I was 17 I was raising money at my church to go to Bible College. I was at a fund raising dinner that a terrific couple had organised for me, and at the end I went to the front to say what I wanted to do. They asked me what it was that I wanted to achieve and in my arrogance I said, “y’know Billy Graham? Think him but you know… bigger!”
I’ve been pretty ashamed and embarrassed at that moment ever since I actually went to Bible College and learned about this silly little thing called humility. This is especially important when you consider that Billy Graham himself started every single one of his revival meetings by drawing a circle on the ground. Billy would then step into the circle and say Lord send revival and start with everything that you find in the circle.
It’s so easy to quench dreams with mistaken reality.
I’ve been in full time youth work ever since leaving Bible College nearly 8 years ago and in that time I discovered something about my initial overzealousness in that dinner. Looking past the arrogance, hero worship and the Christian celebrity culture there was a kernel of real goodness in that proclamation. I had a dream to tell the gospel to millions of people. Almost every adult I met afterward however, told me to shoot lower, be realistic and learn humility.
It’s so easy to quench dreams with mistaken reality. It’s so easy to pour cold water on the passions and compassions of young people because of the extra baggage, mistaken theology and missing pieces from their plan. It’s so easy to say that won’t happen because it never happened for us. It’s so easy to limit the prayers, expectancy, hopes, dreams and faith in the omnipotence of God in the hearts of young people. It’s so easy to suck so bad!
Proverbs 16:1 says “To man belongs plans of the heart but from the Lord comes the reply of the tongue.” We use this passage to say that there is a fundamental disconnect between the plans in our hearts and the replies of our God. We use it as an excuse to not hold God to account for our prayers and to assume that we are not in keeping with God’s plan for our lives. We assume human nature over God’s virtue.
However if our hearts belong to God why can we not assume that many of the passions, plans and desires in our hearts originate from him?
The message of the Bible is the more you get to know God the more your heart becomes in-line with his heart.
Ecclesiastes 3:11 says God has placed eternity in man’s heart. Psalm 37:4 says delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart. The message of the Bible is the more you get to know God the more your heart becomes in-line with his heart. God buries plans deep in our hearts when we come to know him and He spends years clearing away the dross from those plans so they have room to breakthrough and live.
Yes we do need to correct bad theology, we do need to set expectations that allow God to be God and us to be us. We do need to clear dross and teach sanctification by the Holy Spirit through his Word. However, we cannot do this at the expense of throwing the baby out with the bath water and drowning good plans in legalistic low expectation.
We must set the bar so high that only a passion filled, God honouring, driven young person could reach it.
We must concurrently teach good theology and stoke the fire of dreams and passion in the hearts of young people. We must set high expectations. We must teach that God can accomplish the impossible. We must set the bar so high that only a passion filled, God honouring, driven young person could reach it. We must allow young people to achieve far more than we ever did. We must teach them to submit their plans to God as worship, not bury those plans in legalistic pseudo sanctification.
I’ve not stood on the stage of a revival meeting in front of millions of people. I’ve not led tens of thousands of people to Christ. I am not a bigger Billy Graham.
However, I’ve learned that the kernel of passion that I had as a teenager was not evil or wrong. Even though I only knew how to express it in that ‘bigger Billy Graham’ language, it has since been nurtured and grown by my God. He has allowed me to have a huge impact on the lives of many young people.
Young people develop abstract from concrete thinking very young, however when a young person says something that scares or challenges an adult, that adult has a tendency to only interpret as concrete thinking. I needed adults who were able to think in the abstract, see the kernel of God given truth through the fog of my imature language and help me develop my passions before God.
Priority number one – ask God to allow you to see and hear His voice through the language of young people and see what of He has placed in their hearts.
Priority number two – encourage young people’s wild, God-driven dreams.
Priority number three – give young people every opportunity to pursue those dreams.
Priority number four – teach and model the language of humility that always points back to God rather to ourselves.
Priority number five – help clear the dross and baggage of underdeveloped theology that could choke that dream.
Teach young people to dream wild!
Youth work models need to firmly stand on the Bible. God’s word needs to be sewn into the very fabric of discipleship that we are developing. This means helping young people engage with the Bible for themselves. We need to train teenagers to read their Bibles fully.
Getting young people to independently open the Bible and read it is a great victory, but only half the battle.
The second half is to help them independently examine and understand the Bible for themselves – and this is frankly where most of us wimp out!
A Generation Bought Up on Spoon Feeding Notes
I was struck recently when reviewing some popular Youth Bible study notes by just how proof-text-with-explanation based they were. Spoon fed, on a plate with little or no reference to how, who, what, when, where and why. No need to think or examine the verses whatsoever. Really no need to read them. What they did most clearly was help young people examine themselves as a person and apply new things to their lives. This begs the question though; if that application is not being built from the Bible passage, where is it coming from?
“Getting young people to independently open the Bible and read it is half the battle, but this is far from the whole battle!”
This, of course, is the method of Bible study most of Gen Y and the Millennials have been bought up on; the soundbite and the blog. An interesting read that demands little if any independent thought.
My wife works in a Christian bookshop, and by perusing the Youth Bible studies section you can see that in the last decade this is a pretty standard pattern. For many of us this is Bible study, we’ve never known anything different. Our Bible study notes include a passage to read, a proof-text (‘key verse’) taken out of context and a basic thought from it explained and opened up – with a couple of challenges thrown in for good measure.
This isn’t Bible study though. Bible study is having a conversation with God through the text. Reading it properly, asking it questions, looking for patterns, relationships, correlations and hidden gems is Bible study. Exegesis (to use the proper term) is getting into the nitty gritty, learning how to read the Bible independently and hear it’s challenges without the need for supporting notes.
Why Is This So Important For The Next Generation?
Not training young people to exegete-read the Bible (that is seek to swim in it’s depths and find treasure) is like buying them a guitar in order to introduce them to Brit-Pop; it’s only going to go so far!
Young people need to know how to read their Bibles so that they:
- Can develop a personal relationship with God that’s independent of their youth group, church community or Bible notes
- Have more to offer in their youth group and church community life
- Will grow in their personal holiness and faith and will challenge others to do so too
- Can keep a growing check their own sin and personal habits
- Will learn to recognize and discern God’s voice more clearly and notice when it’s missing,
- Won’t fall victim to spoon feeding and won’t be dependent on fallible teachers and notes
- Will know how to pick a healthy Church when they are at uni etc.,
- Can survive when not able to find good Bible teaching.
- Will simply live life to its fullest the John 10:10 way!
We need to teach young people how to read the Bible – not just to read it.
How do we do this?
For a basic way in I offer a mix of five random things to help us teach Bible study to our teenagers:
- Learn to do it ourselves!!!
- Model it in Bible studies
- Get them to do it in breakout pairs/groups when in Bible studies together
- Help them one-to-one
- Get them to read a book like ‘Dig Deeper’ by Nigel Beynon & Andrew Sach
- Teach them to get messy!
1. Learn to do it ourselves!!!
This is the key bit, and without it the other four bits won’t work. As I said before, many of us don’t realise that what we’ve been doing for the last who knows how many years isn’t really Bible study. It came as a huge shock to me when at 18 I went to Bible college and realised I knew spotty things about God without any reference to why, and when I discovered passages I had been using to prove certain ‘truths’ just didn’t teach them. I’m definitely not saying that we all need to go to Bible college, but we do need to make some serious effort – you won’t regret it!
– Find decent Bible teachers and stick to them
– Listen to amazing Bible unpacking talks (desiringgod.org)
– Find mentors or mini classes
– Read good Bible teaching/explaining books
– Read your Bible slowly with highlighters, pens, paper, margin mess… whatever you need
2. Model it in Bible studies
Leading decent Bible studies as a group has got to be the linchpin. It’s the key place that they will pick up and learn how to do it and it will give them the overviews and anchors they need, along with an accountability space to check up on how they’re doing.
“We need to teach young people how to read the Bible – not just to read it.”
– Teach and display where and how you made points from the Bible when you make them
– Ask questions that make them look at the text itself, even (sometime especially) if the answers are obvious
– Ask them to summarize main points, identify characters, examine the context etc.
– Print out copies of the passage for them to go through highlighting things like verbs, nouns, speeches, connectives, etc. that might be useful in the study
– Get them to ask their own questions of the text itself and answer those together first (my first question after reading every passage is ‘what did you notice?’)
3. Get them to do it in breakout pairs/groups
The next zeroing in step to independent Bible study after the small group, is getting them to help each other – without relying on you the teacher. This givens them a chance to adapt what they’ve learned, try their strengths, push their confidences, work on their community interaction and help each other out!
– Give each breakout pair/group a section of the passage to study together then summarize their findings to the whole group
– Make sure they’ve got space to write, scribble, & highlight (printed off passages are great)
– Give them specific questions to answer in their group from the passage like ‘what is the main point,’ ‘what shocked you the most,’ ‘what did you learn that you didn’t know before’
– Allow them the option of feeding back in creative ways (pictures, drama, song) as long as it communicates the actual passage itself
– Give them enough room and time to complete the task well, but not so much time that they can wander. Knowing that they will need to feed back is usually encouragement enough to stay on task
4. Help them one-to-one
The final step to independent Bible study after group and small group work is getting alongside them to mentor, teach and role model what’s in the word. This is important for a whole world of stuff – and teaching Bible reading (overtly or not) is invaluable for all of it.
– Get alongside them for 20-40mins JUST to read the Bible with them. Pick a book and go through it verse by verse, word by word
– Start each new meeting with them summarizing the passage from the last meeting
– Get them to delve into why specific words we’re chosen etc.
– Look at tools like ‘context’, ‘purpose’ and ‘order’ in the passages you choose. (N.b. I usually find 1-2 verses a week works well for most growing Christians)
5. Get them to read a book like ‘Dig Deeper’ by Nigel Beynon & Andrew Sach
Rather than buying them Bible reading notes, buy them an easy usable how to manual that will help them read the Bible itself without notes. Dig Deeper is an epic example that I highly recommend. It’s great for independent work, or one-to-one, but can also be a good group study tool and it’s useful training for Bible study leaders.
– Buy the book for them as a gift, and make sure you’ve read it yourself!
– They should read a chapter a week & do the examples
– Ask them questions on it & ask to see their examples
– Give them new verses to work on that need the tools explained in the book to understand
6. Teach them to get messy!
Teach them to get messy! I don’t care if they need to underline every single word in a different colour, allow them to draw in their Bibles – or if that’s a cultural no-no where you are, print out passages for them!
– They should do whatever helps them s l o w d o w n , ask questions of the text, and highlight key sections. I’d rather a young person come with a tatty, Biro-blessed, dogeared Bible than a pristine one that’s obviously never been touched.
– Teach them to get personal with the Bible and get messy with it. Bring out the highlighters in droves (you can always buy a new one for them!)
The Bible And Young People, Stephen Hale
Quote from ‘A Theological Model Of Youth Ministry’ from Stephan Hale in ‘Towards a Theology of Youth Ministry‘ from The Ridley College Youth Conference Papers, 1998.
Jesus was himself an adolescent and had to develop and grow into adulthood (Luke 2:52). Jesus encouraged the Children to come to him (Luke 18:15-17) and had to discourage the disciples from keeping them away from him. In the apostolic ministry in Acts, whole households were converted (Acts 16:30-34). Paul’s letters were addressed to household churches that included children. It was assumed they were present for the reading of the Scriptures and Paul’s letters, because he specifically addresses them in the household tables found in Ephesus and Colossians. Paul addresses younger leaders in his letters (1 Timothy 4:12-16) and young men and women as groups (Titus 2:4-8).
The Bible records the successes of many young people – David, Samuel, Esther, Josiah and Daniel to name but a few. The time of youth is one when great achievements and spiritual leadership are possible. God uses young people just as much as he does adults. We need to honour young people, nurture their faith, character and gifts and give them openings and opportunities.