Teens must be steeped in the truth of God’s Word, understanding both its context and relevance.
Biblical literacy is crucial for teens. Being biblically literate is of vital importance for Christ followers of every age and shapes the faith of young believers in a way that nothing else can or will. However, many teens are swamped with responsibilities, pressures, and expectations that make adequate time for biblical study challenging. As teenagers learn to navigate the waters of adulthood, it is vital that youth leaders and mentors teach the Bible clearly in order to shape their emerging characters without making Bible study seem like just another crushing demand upon their time.
Finding this balance is nothing new to youth ministry. For many years, youth pastors and leaders have used games, activities, and interactive lessons to help lead youth along the path of biblical literacy. We want the lessons of Scripture to be given in memorable ways, and a variety of interactive methods can do just that. Yet if all we do is give teens neatly packaged Bible lessons, we miss out on opportunities to shape the way teens and young adults use the Bible in their everyday lives.
Physiologically, adolescence is a unique time in the forming of a young person’s brain. While their brains are entering the last stage of development, teens begin to think of things in terms of cause and effect. Critical decision-making, which up until this point in a student’s life is largely relegated to following the instructions of others, is being replaced by personal liberty and responsibility. How great an opportunity the Church has to imprint the truth and values of God’s Word on our teens during such a formative period!
Stories of the Bible resonate more deeply with teens when there is special emphasis given to understanding how biblical characters made their decisions, both good and bad. Imparting a deeper understanding of how and why those decisions came to be is vital in giving the Bible relevance to teens. If the Bible is going to have a lasting impact on how teens live, then their daily decision-making processes need to be impacted by the biblical narrative. This begins with a better understanding of context.
It is difficult to envision oneself in the shoes of the people within these Bible stories and attempt to understand what they were going through.
However, helping teens to explore the context brings them closer to the situations of the characters they are engaging. It brings them closer to the characters’ struggles. Once the stage has been set and we have even a rudimentary understanding of the biblical background, we can begin to understand the decisions that were made and the reasons behind them. These people are suddenly no longer just characters in a story, they are real-life people with some of the same kinds of struggles (though in different contexts) that teens have today.
It is one thing to learn about Job’s steadfast faith in the face of trials, but how can we fully comprehend the lessons of Job without first understanding how the nation of Israel understood its own relationship with God? How can we appreciate Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey without understanding the historical precedent of kingly entrances? How can we grasp the importance of Song of Solomon without understanding the gravity of sexual relationships in Israel’s history?
The Bible will only have short-lived and surface level impact on teenagers’ lives if they have not first looked at the context in which the people in the Bible made decisions.
Beyond the Raw Facts
Teaching biblical literacy is hamstrung if we simply teach our teens lessons on the what of the Bible. If the Bible is to have any lasting impact on a student’s life, it is imperative that we teach the why of the Bible as well. Many teens leave youth groups knowing Bible facts: a bitter man rejected God and was swallowed by a whale, a younger brother made his older brother mad over a bowl of soup, an innocent man was crucified on a cross, etc. These stories, without context, can become lost, devoid of meaning, and absent from the larger biblical narrative that places God and His nature at the very heart of the Bible.
If we only learn the stories of the Bible, without deeper context, we may miss the bigger story of the Bible—the story of how God is continually loving us and caring for us self-sacrificially so that all of creation may be redeemed.
The Bible is not a book to simply be read and committed to memory. It is the living Word of God, given to us by our ever-present Creator, so that we may take part in His grand story of re-creation alongside Him!
If we can instill the importance of this bigger story in our students, it changes the effort of becoming biblically literate from one of drudgery and responsibility to one of excitement, because we are participating in something beyond ourselves. Helping teens see the stories of the Bible in context of the bigger story that God is telling in Scripture lends deeper value and meaning to the texts. It also builds a foundation for a lifetime of decision-making that isn’t swayed by the whims of culture but is rooted firmly in the Word of God.
Jonathan M. Eigsti is youth pastor at Independence Trinity Church of the Nazarene in Independence, Missouri, USA.