Teaching teenagers is different from teaching any other age group because of the unique developmental paradigm they find themselves in – adolescence, the apex of the “already but not yet” of cognitive, spiritual, and emotional development, adults in many ways but without the wisdom of life lived. So youth ministers find themselves in a tricky spot, having students who desire depth and insight and who are bored with the fluff of weak Bible teaching, but who may or may not be ready to handle the implications of those deep doctrinal issues. These principles are helpful to guide your pursuit of biblically faithful teaching to your students.
1) Don’t take for granted what they know
The majority of our students in our youth ministry are “church kids” who grew up regularly attending church. Maybe that’s your group too. But one thing that I’ve learned that I can’t take for granted anymore is how much of the Bible they know. Here’s a website with some common Bible misquotes. It’s always a working assumption for me when I teach to assume nothing and build up from the ground floor. For a few weeks we went through a children’s story Bible to illustrate the continuous thread of Scripture and because many of them didn’t know the basics of the biblical metanarrative. When doing a series through a book/theme, always come back to the basics to reinforce the content.
2) Don’t lowball them – they’re capable of far more than the church gives them credit for.
This sounds antithetical to the previous point, but it’s really not. So many youth studies I’ve seen from a variety of publishers look and sound more like they’re designed for 3rd graders than high schoolers. Just because many Christian teenagers don’t have a broad biblical base doesn’t mean they’re not capable of handling significant issues and doctrines; they just need to be brought along with wisdom and care. The corollary to this is to expect more of students than most churches admit. I joke with our group that most adults are happy if they’re “coming to church, staying off meth, and not getting pregnant.” Don’t low-ball your students. Take them on mission trips, encourage them to invest in their schools and community, expect more than showing up for church on time and bringing their Bible. Churches, your teenagers are young adults, give them opportunity to serve and give them a big vision. Expect more from your teenagers, you would be surprised what they can do.
3) If you challenge them, they’ll rise to it
Last year we went through Ephesians with our group, and I challenged them to memorize 3:14-21. I had no idea what the response would be, and as an incentive I offered our next trip covered as part of it. After a couple weeks, several students had memorized that passage. I had told them no mistakes could be in their quote, and I only had one who had to re-do it (which he did, he wanted to nail it!). Maybe the motivation was to get a free trip, and I ended up having to find money in our budget to cover the response. But the great thing is, every one of them is still memorizing Scripture and living on mission. Later that year we took a big mission trip, and the students who went raised or worked for every penny of their trip. What are you challenging your students to accomplish? In the words of William Carey, attempt great things for God, expect great things from God.
4) Keep one theme central
You put the time in to study and prepare your message, and then you see it: the blank stare of 30 teenagers that a black hole would fear. I noticed that my messages were too much, I had several main points and couldn’t bring everything under one thesis. My goal when writing a message is to be able to sum it up with the “sermon in a sentence,” which is the distillation of the message. If I can’t, it’s too much and needs cutting.
5) Don’t be afraid to talk theology
Sometimes in student ministry we look at theology like we would a cobra, something to keep a close eye on and never get close to. But I contend that we should include but ground our ministries in theology. Not to the point where we argue over minutia and create unnecessary division, but we should seek to introduce students to the language of theology. Sadly, often we water down the content to a lowest common denominator in an attempt to attract and retain students. Then, in college a religion professor uses enough theological language to sound like an unparalleled expert, and many times the student questions the milk he was given in his church to the point they walk away from Jesus. Dig their roots deep, and equip them well: this is an eternity issue.
What other ways have you found to engage youth in learning Scripture?