What is Bible-Saturated Youth Ministry?

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Every so often, it’s good to get back to basics and remember our “Roots,” so to speak. This week we revisit Rooted’s vision statement, which summarizes our hopes and dreams for the work we do: “To transform youth ministry so that every student receives a grace-filled, gospel-centered and Bible-saturated discipleship in the church and the home.”

As our boys have grown up, my wife and I have tried to include them in more and more household tasks and chores, which has included food preparation. Whether it’s making homemade pizza or baking cookies, we have had great fun and also experienced a good deal of consternation welcoming our sons into this part of family life. Typically, their good-natured desire to help presses against our desire to produce something edible. If left to their own devices, there would be much more sugar in the chocolate chip cookies than bearable, and a sprinkle of salt on top (an epic final touch, trust me) would turn into a bitter disaster of salt-saturated cookies. All this to say, we have learned from cooking with our kids that there’s a good type of saturation as well as a bad type. The right ingredients spread properly across the whole leads to a beautifully delicious final product that blesses all who enjoy.

Part of Rooted’s vision is to promote Bible-saturated discipleship in youth ministry. This sounds wonderful! This is something to which many of us easily rally. But what does it mean? As with cooking, there are both good and bad types of saturation when it comes to the Bible. Or maybe it would be better to say that there’s a helpful way of being Bible-saturated in youth ministry that exists in contrast to other approaches that may seem on the surface to be so, but are less desirable in reality.

What We Don’t Mean By Bible Saturation

During my first couple years serving in youth ministry, I had a fundamental misconception when it came to one-on-one meetings with students.  For whatever reason, I felt a great deal of pressure to make every conversation with students “spiritual.” Generally, my goal was to steer the conversation at some point to spiritual territory and toward Scripture itself. While this was not a terrible aspiration, it frequently led me to be more forceful in conversations with students and, now seeing this in retrospect, to miss seeing them where they were in life by truly listening to them. I would not be surprised if some students felt as though I objectified them by truncating them down to the “soulish” or “spiritual” parts of themselves (as though their souls exist in isolation) in taking this approach. My intentions were good in that I was attempting to truly pastor by connecting God’s Word to their day-to-day lives; however, I think this is an example of what we do not mean we talk about being Bible-saturated. Like overly sugary or salty cookies, we can be Bible-saturated in an unhelpful way when we take this approach.

To be sure, the Bible ought to fundamentally shape our theology and our philosophy of ministry as well as all of our ministry efforts. As Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) is known for saying, we have a fixed theology and philosophy of ministry rooted in and derived from Scripture, but adopt a flexible methodology that, while profoundly shaped by Scripture, is tailored to our local context and the particular ministry needs that are presented.

So the Bible informs everything we do in youth ministry. Scripture provides our content and message. The gospel is the news we bring as ambassadors of Jesus Christ.

Still, we’ve adopted an unhelpful version of being Bible-saturated when we think that the Bible has to be quoted, read, or driven towards in every interaction with students. When we think of being Bible-saturated in this way, we may misuse God’s Word and hurt people. We also overburden ourselves – making it even more challenging to be present with our students and to truly listen to them. If we take this approach, our ministry will be overly bitter (if we have a tendency to emphasize the bad news of our sin) or saccharine (if we have a tendency to emphasize the good news to the neglect of the bad news of our sin) to those to whom we minister.

What We Do Mean By Bible Saturation

Being Bible-saturated means taking seriously the role that Scripture has as the Word of God to direct us as servants of Christ, particularly those who lead in the local church. We can’t and shouldn’t just try to be entertaining, funny, or culturally relevant, while sprinkling in Bible passages here and there in our teaching and gatherings. We ought not bend to the whims of teenagers and what they find engaging and fun at the given moment as we think about how we go about our ministry to them. Likewise, we ought not try to simply placate youth parents, who fall on a spectrum from hoping you will disciple their children for them to seeking to personally participate in each youth activity you host. Further, we can’t and shouldn’t just do what the other youth ministry down the street is doing (you know the one with all the Xboxes and awesome group games). The story, teaching, and God of the Bible ought to shape every aspect of our youth ministry’s vision, mission, values, and methodology.

The Bible should guide what we teach and how we teach it (1 Tim. 4:11-16; Titus 2:1).  It should guide how we approach students and ministry leaders as fellow beloved sinners called to serve and model the gospel of grace – our attitude, tone, and manner (2 Tim. 3:10-11). It should guide which programs we choose to pursue and which we let die or never adopt, particularly as we consider how we can best fulfill the Great Commission. It should guide us in choosing who to recruit to our ministry staff and which values and gifts to prize over others in making those decisions (1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9). It should shape how we view discipleship – what we desire our students to be like after finishing their time in our ministries (Gal. 5:22-24; Eph. 5:1-2). It should liberate us to live the Christian life freely with our students often by simply having fun with them (Gal. 5:1; Eccles. 11:9).

Being Bible-saturated means being personally soaked in the Scriptures as an individual Christian – loving God’s Word, striving to understand and apply it more deeply and consistently, submitting to it, and spend regular time in it to meet with Jesus. It means talking about the Bible with students – quoting it, referencing it, teaching it, and applying it in various contexts and interactions as appropriate and wise. I think this is part of what the Apostle Paul meant when he charged Timothy to preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). It means introducing students to the gospel of Jesus Christ, about whom the Scriptures were chiefly written (Luke 24:24, 45-47). All-in-all, being Bible-saturated in a helpful way means allowing the Scriptures to be the content of our message as well as the bedrock, agenda-setter, and pattern of our ministry.

This has been the framework for us since the time of the apostles (and even further back into the Old Testament really). Over and over again, Jesus, Peter, Paul, and others, emphasize that their message and ministry is in fulfillment of or in accordance with the Scriptures (Luke 4:21; Acts 1:16; Acts 2:14ff; 1 Cor. 15:3-4). They made the ministry of the Word their priority (Acts 6:4, 20:24).  The Apostle Paul went so far as to wish a curse invoked upon himself (or anyone else) if he strayed from the message of the gospel found in the Scriptures (Gal. 1:8-9).  Fidelity to the Scriptures and Bible-saturation was a core commitment of the early Church and remain so for us today in our local context and community.

The message, story, and very words of Scripture have to be taken all together in relationship with the living God in a local place with ordinary people to be able to pull these things together.  It will not look exactly the same for everyone. And that is okay! In being Bible-saturated we have the freedom of being locally helpful, while remaining theologically and philosophically faithful in ministry.

Why Bible Saturation Matters

Being Bible-saturated is so important. I probably don’t have to convince you of this further. But one of the great effects of saturating our youth ministries with the Bible is that we will in turn saturate our students and their families with the good news of Christ. By doing this we are filling them with truth, while also modeling truth as a lived reality and grand Story to inhabit. We are equipping them for the hard realities of life and for ministry opportunities as they themselves grow in maturity and following God’s call on their lives.

We sing mostly old hymns in our youth group – some retuned and others not – along with some more modern songs. One of the benefits of the older hymn texts is that they are soaked in Scripture. Additionally, many of them tell stories of walking through difficult times with gospel hope  (“It Is Well With My Soul,” “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go,” and “Abide With Me,” for example). I regularly tell our students that we sing these songs not just for the moment but for the future – that when they face hard times and suffer, they will be furnished with gospel truth from Scripture. It will pour out from their heart, because they have soaked it up for years.

Or as my college pastor would occasionally say, we are all like sponges: when we are squeezed by the difficulties of life, what we have been soaking up all along will pour out. For our students, we pray that what pours out may be God’s Word.

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