The What’s and the Why’s of Teaching: A Snapshot of My Youth Ministry
I’m about to dive into Numbers, Joshua, and then (oh joy) Judges. In our church, we teach middle, high schoolers, and parents as one big group during our Sunday School hour. We do this for the sake of sparking and fueling the conversation at home in the midst of doing life together – at home, in the family, and at the work of school, activities, and jobs. (It mostly works: not every parent comes, not every student likes it, and some days we are far more effective in sparking discussion and breakout groups than on other days, etc.).
This year, we have chosen to follow the Big Story of Scripture in our teaching – we do so using the three year cycle provided by the Gospel Project. There are a couple of big wins here. First, it lets every family with kids from kindergarten through high school seniors be on the same page in terms of learning God’s word together. Second, it does a great job of tracking the chronological story of Scripture and pointing to Jesus Christ as the center and goal of the whole story. Third, it lets us teach less for more, focusing on the key movements and essential truths of the Scriptures.
That said, let me share four convictions I have come to over the past two years of conceiving and implementing this project. These are the “big rocks” I keep in mind as we prepare both the upfront teaching time and the “@home” takeaway guide that we make available to families. (As I have worked on these, I have drawn on many others and none of this is original. Full credit goes to Christopher Wright, George Hunsberger, Darrell Guder, JR Woodward, Michel Goheen, Tim Keller, and NT Wright.) Think of these points and the questions that follow as a grid that shapes both what and why we teach the way we do.
1.The Bible itself is gospel-focused: it tells us the one Big Story, revealing Jesus Christ to be at the very heart of it all. Therefore, every story presents an opportunity to ask questions like these: where do we see the presence of God and his good news in this passage? Where do we see evidence of his grace? How does it shine light on who Jesus is, our need for him, and what he has done? How can we bring that forward in a pointed way that helps melt and move hearts?
Doing this over time provides the raw material God uses to help us know the Scriptures and “make [us] wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15).
2. The Bible is fundamentally a narrative. It has a storyline. That narrative arc is both historical (teaching the story of one people in history) and universal (teaching the one grand story of all people and all creation). The key to holding them together is the constantly shining a light on the character and mission of God, both to and through the community he calls and sends to participate in it his mission – Israel and Church.
Therefore, every time we teach, we pay attention to both where we are in the story and what the unique features are of that part of the story. I used a modified, 6-act version of the Creation-Fall-Redemption-New Creation paradigm (see the extremely helpful layout and guide in Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen’s little book The True Story of the Whole World (2009). In focusing on the narrative of the Bible, we point people to see the ways God has shaped and is shaping his people (them!) for the mission he has for their lives. The story is in process and by God’s grace we get to play a part!
3. God gave us the the Scriptures for the work of equipping us for maturing in Christ and ministry and mission. It’s not just a collection of stories that help us understand human beings in general, or ourselves in particular. Of course it has explanatory power, but it does so much more than that. Instead of asking, “what can we get out of this story,” we start to ask “How does God’s Word here call, shape, transform, and send me? Us?” If all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, training (2 Tim. 3:16-17) then we have a total warrant to look for its usefulness in the context of our ordinary lives: at home, in families, at work, in the community, etc. And God’s word equips us for his good work!
4. God gave his Scriptures to his people – it is a gift to the Church. Scripture is supposed to be about the work of worshipping God and witnessing to God in the whole of our ordinary lives, in every sphere God has us in. Therefore, we ought to expect to find things that speak directly to stuff we are dealing with in our culture. Sometimes the Bible might be in sync with what our culture values, but other times it might radically challenge it. We should expect both and treat it as a sign of its authority! Where it doesn’t seem to do either one, pull back and seek to understand it better. You may have to “translate” Scripture to find a clear connection to our world: we don’t make “stone and wood idols and bow down” to them, but we have plenty of compulsions and addictions that reveal significant idols of the heart. We don’t kill animals as sacrifices of atonement, but our hearts can’t seem to get past guilt and shame and the desire to make some acceptable atonement for the sin in our lives.
In teaching here, we get the marvelous privilege to be helpful with people’s felt needs, to be sensitive toward their perceived needs, and to elevate and meet their real needs (I think I got this from Ravi Zacharias.) We don’t have to cycle through hot-button topics to do that – the Scriptures naturally take us there. I cannot tell you the number of times Genesis or Amos or Matthew or Corinthians connect by Spirit and Word to the stuff of an ordinary week.
One last note: I never really hit all four of these notes at one time. Each week, the Scripture might nod more clearly in one direction than another. That’s well and good, but these notes make a kind of frame we set up to help focus our teaching into the ordinary lives of middle and high schoolers and their parents. That frame is especially helpful as we read the stories of a dusty people in a foreign land that (at first blush) seems so far removed from Jesus or the realities of our modern lives. But in God’s economy, nothing is wasted. Each week, when our world collides with theirs through his Word, we encounter Jesus by his Spirit. No less in Judges than in the stories of Jesus himself.