Recently, another youth ministry leader asked me a bunch of questions about teenagers and Bible reading. He asked great questions that made me think. But since this is my column, I’m using his questions as a starting point, but tweaking them and adding more. So, consider this me interviewing myself about teens and Bible reading (and honestly, much of this applies to older teenagers too).
Research shows that a large percentage of Christian teens rarely read the Bible outside of church. Why do you think that’s the case?
A secondary reason is the busyness of the lives of teenagers these days, but the primary reason is that the Bible feels inaccessible to teens.
They would say, if they’re being honest, that it’s boring. But what they really mean, if they had the words, would be: “I don’t know how to read it.”
Of course, there are other reasons: many of them don’t enjoy reading anything and maybe the biggest reason (can I have another ‘primary reason’?) is that we haven’t helped them see the connection between reading the Bible and living the best life with Jesus.
Why do teens have a hard time reading and relating to the Bible?
Of course, there’s a language issue. But I think the main hurdle for young people is that reading the Bible feels like schoolwork.
They try it once or twice, but feel like failures when they don’t connect with what they’re reading.
Simply urging compliance and a ‘this is good for you’ vibe subconsciously confirms their suspicions that reading the Bible is a nice practice, but not essential.
“The Bible feels inaccessible to teens”
How have changes in youth culture affected the ability of Christian teens to understand, relate to and engage with scripture?
One of the primary shifts in youth culture over the past couple decades is a major shift in how we understand truth.
Mostly gone are the days when rational arguments won the day. Today’s teenagers and young adults are growing up in a world where their experience informs their understanding of what’s true.
This shouldn’t unnerve us as Christ-followers. Instead, we trust that the God who wants to reveal himself will meet teenagers in the living word of God.
Another shift is what I call the culture of immediacy we find ourselves in. We all live in this culture, but teenagers are indigenous or, as others have called them, cultural natives (anyone under 30 is; I’m an immigrant to this culture).
Teenagers have never not known a world where almost everything is immediate (and disposable, by the way).
This is an enormous challenge when approaching Bible reading, and God seems to be very comfortable with slow and patient.
What are some of the spiritual challenges a teen faces in today’s culture?
While I could answer this question in dozens of ways, I’ll go with this: today’s teenagers have an extremely heightened need for belonging.
A desire for belonging is a good thing, and is part of our being made in the image of God.
But the challenge for today’s teenagers is that they usually learn their identity through their places of belonging.
And, clearly, this can be problematic when their places of belonging tell them lies about themselves.
“Today’s teenagers and young adults are growing up in a world where their experience informs their understanding of what’s true”
You’ve been involved in youth ministry for four decades now. Is nurturing the faith of young people more difficult today?
In many ways, yes (though not in every way). Certainly, our pluralistic culture has mostly eliminated the base line of basic assumptions we used to be able to make about teenagers’ knowledge of the Bible and basic beliefs.
In many ways, the biggest issue I see is the extreme isolation of teenagers in our culture today: they spend all their waking hours in homogeneous groupings; they rarely spend time with adults.
That brings all sorts of challenges with it that are difficult for youth workers who want to help teenagers grow into adults with a vibrant faith.
What’s a notable challenge faced by parents, youth workers and pastors in our culture today?
When I was a parent of teenagers myself (now a few years back), I was constantly encouraged by our culture to treat my teenagers as if they were little children.
This has a counter-intuitive negative impact on teenagers, extending adolescence (now understood to be a 20-year life stage!), and damaging their growth, including their spiritual development.
What are some ways that youth workers and parents can help their teens understand the Bible?
This isn’t rocket science. A parent who wants to help their teen understand the Bible has to first model a life of being formed by God’s word.
Then, we have to be intentional about regular and ongoing spiritual conversations.
Research has shown us the importance of teenagers verbalising what they believe.
Parents can have an amazing ministry with their teens by providing safe and supportive opportunities for that verbalisation.
And all of that holds true for youth workers also.
Our regular and intentional interactions with teenagers around the Bible have to deprioritise providing lectures, and prioritise getting them to verbalise what they believe (and what questions they have).