Many of my youth ministry colleagues know me as a bit of a theology nerd. I definitely have a lot more patience with abstract theological questions—you know, the stuff that’s not immediately “practical”—than a lot of my friends who work with young people. When I am feeling insecure, I like to curl into a corner and read Moltmann or Tillich (because it’s a world I understand). But before you figure, “this guy’s got issues” and stop reading, hear me out.
A friend recently asked me, “What’s the best resource to use to help young people learn theology?” I’m sure that because of my proclivity to reading theologians, my friend was expecting me to offer some kind of “theology 101” book, or perhaps the NOOMA videos or something like that. But I think my response surprised her. I simply said, “The Bible… and someone who’s willing to read it with them.”
She may have thought I was being pretentious… as if I was implying that she hadn’t thought about using the Bible before. But I was being honest. And I was trying to get at another point.
See, the most important thing about youth ministry is not theology. In fact, the only way young people are going to see the point of theology, let alone want to learn it, is if they have actually encountered God. And what theology should teach us, among other things, is that we can expect to encounter God in the Bible. We may encounter God in all sorts of other places too (even in theology books), but there’s a kind of promise in scripture. We have a reason to expect that when we read the Bible, God will speak to us. We have an even greater reason to expect that when we read the Bible together, we will encounter the living God.
The most important thing you can do to help young people “learn theology”—indeed one of the most important things you can do as a minister to young people—is read the Bible with them.
This might sound very simple. “Oh, if I just read the Bible to young people I’ve done my job.” One could simply stand up and read the Sermon on the Mount from a lectern and call it ministry. Now, while it may be a fruitful thing to simply read the Sermon on the Mount and call it a day (in fact, one of my best memories from high school was when our youth group hiked to the top of a mountain and read the Sermon on the Mount), reading the Bible together is a little more complicated.
What I recommend is reading the Bible with young people… not just reading it to them.
As important as leadership is, and as important as it is for youth workers to know their specific role and authority, reading the bible with young people means letting go of some of our control and taking the risk of reciprocity.
[Reciprocity: a situation or relationship in which two people or groups agree to do something similar for each other, to allow each other to have the same rights, etc.]
It means coming to the Bible with your own questions, even as you answer some of the questions that young people have. It means being ready and willing to be affected by young people’s insights on scripture just as you might hope that they are affected by yours. In this kind of reciprocity and honesty, we can expect to encounter God… even if not every question we have gets answered.
There’ll always be a place for the practice of reading (and teaching) the Bible to young people, but if you’re trying to think of different ways of engaging the bible and theology in your ministry, consider the practice of reading with young people.
So what does this look like?
At this point you may be saying to yourself, “sounds like a good thing… but how do I do it?”
Now, while this should look different depending on your context, let me take the risk of laying out a potential scenario for the practice of reading the Bible with young people.
1. Sit in a circle: In my experience, there’s always risks in circling up, but the reward may be that the very shape of the gathering shows that everybody’s equal in coming to the scriptures.
2. Choose a passage that inspires you: You don’t have to pick the hardest passages in the Bible… (I don’t recommend starting with the story of God trying to kill Moses—yeah, that’s in there). Choose a passage that has actually spoken to you, not just one with a lot of theological content. The Psalms may actually work better than Romans.
3. Just read: You don’t have to get creative. Just start reading out loud. If you’ve got a group that would be ok with it, let the young people read (but don’t feel the need to put anybody on the spot, it’s ok if you read the whole thing yourself). Read a few verses at a time, then pause to reflect.
4. Pause: when you pause between verses, don’t be afraid of open-ended questions (it’s ok to ask, “so what do you think this line means?”). But if you find that the response is not coming easy, ask specific questions with options like, “does this passage make you feel happy or sad? Why?”
5. Ask your own questions: model for the group what it looks like to be honest and ask questions. If you don’t have any questions about the text, you should think about it a little harder. Let the kids know, for example, “I’ve never really understood why Jesus decided to write on the ground…”
6. Let the young people teach you: Don’t just ask rhetorical questions. Expect the young people to teach you. If you have a question, be open to the possibility that the young people might have an answer.
7. Pray: Instill a sense of anticipation. Expect God to show up and ask God to show up. Then thank God for the conversation.
8. Don’t get discouraged: If you don’t experience some kind of epiphany, it’s ok. Your life doesn’t have to change dramatically every time you read the Bible. It’s important for young people to know that. So just keep at it and let the experience of reading the Bible be its own end.
Hopefully, this will be a liberating practice for youth workers and for young people in your ministry.
I’ve talked to too many youth workers who have been tortured by the pressure to have all the answers when they still struggle with their own questions. Or, even worse, I’ve met youth workers who don’t feel the pressure and come to the Bible with more answers than they actually should have. If you’re a volunteer in your ministry and you haven’t been formally trained in biblical studies, I hope you’re excited by the possibility of reading scripture with more questions than answers.
And young people may be relieved to discover that their mentors aren’t perfect, that their Youth Pastor is not a “professional Christian,” and that even if they’re not like the “rock star” youth group kid, they can still encounter God. Even more, they will be relieved to discover that their mentors take them seriously and expect God to be present in their lives even if they aren’t perfect.
Wes Ellis is a Member in Discernment in the United Church of Christ and an M.Div./M.A. student at Princeton Theological Seminary. He has served in youth ministry and adult Christian education in UCC, UMC, and PC(USA) settings, as well as evangelical ministry settings. He is passionate about theology and youth ministry and is convinced that the two belong to each other.