“How Come Churches Don’t Talk About This Stuff?” — On Teaching Teenagers the Basics of the Bible
I volunteer for Geneva Classical Academy for about 2 hours a week. Currently, I am teaching an elective course on world religions to 10th and 11th graders. My class is small and precocious, which is the norm for Geneva (a school that I would commend to all who live in Lakeland), but I wouldn’t want to make them out to be superhumans. They certainly aren’t nerds, and there are plenty of days when typical “teenagerness” is in full effect. I say this to acknowledge that working with these students is certainly a step above the average high school experience in America but to also maintain that it can still teach us something about American young people as such.
This is important because my students taught me something very important yesterday. They taught me that what young people are interested in and what adults assume young people are interested in are sometimes very different things.
What Are the Basic Ideas of Christianity?
In the world religions class, we typically try to introduce a whole religion in one class. Some religions have taken up two class periods, but we still have to condense a lot of material into a basic survey. This means that we try to focus on the “big points” which summarize the foundation of the religion and the life of its adherents. So far, we have studied Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and traditional ancestral religions. This past week was time to cover Christianity. In order to be consistent, I asked the class “So what is Christianity all about?”
What is Christianity all about? The first answers were pretty standard: Jesus, salvation, sin, God, and heaven. “Ok,” I said, “but tell me more. How does all of this work? Where does it come from? How does the Bible explain it?” A few more answers came but the students were getting less sure of themselves. After talking it through with them, I wrote on the board these terms: Messiah, Covenant, Temple, and Kingdom. The students had all heard of these terms, partially because of other Bible and theology classes at Geneva, but they weren’t as confident how to put them all together in “the big picture.” So we spent the rest of our time doing that. We talked about how Jesus is the Messiah and that He fulfills the Old Testament concepts of covenant, temple, and kingdom. I tried to show important verses in the New Testament which talk about this, and the main argument was that Jesus and the New Testament writers are intentionally taking Old Testament images and themes and applying them to Jesus and then to those who have faith in Him.
By the time the class was done, there was a bit of a buzz in the room. The students were totally engaged, asking lots of questions, and appearing to really be interested. One student even asked, “So how come churches don’t talk about this stuff?”
What Are Our Churches Preaching and Teaching?
“How come churches don’t talk about this stuff?” What a telling question! The student who asked this question attends a large Evangelical church in town, and I would assume that it is closer to the norm than the exception. “Well, what does your church usually preach and teach about?” I asked. She responded, “Oh, you know, like marriage, how to have a family, how to be a Christian at your job, and just sort of how to be a good person and not do bad things. Stuff like that.” I think I do know. This is the stuff that churches are told is “relevant” for today’s congregations and what we need to be talking about in order for them to be able to make “practical application” in their lives. What was interesting is that this student could immediately see that there was a disconnect between the basic points of the Bible– its themes, images, and main ideas– and what her church spends most of its time talking about.
Another really surprising point was that the class all agreed that they found the “practical” and “relevant” teaching of their churches to be really boring. They said that they hear that stuff all of the time. All of the various adult figures in their lives and various role models talk about it, and it even finds its way into educational books, movies, and music. Basically, it all goes into the same “training” or “education” bin in their minds, and they think that they pretty much know what it’s all about by now. So they lose interest.
But the class had a different opinion about the basic ideas that we were talking about. They actually were very interested to know what happened to the animal sacrifices. How could they be so important in the Old Testament but then just disappear in the New Testament? And what about the kingdom? It was a very real kingdom in the Old Testament, and lots of places in the New Testament say that Jesus is the new king of that kingdom. So where is it? Has it changed? How does it work? Let’s connect these dots!
In summary, these teenagers found marriage and family therapy, self-help seminars, and encouraging motivational inspirational sermons to be really really unappealing. It was all dreadfully boring, the sort of thing that they association with “going to church” and being lectured to by adults. And they don’t even buy into all of it anyway. It’s just the kind of stuff that adults like to talk about when they are trying to teach you stuff but usually give up on in real-life after a while. On the other side, however, these teenagers actually were interested, even excited, to learn more about sacrifice, atonement, the kingdom of God, the messiah, what the new heavens and new earth will be like, and how the New Testament books connect all of these ideas to Jesus in a consistent way.
So what I’m saying is that these teenagers found Biblical theology to be far more interesting and engaging than moral or therapeutic advice.
Back to the Basics
Now, I don’t want to suggest that this is a scientific poll. This class is a small sample-size to be sure. But it still represents some dramatically different denominational backgrounds, and without outing the students’ private lives, I can assure you that they are not unusually sheltered from the larger culture and do not represent any sort of fringe social group in America. I think they can teach us something, and I think that one thing that they teach us is that the normal teenagers who do have an interest in Christianity have a greater interest in learning and understanding the actual content of the Bible than they do the various “life lessons” and “practical application” that adults tend to assume young people are interested in.
And when we consider this point from the perspective of educational development, this shouldn’t be all that surprising. How do we teach the Bible to very young children? We tell them the basic stories– Adam and Eve, Noah, David and Goliath, etc. These are usually pretty simple, and we might use picture books. The point is to stick to mostly narrative and keep it memorable. In the early elementary-school years we then move to memorization and moral teachings. Morals are very important at this point, and parents have to explain the difference between being obedient and being a tattle-tale. And then what happens when children become teenagers? There’s a spectrum, to be sure, but usually teenagers want to start seeing “the big picture.” They usually try to identify themselves with some sort of “movement” or larger group that has an important mission in the world. They might also want to know about philosophy and politics. They move from simply caring about “right and wrong” to wanting to know about “justice” as such. Argument and debate become regular fixtures, and if the adults in their lives can’t handle this well, this is also how the teenage years can go bad.
But don’t teenagers care about dating, getting a job, and stuff like that? Yes, I think they do. But they care more about doing those things than studying about them. In fact, if they interpret your teaching them about those things as merely “a lecture” and don’t believe that you have connected it to any meaningful foundation, whether religious or philosophical, they are probably going to tune you out or say that you are just forcing your beliefs upon them. They think you “don’t get it” or are “being a hypocrite.” This is when teenagers can become rebellious. Some of this is sin on their part, but some of it is the natural process of growing up and establishing a form of self-governance. They are trying to explore “the big picture,” and they can tell when adults are trying to prevent them from doing so.
So my plea is this: teach teenagers and young adults the Bible. Our churches, including the pastors and the various small group leaders, should find ways to get teenagers to read their Bibles, identify key teaching and themes in the Bible, and ask questions and discuss how basic concepts that they are already familiar with from their early training are explained, fulfilled, and applied by Jesus and the New Testament writers. While this might sound like something very obvious that everyone already knows, I would maintain that most churches aren’t doing this.
Why do I think this? Just compare the favorite topics of Youth Groups, Youth Conferences, and various “seeker” approaches to attracting new members. They tend to be about “True Love,” “How to have a Christian marriage,” “How to be a Christian in college,” or “How to be a Christian at your job.” Now, try to find passages in the New Testament where these are actually “the main point.” I am sure that you can find a handful of verses here and there. Those topics are not totally left out of the Bible. But I am equally sure that those topics are only treated briefly and in a very general manner in the Bible. If you add up all of the verses that mention any of them explicitly, it will be a rather short list. Now, consider what the Bible does spend a lot of time talking about. These things would be the history of the covenant God makes with His people, the role of sacrifices and the priesthood, the kingdom, and the messiah. There are sections of the New Testament where two or three chapters will be wholly devoted to these topics, explaining how verses from the Old Testament predicted what Jesus would do. And then there are other chapters which explain how Christians today continue to do that sort of stuff but in a new way. These are the main ideas and the “big picture” topics of the Bible. And teenagers and young people can see that pretty easily.
There’s an internet meme with a picture of the actor Steve Buscemi trying to pretend that he’s a teenager. Even though his face is wrinkled and his eyes have deep pouches under them, he’s wearing a backwards baseball cap and is carrying a skateboard over his shoulder. The caption says, “How do you do, fellow kids?
The point of the meme is that everyone knows he’s not a “fellow kid” at all. He’s trying so hard to be relevant and accessible, but the actual kids can see right through it. And it’s a bigger turn-off than if he had just acted like an adult and interacted with the kids normally. I think that this goes on a lot with us in real life. Adults try to imagine what young people will find interesting and they regularly get it wrong. They try to make themselves “relevant” by imitating what they see the young folks doing, but they end up being very irrelevant. Our churches should learn from this.
“Messiah, covenant, temple, kingdom– how come churches don’t talk about this stuff?” Let’s just help teenagers understand what Christianity’s all about. Show them the “big ideas” and the “basics” of the Bible, and help them put the pieces together. But this is important– let them see how the Bible itself does this. Let them see what the New Testament was actually trying to do, in its day and time. Show them the basics. And I bet you will be surprised to see what teenagers think is interesting about religion.