How Not to Talk to Teens About the Bible
Making the most of our opportunity
I remember one of the first youth retreats I attended as the featured speaker. The retreat center was located in Pennsylvania, and I lived in East Texas. Instead of flying, my wife and I drove the entire way. In the snow. Inclement weather had closed several of the roads, and we invested a lot of time finding alternate routes (this was way before Google Maps). When we arrived at the retreat center, our accommodations were a cold trailer with a few snacks. I stood in front of the group on the first evening and things, well, let’s just say they didn’t go great. My talks were flat. I’m not certain anyone really followed what I was saying.
But that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was the announcement the camp director made on the second night of the event, after I spoke. The announcement went something like this: “We have heard that some of you are making fun of some of the camp staff… especially the visiting staff. We want you to know that your actions aren’t cool, they’re not Christ-like, and you need to stop.” Does it help to know that I was the only “visiting camp staff” for the event? Yeah, not a great moment.
Thinking back on that retreat, I remember doing a few things that ultimately made me a target. I remember trying so hard to make the teenagers like me. I remember preaching against things that were key elements of their culture. If you’re a youth leader you can probably relate. It was new territory for me, and with new territory comes mixed experiences.
As youth leaders, we each bring our own unique styles and abilities. We are each called to the important task of reaching kids with God’s love and grace, to form the next generation. But sometimes we get in our own way. Here are some tips from the trenches; I hope learning from my mistakes can help you avoid these common pitfalls and enliven your ministry.
1. Don’t try to be the funniest, coolest, hippest person in the room
The problem: Maybe you’re like me. Often, when I stand in front of teenagers to teach, I feel like I’m getting a “You have no business talking to us about anything” look. I’ve taught teens a lot, and that look never gets easy. What happens when we get that look? We get nervous (I know I do). When I get nervous, I tell jokes. If a joke doesn’t work, I’ll try a cultural reference. I’ll try and relate by referencing a song they’re listening to or throw in a new slang term I’ve heard them use—basically, I dig the hole deeper.
Look. Teens can smell a fake. They know when the adult in the room is trying too hard to be their buddy. And when they find an adult around them posing as a cool teenager, they shut down.
A solution: Don’t stress about being the funniest person in the room. Don’t stress about dressing so teens know you’re cool. Be yourself. Don’t tell them that you’re nervous, instead, tell them that it’s an honor to have the opportunity to talk to them about God’s Word, and that you’re feeling cautious about handling that Word carefully. Rather than a joke, tell the students something that has happened to you recently that relates to what you’ll be talking about that day—and also gives them a peek into who you are. Tell them you’re from another era, from another generation. Doing that can disarm them. It clears a path for you to be heard.
2. Don’t preach at them
The problem: When it’s time to unpack a lesson on a biblical topic for teenagers, it’s easy to default to speaking or preaching as the only mode of communication. Preaching can feel like a safe thing to do. But it’s essentially talking at teenagers, which is not the same as talking to them. And even talking to a teenager isn’t as important as learning with them.
A solution: Do some teens learn something from sitting and listening to an adult? Yes. Is it the best way to connect with teens? Absolutely not. I’ve found that preaching can often do more to feed our egos than it does to educate teenagers. I’m tempted to preach because I like people looking at me, listening to me, or because it’s a way I can communicate information that makes sense to me. But teens don’t learn from talking heads. If all we offer students is a weekly sermon where someone talks out all of their Bible knowledge, we’re missing opportunities to engage them in God’s Word. Invite teens to participate with you in learning through having one-on-one conversations or group activities. Awaken and engage their young minds.
3. Don’t ignore your environment
The problem: I once served in a church where I had complete control over the structure of the youth room. It was an exciting opportunity. We invested money in speakers, televisions, a stage, decorations. We had everything. But then I realized: take away the lights, colors, and encouraging words on the walls and we had created a jazzed-up classroom. Chairs in rows. Screens in front. It may be a practical necessity for larger groups, but the predictable order we created limited more creative engagement. We were reinforcing that the leader is in charge and there is only one way to learn, rather than being open to other kinds of learners.
A solution: Rows cater to one dominant learning style. Try opening up some others—encountering the Bible through movement, through art, through acting, or other creative expressions. You can still have rules to contain the chaos. But look into ways to expand your learning environment. Consider your audience and if they don’t need stability for their growth, try varying the setup. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes with your arrangements. The students will appreciate that you cared enough to try something new for them.
Standing in front of teenagers to present God’s Word is a privilege. It’s an honor to speak to anyone about God’s Word, but having the opportunity to tell students is a special honor. We are not only shaping the future of the students, we are likely affecting the lives of people they’ll interact with during their lives. Taking care of all the “don’ts” frees us up to “do” this work, getting us past any self-imposed limitations.
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