I remember the most influential piece of wisdom I received in my first year of youth ministry. Over Starbucks, I met with my former pastor, Mark, who had introduced me to the Gospel of grace five years earlier. He had worked with Young Life for several years before becoming a church planter.
Mark said, “If anyone asks you how your ministry is doing, always reply with this: ‘I’ll tell you in ten years how my ministry is doing right now.’”
Mark established a vision for my ministry. In leading young people, we always should look to the future. In Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry: A Practical Guide, I identified “lasting faith” as the core aim of youth ministry. We don’t just want kids to experience a “Jesus phase” for a season during adolescence, only to watch them walk away from Christ and the church as adults. We long to see kids faithfully follow Jesus for their entire lives, as they lead redemptive lives for the Kingdom.
This vision offers needed clarity and focus as we pursue our ministries, but it also creates a daunting realization based in two facts. First, life holds endless challenges and tests of their faith. Secondly, for both parents and youth pastors, we have a limited window of influence within which we can build that needed foundation in young people.
How will our children respond when a tragedy enters their life? What happens when they draw the persuasive atheist professor for Philosophy 101? What decision will they make when an ethical quandary arises? How will they fair when their marriage gets really tough? Will they care about the poor and elderly or just become consumed with their own affairs? Will they become swept up in the popular political momentum of the culture or stand up for what is unpopular but right?
These factors all will challenge their faith. For the most part, we as youth pastors and parents will not be there to hold their hands; our kids will face these trials and choices on their own. Therefore, the best asset we can give our children is a solid foundation on which to stand when the storms of life test their faith.
Therefore, here comes the pivotal question: how do we best spend the six years (or eighteen in the case of parents) building the firmest foundation possible that will sustain our kids when they become independent adults? Given that we cannot prepare a lesson or case study for every scenario our kids will face, what is the best way to invest our limited time?
While no simple, “magic bullet” answer exists, I would submit that exegetical Bible teaching may be the wisest practice we can employ in forming kids with lasting faith.
The “What” and the “Why” of Exegetical Bible Teaching for Kids
What do I mean by exegetical Bible teaching? At times in ministry, we teach topically. We start with a concept and find a scripture passage or verse that we deem relevant. Certainly, there are times and situations when topical lessons are necessary and wise. With exegetical teaching, though, we work through entire books of the Bible, line by line.
Exegetical teaching flows from the confidence that God has instilled all necessary wisdom for our kids in the full counsel of his word.
Paul described scripture in this manner in his second letter to Timothy:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete and equipped for every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16]
Notice Paul writes that God inspires “all scripture.” This means that Romans 9 and 13 are just as inspired as Romans 3, 5, and 8, favorites of the church. Exegetical teaching imposes a discipline on us to teach through chapters that may seem boring, arcane, or controversial. It trusts that God inspired the content of all biblical texts and considered them significant enough to include in his word.
Paul also writes that scripture is “profitable” for “teaching,” “reproof,” “correction,” and “training in righteousness.” Paul essentially communicates that God has considered all that our children will face in life. In scripture, the Lord has provided a complete curriculum to train our kids for godliness and faithfulness in life.
Rather than trying to deduce all of the situations our kids will face in the real world and then teaching to those issues, we can expose our kids to the full counsel of God’s word by teaching exegetically, knowing that God already has considered everything they will encounter. When one teaches through the whole book of Ephesians, they will cover topics such as the Gospel, the church, mission, marriage, parenting, and spiritual warfare. Teaching all of Malachi means exposing kids to content related to worship, tithing, the end-times, missions to the poor, spouse selection, the coming Messiah, and concern for immigrants and orphans. (That’s a rich list of topics for a book that can reasonably be taught in four weeks!)
Finally, Paul says that all of scripture works to “equip” a follower of Jesus for “every good work” and to make him or her “complete.” In the end, we all want to equip our kids for a life of faithful service to Christ’s kingdom. Paul says that the full counsel of God’s word provides the tools necessary for a life of mission in the world.
Preparing kids to face the real world on their own is scary and daunting. There are only so many things we can do and there are no guarantees. Within the realm of things we can control resides the teaching of God’s word. We can take comfort knowing that the Lord has given us a complete curriculum for training and equipping our kids for a life of faithfulness.
Equip – that’s what we’re ultimately trying to do.
Cameron Cole is the editor of Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry.
You can find this book at Crossway.org.