“Do you ever worry about looking at so many different passages in Scripture without any context?” asked one of my adult leaders after our youth ministry finished its discussion.
Her question was valid, especially on that particular night. We’d been talking about angels and we’d looked at passages ALL over the Bible, in Isaiah, Psalms, Luke, Colossians, and Hebrews, just to name a few.
“All the time,” I responded.
Because I worry about this, most weeks, we don’t do anything resembling prooftexting, the practice of using isolated, out-of-context quotations from the Bible to prove one’s point. Instead, we hunker down in one passage of the Bible and explore it in-depth.
However, on some weeks, like during our discussion on angels, it’s important to give students a sense of what Scripture says about a larger topic rather than just what one passage says about it. In general, this is true on nights, like the one in question, that are more topical in nature. It’s especially true on nights when students’ knowledge of a particular subject is limited to one particular story.
Such is the case with angels. Students are familiar with the role angels play in the Christmas story. They’re much less aware of the role angels play elsewhere in Scripture.
Knowing this, I wanted to broaden their understanding. So I went for breadth, not depth, choosing to explore passages from throughout the Bible in order to help teens gain an understanding of how Scripture’s portrayal of angels compares to that of pop culture.
While my adult leader’s concerns were valid, it’s possible to explore multiple short passages in contextually appropriate ways. To do so, take the following six steps.
Know the context of the passage you’re exploring.
Do your research. Even if you’re only reading a short excerpt from a passage, read the surrounding verses. Take time to understand the bigger context of that particular story, chapter, and book of the Bible. If, in that broader context, the verse no longer make the point you’re trying to make, don’t use it.
Give the bigger context.
Whether you’re giving a talk or leading a discussion, help teens understand a passage’s bigger context. Even if it’s only a sentence or two, tell them what’s going on in the verses that surround the ones you’re looking at. Doing so will also increase teens’ Biblical literacy as they begin to understand the arc of Scripture.
Avoid using only ONE verse at a time.
Instead, use two or three verses. Never read just part of a sentence. Always finish it, even if it means reading a few verses more. Whenever possible, explore at least a paragraph at a time.
Answer questions about context.
Teens are smart, oftentimes smarter than we give them credit for. Take time to answer their questions about a passage’s context, even if those questions are slightly tangential to the topic at hand.
Explain why you’re only looking at short passages.
In the same way that you give teens context for the passage you’re exploring, give them context for why you’re using the Bible in a particular way. That will help them learn that it’s not always appropriate to do so.
Challenge students to go back and read the passages in their larger context.
Examining only a few verses of a passage may motivate a student to read more. Harness their desire by intentionally encouraging teens to read more.
Context is always important. By following these six steps, you’ll give teens context for what you’re reading, something that will increase their understanding of Scripture. You’ll also use Scripture with integrity and teach teens to do the same.