What are you doing in your student ministry that will outlast you?
I remember the first time that question occurred to me. I can’t recall where it came from or who asked it. Maybe it was a book, or perhaps a training seminar, but it made me take stock of my work.
Looking around at the church youth ministry I directed, I began measuring, evaluating, tallying up the “lasting” potential of our hard-fought efforts. The calendar was packed with all the right things: contact ministry in the schools, mission trips, retreats, and the always popular, fun stuff like ski trips and frozen chicken bowling.
In the final analysis, any lasting impact seemed to be measured in months, not decades.
Little did I realize the question about what would outlast me was only the first in a cluster of convictions that would send me on a journey that would revolutionize how I do youth ministry, and, quite frankly, how I walk with God.
Part of my journey included a personal study of what the Bible says about itself. In my study of Scripture, I began to pick up on the words God’s Word uses to describe itself: everlasting, enduring, eternal, imperishable. Time-sensitive words, too many to count, crediting the Bible with the results I’d only hoped to see in my own youth ministry.
I could also hear Jesus making a desperate pitch for the urgency of Bible study, talking up Scripture’s ability to deliver short- and long-term changes. While I am still, in many ways, on that journey, I had one crystal-clear defining moment in the journey’s early days: If my youth ministry was to have any hope of lasting impact, it would have to ooze God’s Word.
So how would this work? How could I help students experience firsthand the enduring nature of Scripture—or all the benefits of Scripture for that matter—thus, build into them a deeper faith that would last?
It had to be more than saying, “This book is everlasting. Read it.”
It had to be more than cajoling them into it. More than reading a verse and asking, “What does this mean to you?” The way I saw it, there needed to be some metabolizing of the words on the page—an uptake of Scripture’s eternal qualities into their lives. Imagine a dry sponge dropped into a bucket of water. That’s what it had to be.
More than a Good Read
God gave us a great picture of what this could look like. Consider all the times in Scripture when God encouraged people to experience His Word, and you’ll find He never instructed us to just read it. Reading is almost a given with God. Instead, He chose words that convey some kind of action, words that represent levels deeper than reading the text, such as walk in, fully obey, meditate on, and heed.
In Proverbs 2, we see phrases such as “store up,” “cry aloud,” “look for it as for silver,” and “search for it as for hidden treasure.” In Revelation we’re told to read the book aloud, to hear it, and to take it to heart (Revelation 1:3).
The difference between reading Scripture and walking in Scripture is like the difference between speaking and communicating. Just reading the text may not get us to all the gems God has placed there. Without the gems, the Bible can be tedious and dry. The Bible becomes difficult when it’s viewed as just another book to be read rather than a living text to be observed and explored, mined and lived out—in essence, metabolized.
How do we harness those great actions of walking, obeying, meditating and heeding? How do we create a practical approach to experiencing God’s Word? Thankfully, we don’t have to start from scratch. Scholars, reformers, pastors, and Bible students of all stripes have been searching the Scriptures for centuries—millions of people over hundreds of years studying the very same book!
Finally, three steps have emerged that are common to any thorough method of Bible study: observe, interpret, apply.
These three steps of observing, interpreting and applying Scripture fall under the umbrella of inductive study, a technique that’s been around a while but has been applied only casually to youth ministry. You may know it as exegesis—a lofty word that may seem to have no practical relationship to youth ministry.
However, the greatest barrier to personal and small-group Bible study is not having a plan. Inductive study gives us a plan.
What’s more, inductive study provides a way to infuse the Word of God into the two elements that are youth ministry: youth workers and students. Distilled for youth ministry, observe, interpret and apply become three simple requests: God, show me! God, teach me! God, change me!
These are requests we can make as we examine any verse, chapter or book of the Bible. Whenever we direct those requests to God, we’re guaranteed to see, learn and change. (That’s God’s guarantee, not mine.)
This type of study offers the very approach God’s Word seems to call for. As Eugene Peterson writes in Eat This Book, Scripture calls for a reading “that enters our souls as food enters our stomachs, spreads through our blood, and becomes holiness and love and wisdom.”
Now that’s metabolism.
I believe, as does Peterson, that there’s something deep inside us designed to connect with God’s Word—something in our spiritual DNA. When the connection is made, authentic, built-to-last transformation happens.
What makes it even more exciting is today’s students are primed for this connection.
Hunger Left on the Table
Fuller Theological Seminary’s Center for Youth and Family Ministry has been monitoring the transition of students from our youth ministries to college. Part of this project has involved surveying high school seniors to document their experiences in youth ministry. In a recent survey, 56 percent said they wanted “more” or “much more” Bible study in their youth ministries. That’s huge! (Incidentally, only 28 percent said they wanted more games.)
Teens are probing, dissecting and comparing spiritual matters and faith traditions. In today’s postmodern era, it’s the deeper search for faith, the one that asks the most of teens, that wins. Our students are hungrier than we think. What are we doing to take full advantage of that hunger?
Thankfully, Jesus showed us what to do.
The Jesus Way
Have you noticed the amazing priority Jesus placed on teaching? In Mark 4, Jesus gave the people all the teaching they could take, speaking the Word until they were filled. Later, Jesus elaborated further with His disciples, providing even more insight when He was alone with them.
In Mark 6, Jesus’ heart broke when He gazed out on a crowd described as “sheep without a shepherd.” I wonder what He was seeing. Was it guilt and regret from past mistakes? Aimless wandering—lives without purpose or direction? People under pressure? Lives without hope for a better day?
In other words, as Jesus scanned the expressions of the crowd, did He pick up on many of the same things you and I see in the faces of students today? Whatever He saw, His solution was to teach.
Once in Mark 9, Jesus was with His disciples and didn’t want anyone to know where they were. Here was the Son of God, with the power to forgive sins, to heal every disease, to increase food supplies, even to increase party supplies (see John 2). At any moment He literally could have saved the world. Yet, at this particular moment, He didn’t want anyone to know where He was. The reason? He was teaching His disciples.
At that moment there was nothing more important than teaching. This is what teaching looks like when the learner’s life depends on what’s being taught.
Above all else, Jesus taught the disciples. Surprisingly, He wasn’t terribly concerned with how they received His teaching. He wasn’t out to win their approval. Of course, Jesus had a lot to accomplish with these unschooled, ordinary men—preparing them to launch the church age and all—and He only had three years to do it.
As youth workers, you and I aren’t preparing disciples to launch the church age, but we are preparing teenagers to take the gospel into their age, a critically important task for the maturing of their faith and for the survival of the church.
Message over Method
The reason to be intentional when we study and teach Scripture is not to embrace a method, but to slow ourselves down, to give ourselves ample opportunity to connect with Jesus and His words, to observe and apply all He wants us to know and see.
Many good methods of Bible study exist to slow us down and get us to Jesus. There are even several ways to do inductive study. The method itself isn’t sacred; spending time with God and his Word and discipling in a manner that imitates Jesus is. What we need is a time-tested plan that helps us go after God’s Word the way He asked us.
The Essence of the Journey
Not long ago I bumped into Sarah, a former student from a Bible study we launched shortly after I was confronted with that question: What am I doing in youth ministry that will outlast me?
Now a teacher, Sarah is well into her adult life. Rushing through the frozen food aisle, we hurried to catch each other up on our lives. Then Sarah paused and made a point to say, “I find myself thinking a lot about our Bible studies. I want you to know how much I appreciate what you and Dana taught me.”
I’m tearing up as I type those words. Sarah had been right there, front-and-center, at all the great things you do in youth ministry: Ski trips, work camps, wacky icebreakers. She could have mentioned many things she appreciated about that youth ministry (though I happen to know she was not a fan of the wacky icebreakers).
To me, she captured, without knowing it, the essence of the journey that started with a question.
Let’s set the bar high. Let’s invite students to be a part of something big, something deep, something revolutionary—with the power to show them things they’ve never seen, teach them things they’ve never learned, and change them in ways they’ve never imagined.