Close your eyes and picture this scene: a 13 year-old boy, crazy about football, swimming, riding his bike and being outdoors, sits hunched over a desk in a dark church hall. He’s trying desperately to memorise bible verses, knowing that if he ‘fails’ to memorise them, he’ll have double the amount to memorise next week. Commonly referred to in his school reports as ‘lacking academic skill and easily distracted’, that boy was – you may have guessed – me!
My youth leaders were lovely Christian people, and believed their role was to get all of us kids to live according to the Bible. For them, that meant getting the right ‘Bible knowledge’ into our heads by making us memorise chunks of scripture – they were the ‘guru’ leaders.
What are your earliest memories of engaging with the bible? Are they similar to mine, and how did those experiences shape your understanding of the Bible?
I often speak at leadership events, and encourage leaders to re-imagine their role. “What if”, I suggest, “your role in running a Bible study was to be a ‘guide’?”
How is being a guide different to the leadership approach I experienced as a young lad?
A guide doesn’t see their role as getting the right Bible knowledge into the heads of their young people. A guide encourages young people to bring their honest questions and struggles to the Bible. They shape the conversation and see their role as ‘creating the itch, not scratching it’. By that I mean that they ask great questions that elicit a desire, and intrigue in the young people to dig deeper into Scripture, and avoiding jumping in with what they think are the ‘right’ answers.
A guide engages the imagination of the young people, and is comfortable with the tension that comes with unanswered questions.
I love exploring a Bible passage with a group of young people – ideally somewhere other than in a church building. We read the passage together a few times and I explain some of the culture and context behind it. (Often this means reading some commentaries on the passage myself first.) Then I put some simple questions to the group, and invite their honest responses. Questions that begin with ‘What if…, and ‘what do you think about…’ and encourages them to ‘imagine if….’.
This ‘guide’ approach to Bible engagement is about letting the Bible speak for itself, through the imagination and honest questions (and responses) of the group. It enables them to discover for themselves how they engage with the passage, and how God might be speaking to them through it. It’s not controlling, and doesn’t seek to dump a heap of Bible ‘knowledge’ into the minds of the group.
One 15-year-old boy spent several days at a youth camp with a colleague of mine last year, exploring in creative and interactive ways the overarching biblical story. In the final session he remarked that it was like ‘the Bible is in colour now – not black and white’.
I spoke at a youth event several months ago, and used an approach called ‘centres and margins’. Telling the story of the widows son in Luke 7, I explored it through the ‘eyes’ of the different characters in the story; the widow, her son, Jesus, the disciples and the crowd. Explaining the significance of a widow loosing her only son, and the implications for her, and the sorts of emotions, fears and grief she must have been feeling as she faced a lonely, impoverished future with no male to provide for her. I explored how the crowd around her must have been feeling: a mix of pity, sorrow and gratefulness that it wasn’t them. And into this story walks Jesus.
‘Choose one of these characters’, I invited the group, ‘and based on whether you think that are at the centre of the story – in terms of power, control and authority, move to the centre of the room’. ‘Or, if they are a character who is powerless, with little or no control in this story, move to the edge of the room’.
The group started to move accordingly, and I spent some time asking different ones ‘who did you choose, and what’s going on in your head at this stage of the story?’. One girl said ’I’m the woman, and I’m feeling like I don’t have a life now – I’m sad at loosing my only son, but also terrified about my future, and there’s no-one for me to turn to…’ Another lad responded ‘I’m one of the disciples, and I feel really sorry for the woman, but I’m also just glad I’m not a woman!’(met with some comments and laughter from his mates).
Another guy was Jesus, and said ‘I’m really tired from walking in the hot sun, and I just want to have a drink and a sleep, but seeing the dead boy, the crying mother, and the whole community feeling powerless makes me just cry…and I want to do something’.
The group are connecting with the characters in the story. They’re placing themselves in it, and discovering they were real people with real feelings in real situations – not just nameless people in an old Bible story.
‘Ok, stay in your character, and let’s keep moving through the story’. I tell the rest of the story, of how Jesus’ heart is broken when he sees this woman, and how he disobeys the ceremonial purity laws by touching the coffin, and commanding the boy to ‘get up’. The boy comes back to life and is reunited with his overjoyed mother.
I invite the group to think about whether or not their character is still in the centre or the margin of the story. ‘If that has changed, move to where you think they are now’, I say. There’s a flurry of movement and some discussion as people take up new positions in the room, and I ask some of them what’s changed for them, and how they are feeling now.
There’s one particular response I recall. A young guy said he was the dead boy, and how he moved from being at the margin – having no control – to now being in the centre. He was empowered, he had hope. “How do you feel now’, I enquired. ‘I feel I have been chosen by Jesus to do something with my life. I wanna provide for my mum, but I’m gonna find out more about this guy Jesus’.
As I close the night I see several of them – still in their clusters around the room – grabbing a Bible and opening it to read the story again for themselves.
Guiding young people into the Bible is about engaging their imagination and inviting them to connect with characters in the Bible through the questions you ask. It can enable the Bible to go from being in black and white – to being in colour.
Adrian Blenkinsop works in youth projects for Bible Society Australia. For more simple but effective ideas for engaging your young people with the Bible, purchase The Bible According to Gen Z.
See more resources and articles at Bible Society – Youth