Teaching to Teenagers: Is God’s Word Your Foundation or a Buttress?

I was driving home from youth group under conviction. By most measures, it was a good night and the lesson was well-received by students. What I said was biblical and it was helpful, but the only time I read from Scripture was to briefly back up what I had to say. On my drive home that night, I resolved to be more explicitly biblical. This desire should be easier to carry out than it is in real-world ministry (where we want to also address the fears, concerns, and joys of teenage life).

And yet, as the Apostle Paul reminded 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, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). God’s Word will accomplish God’s work. Is there any greater message to declare than the gospel, as preached through God’s holy Word?

When we talk about “biblical issues” like salvation or peace or hope, it’s easy to build on the foundation of Scripture. But when talking about making good decisions, or friendship, or anxiety, a subtle temptation arises to speak your own wisdom while the Bible serves not as a foundation, but a buttress. As we consider the role of Scripture in our ministries, there are three categories: the obvious way to not view Scripture, the subtle way we can misuse Scripture, and the less popular but more biblical approach to Scripture.

God’s Word as Broccoli

We misuse the role of scripture when the Bible is treated as the broccoli on the plate of youth group – as in, it’s there because it’s healthy and necessary, but no one likes it and you only eat enough to placate your parents so you can get the good stuff. We easily fall into this trap when our teachings and conversations are full of our own wisdom and advice while inserting enough Scripture references into the mix to keep the critics away. We misuse Scripture when we portray the Bible as neither relevant nor authoritative. When instead, we explain it in only the simplest of terms to keep kids from being intimidated. When the Bible is broccoli, the beauty and truthfulness and authority of God’s Word is absent (at worst) or marginalized (at best) in our ministry to students.

God’s Word as a Buttress

A buttress is an external support that helps hold up a wall. How often has the Bible been a buttress that holds up the things I want to say? This can be subtle, because topical preaching can be expository and wonderfully faithful. Sometimes our kids need a topical series to help them think through their tech use, or conflict resolution, or sexuality. But the ways we approach those topical lessons makes all the difference.

A genuine examination of what God’s Word says about that topic should be our starting place. Once we have a solid biblical portrait, then we can faithfully present it to our students. But that takes a lot of time and work. So what often happens is we sit down with a notebook and make a list of what we want to say about the topic, then add a few Bible verses to reinforce what we just brainstormed. When the latter describes our approach to series-planning, the Bible is a buttress, not your foundation.

A Solid Foundation for Youth Ministry

The power of our ministry resides in the work of the Holy Spirit. This is just as true for those who are tempted to trust in their trendiness and cultural cachet as it is for the youth worker who trusts in his or her biblical knowledge and theological depth. We must remember our calling is simple: to faithfully direct students to the gospel of grace as taught through God’s Word.

There have been many car rides home from youth group when I realized I had buttressed my own thoughts with Scripture in the youth group lesson that night. Maybe it wasn’t how I planned the lesson to go, but for one reason or another, the Bible was much more of a support to what I wanted to say than it was a foundation. Sometimes I simply wasn’t prepared the way I should’ve been, or maybe a student asked a question that sent me onto another trajectory, and other times I made an adjustment mid-lesson that shifted me off the biblical foundation.

I am perhaps most frequently tempted into the “Bible as Buttress” approach when I’m teaching about really simple things my students have heard a thousand times. The pressure to make the gospel stand out as something fresh and new and inspiring is real. Rehashing Bible stories and verses that church kids have known since they were five years old just seems so boring. “How will this change anyone’s life?” we ask. And in these moments I need to remember the truth and promise of 2 Timothy 3:16-17. God’s Word is not powerless or impotent. He will accomplish his work through his Word.

There is grace for the youth worker who is doing her best to build on a solid biblical foundation. God is faithful to do His work. So if you read this post and feel the weight of failure, take heart. Rely on God’s Word for your ministry. And rely on God’s Word for your own self too. There is ample grace for us and for our students.

Mike McGarry is the Director of Youth Pastor Theologian, has served as a Youth Pastor for 18 years in Massachusetts, and has two youth group aged kids at home. He earned his D.Min. from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has published three books – most recently, “Discover: Questioning Your Way to Faith.” Mike is committed to training youth workers to think biblically about what youth ministry is and to training them to teach theologically with confidence. You can connect with him on social media @youththeologian.

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