Teaching Teenagers to Teach Themselves from the Bible

The most common question I hear from students in my youth group may surprise you. Certainly, teenagers ask traditional apologetic questions as they face down challenges from peers and teachers in their intellectual journeys. I also hear them ask about cultural apologetics as they are thrown into our ideologically complex culture. But the most common question I get from students is far simpler: How do I read the Bible? How can I understand all that it is saying?

Young people are encountering a world that offers a million options for how they might live with unrestricted freedom. But that same world can’t seem to offer them answers to the big questions in life. This is why we continue to see Christianity’s surprising resurgence. Christianity sets before young people a path of joyful living that actually makes sense of this world.

The difficulty comes when students find the book at the center of Christianity both stimulating and perplexing. They are calling out like the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8, “How can I understand unless someone guides me?”

This is obviously a powerful call for Christians and churches to commit to teaching with theological depth. There’s also an aspect we can easily overlook in the task of teaching: teaching teenagers to teach themselves from God’s Word. 

As youth ministers, it should be our goal to raise up students to teach themselves, just as we teach our children to walk for themselves. We should always commend students to learn from others and rely on their brothers and sisters in Christ. But beholding wonderful things in God’s Word from their own insight will strengthen their faith, soothe their weariness, loosen their tongue to praise, and quicken their lips to teach others. 

I want to offer a few practical ways we can equip our students as we teach them God’s Word

Show, Dont Tell

It is one thing to teach teenagers the truths we encounter in God’s Word, a task the Church must be committed to. It is another thing to teach students how they might discover those truths for themselves, apply these truths, and share them with others. This requires that we show them both the connections we are making and how those connections are being made. Sometimes, as silly as it may sound, this may look like simply teaching students basic reading comprehension! 

When teaching, we can look at a story and say, “This story shows us God is gracious to us.” But if we want our students to turn the page to the next story and plumb its depths, it might be better to show them how the text exposes God’s graciousness. Is the passage trying to draw their minds to other parts of Scripture? Why does God say this thing or do that thing? How does the beginning of this passage connect to the end? What genre is this section and why does that matter? 

There are more questions we can ask, and I am not suggesting we dissect every text as if we are in a laboratory. But if we want students to encounter God’s Word for themselves, part of our teaching should aim to show them how we are discovering the truths we share with them. 

Small Bites, Well Chewed 

Often, I feel the pressure of trying to get in as much Bible as I can in the short amount of time I have with students. We only have, at most, six or seven years with teenagers in our youth groups. We might think, “Let’s make the most of it!” However, in the desire to teach them, we often place the equivalent of a 72 ounce steak on the table and give students 20 minutes to swallow every last bite. Inevitably, the end result will not be what we hope!

This is not to suggest that we cannot teach large sections of Scripture. Rather, teachers must exhibit a patience with students as they read, learn, and grow in their ability to exercise their own skills. We can teach a whole chapter of the Bible (or more), but we must ensure that the points we are drawing out of the text—the meaning, the application, the challenge—are offered in “chewable” packages. Further, we must be careful to allow students time to meditate on the text and wrestle with its meaning. The longer they chew, the easier it will be to digest and take on the next piece. 

Teachers can apply this advice in a myriad of ways. We can take time to define biblical and theological jargon, illustrate the text’s main point in tangible ways, and anticipate questions teenagers will have. We may confront the scary or surprising aspects of the text, or linger on one point longer than we originally planned. In today’s world, we want immediate results, but we must model patience in our teaching. When we do, we will be teaching students not just the skills but also the posture of teaching themselves.

Affirm and Encourage

Part of the reason students feel ill-equipped to read and critically interact with the Scriptures is because of their own intimidation. In some ways, excellent teaching can even dissuade students from their own reading, as they feel they are simply incapable of reading or understanding Scripture the way their teachers do.

So, when teaching teenagers, we must work hard to affirm their attempts, no matter how feeble. It might be our impulse to immediately reach for correction when a student says something we feel is not quite right. But it serves the task of theological depth better to affirm the small nuggets of truth students have pulled out. Teachers can then redirect their comments to other helpful insights, and encourage students in their mental exercise. We should push them to work hard, but do so with words of loving affirmation rather than stern correction. 

Heads, Hearts, and Hands 

Lastly, we must be attentive to the whole person in our teaching. We must teach students that Scripture instructs us in what we are to believe, to love, and how we are to live. 

If we communicate that Scripture only teaches students what to believe at the exclusion of its affective and actionable callings, students may lack full-person formation. Or we may find students dissuaded from the task altogether as they feel God’s Word does not connect to their lives and longings. 

Similarly, teaching students only from Scripture’s moral imperatives, divorced from a broader theological understanding and a personal love of God, will lead students to read Scripture legalistically or as a list of rules.

Shaped By The Gospel

Teaching students to teach themselves must be thoroughly shaped by the gospel message: the news that Jesus Christ has died for us to rescue us out of sin and darkness and into a life of love and freedom engages all people to believe, love, and live in light of this message. 

Teaching teenagers to teach themselves from God’s Word means holding up this message over and over again, refracted through various angles of their lives to show them the love of God offered to them in Jesus Christ. When we do this, we will see our students come alive as they feel equipped to take Jesus’ Word as a lamp unto their feet and a light unto their path. 

If you’re interested in learning more about gospel-centered youth ministry, we hope you’ll consider joining us for our 2024 Rooted Conference in Dallas, TX.

Skyler is an associate pastor over family discipleship at Grace Bible Church in Oxford, Mississippi, as well as the associate program director at The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics. Skyler earned an M.Div. from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL. He's now working toward his Ph.D. in theology at the University of Aberdeen. His wife, Brianna, is originally from Memphis, TN, and they have two children: Beatrice and Lewis. Skyler has served on the Rooted Steering Committee since 2021.

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