In recent years, promoting theological depth in student ministries has become increasingly difficult. With the rise in “bite-sized” content where 45 seconds is considered too long and more than 240 characters needs a “TL:DR” (too long, didn’t read) summary, it seems virtually impossible to retain students’ attention long enough to plumb the depths of the riches of the mercy and grace of God in the Scriptures. As difficult as keeping students’ attention may be, however, the battle we fight is on a much deeper level that collecting phones before Bible study.
Noting the decline in the attention span of not just teenagers, but society as a whole due to the rapid increase and consumability of information, Neil Postman in Technopoly says, “When the supply of information is no longer controllable, a general breakdown in psychic tranquility and social purpose occurs. Without defenses, people have no way of finding meaning in their experiences, lose their capacity to remember, and have difficulty imaging reasonable futures.”1
Loss of tranquility, purpose, and meaning has led to an increase in anxiety in recent years. The reality is that our students aren’t merely having a hard time paying attention at youth group. That problem could easily be solved. Instead, they are having a hard time staying focused because they have been conditioned by the steady stream of ever accessible content to find little meaning in anything at all.
Deep Into Scripture When Culture Is Shallow
The question we then have to answer as youth workers is “How can we contribute to the solution and not the problem?” As we minister to our students, it can become tempting to be discouraged by the apparent disconnect between their ability and willingness to hear and our ability to communicate to them. This may lead us to try and form our teaching in a way similar to the other information they are taking in: brief and shallow. I would argue, however, that this approach would contribute to the problem even more. The answer is not conforming our methodology to the form of the world but to rather fighting to order it in direct opposition to culture.
Paul, in Ephesians 3:18-19 prays that the church may know the “breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love that surpasses knowledge,” and the purpose of apprehending this knowledge is to be “filled with all the fullness of God.” Paul is arguing that the fullness of our relationship with God is directly correlated to the depth of our knowledge of God.
The problem facing us and our students is that the content we take in is designed to disconnect us from any transcendent narrative. If we are to counteract this distraction, we must insist on tethering ourselves to a grander narrative; one that has the power to give meaning, to cause us to wonder, and to perceive the goal of the world around us.
The Gospel as Our Center
The gospel offers a better narrative than the steady stream of white noise and defines a place for our students in it. Instead of standing as one option among many viable paths to purpose, the cross serves as the axis around which the entire cosmos revolves. In our teaching, we must show our students how this center relates to all things and how they fit in its orbit.
This past spring, our youth group went through a series called “His Story of Providence.” Each week we looked at a different character and concept (ex. God and Creation, Adam and the Fall, etc.) and talked about how all of these things ultimately look forward to or refer back to Jesus and the cross. Students need to see that the internal unity of the Bible is not about a political party or a set of morals, but is rather a prism refracting the manifold glories of God in His works of redemption. Most importantly, they need to see how they fit inside of this narrative.
The Gospel Allows Students to Question and Wonder
The gospel also gives us space to wonder and ask questions. That sensation of comfortable insignificance we feel when we gaze upon the grandeur of a mountain or look into the infinity of the night sky is just a shadow of peering into the absolutely incomprehensible person of God. We are made to wonder because we were made to know the one who can never be fully known. He is an ever-furnished mansion offering a home to our searching hearts.
In our ministry, we have tried to encourage a culture of questioning in our student ministry by allowing time each week for students to ask questions they have been thinking about. This programmed time also sets the expectation that questions should be asked and so it encourages them to think in ways they may not be natural inclined to. No question is too silly or too problematic to fall outside of the loving care of the infinite God.
The Gospel Gives Meaning and Purpose to Anxious Students
Finally, the gospel gives us a goal unto which we can strive. In creation, God didn’t wind up a top and let it spin freely, but has ordained a divine telos (end) in creation. While culture may wave the white flag and find solace in the nihilistic joy of the indifference of a world that allows them to determine their own “purpose,” we know that this is ultimately unsatisfying to the human heart. Our hearts long for something more than indifference and we have a loving Farther who couldn’t be further from indifferent to us. In fact, he is so concerned with his creation and image bearers that he wouldn’t stop at simple forgiveness, but has promised to renew this fallen creation and dwell among us in holy communion forever.
We need to continually point out the brokenness of the world. It is only when our students lift their gaze from created to Creator that they can regain a sense of purpose in their school work, social activities, sports, etc. Knowing the end gives joy in the means.
Theological depth is difficult. It requires work on our part to make sure we both understand and communicate clearly. It also requires expecting much of our students. While the consequences of this knowledge may not feel as immediately important as the knowledge needed to pass an algebra test, let us graciously communicate by our love for students and our teaching to them that within the gospel are pleasures forevermore.
1 Neil Postman, Technopoly, 71-72