The past few months of stay-at-home orders have had a way of surfacing idols and insecurities. Faced with the task of moving our weekly youth group meetings online, I felt totally daunted. I worried I wasn’t entertaining enough, creative enough, or tech-savvy enough to make it work. I fretted about whether the in-person community we’ve worked so hard to build together would be undone by this time apart.
This COVID wilderness of physical separation from students combined with the more recent “Zoom fatigue” has left us all craving the good old days of gathering in person for active games, eating together, shared laughter, and the impromptu conversations that come with time spent together. But with all the trappings of modern youth ministry stripped away, I’ve been humbled by the way two things have held our high school group together, if only barely: the strength of our relationships and the weekly study of God’s Word.
After all, there are many other places students can go for fun and games. And over the past few months, they could hop on a Zoom call any day of the week for virtual connection with peers and teachers. But where else can they go for answers to the questions that really matter in our world? Where can they go for words of hope to help them hang on in a difficult and lonely time? They are looking for answers and for hope that only the gospel of grace can provide: that Jesus died and rose again not only to redeem their individual lives, but also to restore our broken world. Studying the Bible together sets our ministries apart from the other spaces teenagers inhabit (online or otherwise).
Sure, our Zoom calls have dwindled a bit as the semester has gone on, and yes, students have begged for us to plan a way for them to be together regularly in small groups (delayed because we live in a hot spot for the virus here in the northeast). But it’s been amazing to see how God has worked as we have continued in our times of communal Bible study online. The experience has affirmed my conviction that studying the Bible with students is the bedrock of healthy youth ministry, no matter the circumstances. This is why one of Rooted’s Five Pillars for Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry is “Theological Depth Through Expository Bible Teaching.”
Defining the Pillar
Theological Depth means we don’t water down our teaching, but seek to lead students into the deep truths of God’s character and His saving work through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Expository Bible Teaching indicates rich study in the Word that takes students through books of the Bible, unpacking the text with them – as opposed to primarily teaching topical studies.
In an article on Rooted’s Five Pillars of youth ministry, Mike McGarry explains the nature of expository teaching saying, “A helpful question to ask is, ‘Would students recognize that my message is based on Scripture, or would they say the Bible was shared in support of the things I wanted to say?’”
Although we may be tempted at times to adapt our content topically, the foundation of expository teaching tells us to keep going into the text. God is faithful to use His Word, and I’ve been amazed time and again how perfectly timed a passage ends up being for a particular moment, even when I’ve slated it months in advance. This is just how God works through His Word!
A Case Study
For example, our high school leadership team and I couldn’t have anticipated the world events of these past couple of months when we chose to do a year-long study of Exodus, but God has been so faithful to speak to our high school students through it. The study has exposed the following relevant issues during the past several months as we’ve met on Zoom:
- The human pursuit of other gods – which allowed us to talk about the way the stay-at-home order has revealed our own idols (i.e. those things in which we were trusting that aren’t God).
- Israel’s bondage to a system of endless productivity – which helped us to see our own bondage to busyness and performance, further highlighted by mass shut-downs.
- Israel’s release into blessed (albeit unnerving) rhythms of rest and freedom to worship God – which helped us interpret our own slower pace.
- Israel’s liminal space of wilderness wandering – so familiar to our own experiences of quarantine.
- God’s utter commitment to His people, even in the midst of their sin and rebellion – and our own today.
- The deep longing we share, amidst COVID-19 and the horrific deaths of Black brothers and sisters, for our God to come and dwell with us—and the promise that He will!
- Most of all, in each of the above applications, we were able to point students to the finished work of Jesus, which provides our freedom from bondage, our ability to rest rather than constantly proving ourselves, our forgiveness from sin, and our hope that God will finally dwell with His people again.
I believe that in His providence, God perfectly ordained for us to study Exodus this year, which had so much to speak to our students’ experiences in their new normal. If you’re accustomed to tackling shorter studies in your ministry, however, you can prayerfully pick a book of the Bible to study together based on the circumstances in a given moment—just don’t skip over the parts that may seem less immediately relevant! Rather, teach them to your students, study them together, and see how God will use His Word.
The Way Forward
When we re-gather with our students, it will be tempting to focus only on the fun elements of summer ministry in effort to re-engage them. Teenagers have had a lot taken from them these past few months, and surely our job includes noticing this pain and inviting them back into joy-filled friendships. We will need to rebuild a sense of community in our groups, having been apart for so long. But if our efforts end with building community, we will miss our high calling to saturate students with the gospel, to help them love Jesus more by learning to study and to love God’s written Word.
In this particular cultural moment, our students are hungry for answers about why things in our world are so broken. They are longing for hope that only the Good News of the gospel can provide: the truth that God saves sinners and redeems the broken world through his death and resurrection. As those who have been entrusted with both the words of life and the lives of students, it is our privilege to connect the two!
So this summer, I hope you laugh your heads off, create fun memories (six feet apart, of course), and rebuild the community we’ve all been missing these past sixteen weeks. I hope you get ice cream together, play mini golf, or whatever you’re allowed to do in small groups within your particular state’s guidelines. But most of all I hope you sit with students and unpack God’s Word with them. I hope you help them to see the redemptive narrative of the Bible, which stretches from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation, and incorporates God’s image-bearers in the here and now. I hope you show students how every line of Scripture points to Jesus—the beloved Son of God who entered our sin and sickness, living the life we all have failed to live so that he could die in our place and rise again to conquer sin forever. I hope you will see stony hearts melted and lives transformed by the gospel of grace as you bravely invite students into deeper relationship with God through the faithful study of His Word.