Reading the Bible

So, Marko and the Youth Cartel have partnered with Biblica to produce CBEmini. You can get the scoop here.

I’m intrigued by the concept. I love the idea of removing chapter and verse numbers and allowing students to read the Bible without those helps distracting them and proving very unhelpful. One of the reasons I like Robert Alter’s translation of the David Story is because the verse numbers hang out on the sides and don’t distract nearly as much from just reading the text. The idea of reading in community is also something that I can get excited about with this resource. It’s worth checking out.

At the same time, however, it always makes me nervous when we try to get students reading the Bible and we start with the New Testament. I know, I know, we always want to get to Jesus. But that’s like reading the Lord of the Rings and starting with the Battle of the Pelennor fields. You really have no idea what is going on, but wow it’s exciting. I’d be far more excited about CBEmini if they were starting in the Old Testament. I know it’s supposed to be a short 9-day study, so–of course–we want them to get Jesus, right? I’m not so sure that’s the best idea and I’m almost certain that it isn’t the way to help students engage deeply with Scripture.

I’m not saying CBEmini is a detrimental thing. Far from it. It probably fills a niche. But the gaping hole, as I see it, is still that we aren’t helping student process the full story of Scripture and, in all honesty, we probably don’t know the story all that well ourselves. Still, I’d love to see more resources like this, and perhaps a year-long plan like CBEmini that started students in Genesis. Any publishers interested in doing something like that? I’d be happy to consult on laying it out. Seriously.

The Bible and Youth Ministry

Somehow (YouthWorker.com’s twitter feed?) I stumbled across this article the other day. Now, it comes as no surprise to me that more than half of graduating students wish they had had more Bible in their youth ministry years. My own experience has been that students desire greater depth, even when it doesn’t seem like they do.

However, I’d like to push back a little on Barry’s proposed solutions. Essentially his solution to this dilemma is to start teaching the Bible more, and specifically helping our students to understand and apply it to their lives. That’s an excellent goal, and something we surely need to be more concerned with in youth ministry. However, I think the actual problem is deeper.

Let’s take a step back. Students want more Bible. Awesome. But we need to first ask why they aren’t currently getting enough. Then we can worry about how to correct the lack. I’d suggest that we don’t help our students engage Scripture thoroughly enough for two reasons.

First, in many youth ministries, the idea of teaching the Bible in any depth is reserved for the truly committed students. The rest, we assume, don’t actually want to learn about God. We’re just happy they come for the entertainment. So, we need to adjust our philosophy. If our philosophy of youth ministry is to attract a ton of students with games, video, lights, lasers, pizza, t-shirts, electronic dance floors and cupcakes we probably aren’t going to have the time or energy to help guide them toward a serious engagement with Scripture (or, ya know, God). I’ve blogged elsewhere about attractional youth ministry, so I won’t further belabor the point here.

The second reason I’d suggest students in youth ministries don’t engage Scripture as deeply as they might like is that we–as youth workers–don’t engage it as deeply as we should (I’d actually propose a third reason, which is that sometimes students only realize they wanted more Scripture in retrospect, thus they don’t take advantage of the opportunities they do have, but that’s more an issue of statistics and the limits of self-reporting). We don’t know Scripture that well ourselves, and so the idea that we might actually delve deeply into it can be disconcerting. I know I’ve probably beaten this horse to death already, but youth pastors ought to have a strong education in Bible. If we don’t know the Story, there is no way we can help our students to know God’s story.

I realize that the idea of formally studying Bible is all good for those who are just now entering the field, but somewhat harder for those of us who already have our degrees and are doing youth ministry. To those of you who are deciding what to study in college, let me plead with you: study Bible. At least minor in it. Even better, major in biblical studies or theology and minor in youth ministry. Then go to seminary. For those of us who are already past that stage, let me plead with you: study the Bible. Buy good commentaries and consult them regularly as you prepare lessons. Read through the Bible, and then do so again. Read scholars, not only other pastors. Push yourselves, don’t simply remain comfortable. Learn to use tools like Logos or Accordance. Devote substantial amounts of time to studying. Take a class on the Bible at a seminary, especially if your church provides you with money for continuing education. Do anything realistically possible to give yourself a better grasp of Scripture.

I know all of this takes time. I know we are already short on time. But maybe that gets back to my first point, we need to change the philosophy that governs our ministries. If we don’t have time to devote ourselves to prayer and studying Scripture, maybe we’re missing the point of ministry. If we want to help students delve deeply into Scripture than we need to delve deeply into Scripture for ourselves. We can’t teach what we don’t know.

Once we’ve confronted our own philosophy of ministry and our own study of Scripture, then it will be time to actually teach students the Bible. The statistics don’t lie, students want to learn the Bible. They want to confront the difficult questions. As the ones who serve as spiritual mentors and guides to students, we ought to be prepared to help them do exactly that.

Zephaniah and Thresholds

Every so often I come across a passage that illustrates well why students–and really, Christians in general–need to actually read the Bible. At our Wednesday evening high school gathering this week we tackled the question of how to read the Bible. Our students have been asking some great questions about how to read and apply the Bible recently, so we decided to spend some time doing exactly that.

We divided students into groups of three, then gave each group a passage that they had to read and answer some questions about. One of the groups had Zephaniah 1.4-9. They actually did a pretty good job of grasping the background, and also trying to figure out how the passage might affect us. As we were discussing the passage I asked students if verse 9, which says in part, “On that day I will punish all who leap over the threshold.” So, I asked students if that meant that we should be sure to step on thresholds as Christians.

We had a brief discussion in which students admitted it looked like God didn’t particularly like non-threshold-steppers. Obviously, this was a somewhat perplexing realization. I quickly pointed students to 1 Samuel 5.5, however. That verse is park of the Ark narratives in 1 Samuel 4-6. It recounts how, after an unhappy encounter with the Ark of the Covenant, Dagon’s image ends up broken upon the threshold of his temple. Thus “to this day neither the priests of Dagon nor any other who enter Dagon’s temple at Ashdod step on the threshold.”

The issue ends up having nothing to do with stepping or not stepping on run of the mill thresholds. Rather, those who leap over the threshold out of some misbegotten devotion to a god other than Yahweh are violating the single-deity devotion with Yahweh demands. The issue isn’t the way people enter buildings, but rather a violation of commandment #1. Now, if someone has never read 1 Samuel, it’s fairly unlikely that they will understand what the Zephaniah passage is trying to explain.

It is safe to say that reading the entire Old Testament multiple times is hard work. Most worthwhile things are. But when we begin to know the ins-and-outs of the story, we begin to understand other parts much better. When we understand the story better we’re able to understand God better and understand ourselves better. People have often asked me why we need to bother with the Old Testament as Christians. The answer, of course, is that our story as the people of God begins in the Old Testament, and the God we serve is the same God they served.

Being Shaped

One thing that has always fascinated–or, more honestly, frustrated–me about youth ministry is picking a curriculum. In fact, I’m normally so frustrated by the process that I simply design my own. This isn’t overly efficient, however, especially when I am not the one solely responsible for teaching. Teaching is a hugely important part of ministry, and what and how we teach is a vital aspect of how we do ministry.

In youth ministry, I want my students to be shaped by the Bible. I want them to discover this amazing story of which they are a part. I want them to own that story, and I want them to get to know the God who is revealed in that story. The problem with this is that sometimes the story is messy. Sometimes we don’t understand the God who is revealed in it. Perhaps worst of all, for a society that thrives on instant gratification, it is often difficult to see how we are being shaped by this story until we look back from a vantage point miles down the road.

So, it is no surprise that most curricula–and, indeed, many youth pastors–throw out the story in favor of topics. We know students want something relevant so we teach about sex and dating. Maybe we feel that our students need to learn more about service, so we teach on service. We determine what our students need and then we fish around our holy book and find what we think best meets that need. This is the worst possible way for our students to be shaped by the story of God. In doing this, we forget that if we teach the story as a story, we’ll get to all those parts eventually anyway. What’s more, all those parts will make infinitely more sense and fit into a larger whole.

I had a professor in seminary who argued constantly and persuasively against topical teaching and preaching. His argument was very simple: if you preach topically, no matter what you do, you will always spend most of the time on your own soapboxes. Instead, he encouraged students to teach or preach through whole books of the Bible. That’s a step in the right direction, though I think we need to go a step further still. I’d like to suggest that as youth workers we need to leave aside our precious topics, turn from our idol of relevancy, and teach the story.

If we want the story to shape us and our students, then they need to know what that story is. Not what disparate parts of that story say on an assorted range of topics, but the story itself. The best way to do this is to start in Genesis and continue until we get to Revelation. I’m not proposing that the canonical order is the best order to teach in, but it would–more or less–communicate the story. It would certainly communicate it better than we generally do. Sadly, even some curricula that are supposed to do exactly this jump from one big ticket Bible story to the next, leaving the story feeling disconnected at best and impossible to follow at worst. Even if we don’t go through every single book in the Bible, we ought to move through the Pentateuch, former prophets, some of the writings, the gospels, Acts, some of the epistles and Revelation; and we ought to move through them without skipping huge chunks just because we find them odd or irrelevant (I will except here the census data in various books, as well as the legal codes–those are all important, but it’s a fight I know I won’t win).

This is all good in theory, but it presents two difficulties in practice. The first is how we manage it programmatically. The Bible is a rather large book, after all. How do we realistically create a space in our youth ministries to teach it as a story, from beginning to end? I have always found it helpful to devote one of my main teaching programs to going through the Bible. Normally this is our Sunday morning program, but it could work just as well at a midweek small group or a Sunday evening large group gathering. The point isn’t the venue as much as that we actually work our way through the story. At the same time, I also understand that sometimes our students really do need a topic addressed with some immediacy. Most youth ministries have at least two teaching times a week, whether one is large group and the other small group, or one is “Sunday school” and the other “youth group.” The point is that in my experience, I’ve found it helpful to devote one of these times to helping students learn the story, while allowing the other time to be more topical, or to touch on sections I might not touch on in the other (such as the Psalms, or the wisdom literature).

The second problem is that, sadly, many of us aren’t familiar enough with the story to actually facilitate others. I’ve met youth pastors who wouldn’t even begin to know who Joab or Jael were, let alone Ahitophel or Athaliah. This creates an issue: if we aren’t familiar with the story ourselves, we can hardly tell it to others. We might even think that some of those stories in the Hebrew Bible aren’t actually that important. After all, we’re Christians, and we follow Jesus. Let’s get to those parables, because those are stories, but they really touch on some great topics! The problem is that Jesus shows up toward the end of the story. He’s the plot twist, as it were, the big moment. Without him, the story unravels. But we still have to get there first. Those stories in the Hebrew Bible teach us a great many things about God, about human beings, and about how the one relates to the other. In short, they teach us who God is and who we are as humans and as his people. We need those stories, now as much as ever.

As youth workers we need to do the hard work of learning the story ourselves so that we can tell it to others. It won’t be easy. But most of us have already realized that being a Christian isn’t supposed to be easy, and being a youth worker even less so. If we want our students to be shaped by the story of God, we need to start sharing the story with them, from beginning to end. We need to avoid splitting it into easy bits or proof texts, but allow them to experience it whole and uncensored. That might require us to do some hard work ourselves, but it’s worth it. After all, this story is our story and without it we miss part of what it means to be us.

Encouragement

This has been one of the most encouraging thoughts on youth ministry I have read recently. The idea that in ministry we sometimes just keep plugging away is an important one to be reminded about. I was recently talking with a number of staff people from my church and we were discussing how ministry is often tough. You often end up feeling like you aren’t really accomplishing much. Our encouragement came from Isaiah 49.4, knowing that even the servant/Deutero-Isaiah/whoever feels that he has labored in vain. Ironically, God’s response appears to be to give a larger mission to the servant. Be that as it may, it’s encouraging to know that people who have ministered to others throughout history have also struggled with the seemingly impossible task before them.

Reason #58

Anyone who has followed me for very long knows that I would love to see more youth pastors who put more effort into studying the Bible. Specifically, I’d like to see more youth pastors who use the Hebrew and Greek they (might have) learned in seminary. To that end, I present reason number fifty-eight that youth pastors ought to learn and do everything they can to retain an intermediate knowledge of the biblical languages.

I recently attended a Christian event where a speaker gave a gospel presentation. This talk was standard evangelical fare, though I was pleased that the speaker placed a high emphasis on people living out faith. Nevertheless, the Scripture text that the speaker used was–of course–John 3.16. There is a bitter irony in the fact that this verse, one of the most well-known in the New Testament, is also one of the most commonly misrepresented.

The speaker placed particular emphasis on the word “so,” going as far as having the audience hold out the word for thirty seconds (“Soooooooooo…”). The speaker then explained that this verse shows how much God loves us. He loves us to such an extent that he sent his son. The problem is that the verse doesn’t say that. The Greek of the first phrase reads:

Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον
NIV: For God so loved the world
ESV: For God so loved the world
KJV: For God so loved the world
MSG: This is how much God loved the world

Looking at the English it’s easy to see how our speaker made his blunder. We tend to use the English word “so” in exactly the manner the speaker suggested it was used in John 3.16. But the Bible wasn’t written in English. The Greek word, οὕτως doesn’t mean “to great extent,” but rather “in this manner, thusly.” On the one hand, most translators deserve some of the blame, because they retain a wording that obfuscates what the verse is actually saying. This is especially true of Eugene Peterson, who really makes matters worse here. At the same time, if the speaker had bothered to consult a commentary before giving his gospel presentation he probably wouldn’t have blundered.

Does it matter how we understand “so,” in this verse? Absolutely. The crux of the verse isn’t about how much God loves the world, but in what manner he chose to express that love: by sending his son. Among modern English translations the NET Bible does the best job.

For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. John 3.16

In addition, the οὕτως in verse sixteen pretty obviously recalls the wording of verse fourteen. The Son of Man must be lifted up in the manner that the bronze serpent was. A couple verses later God loved the world in this manner: he gave his son (who happens to be the one who will be lifted up in a manner like the bronze serpent).

I could spend more time talking about how knowing Greek or Hebrew helps one to see a variety of connections within or between texts that is impossible in English, but that’s not precisely my point at present. My point is that as youth ministers, we ought to expect better of ourselves than to commit blunders that a first year Greek student should be able to avoid.

Reason #58 for youth pastors to learn Hebrew and Greek: avoiding blunders that detract from what Scripture says.

MERGE

If you are a youth worker and you take your students on summer trips to conferences or retreats, then you need to consider MERGE. I am somewhat skeptical of many summer trips for youth ministries. I think they can be very manipulative. They also, in my experience, tend to make big promises and fail to deliver. MERGE isn’t like that.

We took a fair number of our high school students to Grand Rapids this past July to attend MERGE. The drive was long, but it was entirely worth it. I could spend hours talking to you about all the wonderful aspects of MERGE. But I’ll stop myself at outlining what a typical day looked like, and then listing a few of the reasons MERGE is, hands down, the best conference for students I have ever attended–as a leader or as a student.

Each of our days began with breakfast. Pretty standard for a conference, right? Except that at MERGE all of the leaders, from various groups, gathered for breakfast together with the event organizers. We talked about how the previous day had gone, how our students had been impacted, what seemed to connect and what didn’t and any concerns we had. Then we spent a few minutes talking about what the current day was going to look like. After breakfast we headed to our story gathering, which consisted of a retelling of a core story from the Bible (Creation, the Fall, Jesus, the Church, etc). After the story gathering we would break into smaller(ish) groups (but youth groups stayed together in the same group) and spend time discussing the stories and what God had revealed to us, about the story, ourselves, the world, etc. I heard some of my students share amazingly profound thoughts during this time. Were some of them trying to share something they thought we’d approve of? Absolutely. But on the whole I believe these times were filled with authentic sharing. As leaders, we were constantly encouraged to enter the stories ourselves and participate in these discussions as participants, not as teachers. This was one of the most refreshing aspects of MERGE because I was freed to grow with my students. The benefit to them and to me simply can’t be overstated.

After this gathering time we’d head to noon prayers, then to lunch and then to an afternoon experience that reinforced or otherwise intersected with the story. One day we walked around outside, recreating the wilderness wandering of the Israelites. Another day we walked through the “Journey to the Cross,” an experience which included various interactive aspects in the broad tradition of the stations of the cross (though reimagined). During still another experience we all participated in a Messianic Seder. This led into some free time and then dinner.

Following dinner we would gather together once again for a time where we responded to God. We (students and leaders alike) were encouraged to use art to respond to what God was doing in us, or to write a poem, journal our thoughts, spend time at a body prayer station, write a letter to God, or participate in other ways. Some of the students from our group wrote a rap, while others produced some very touching pieces of art, sculpture, poetry, or other personal pieces. After this gathering we had time to be together as church groups or relax before heading to bed.

That gives you an idea of what MERGE was like. Now let me share why MERGE is unlike any other conference I’ve ever been to or heard of for students.

1. MERGE asks leaders to participate. At too many conferences the staff essentially want me and the other adults from our group to chaperone our students and talk with them after the evening meeting, but otherwise leave them in the hands of the event staff. At MERGE we were encouraged to participate in all areas of the experience. Yes, we were there to supervise and care for our students, but in a very pastoral manner. I don’t think any of the leaders from our group, or any of the other groups, left without being changed ourselves.

2. MERGE focuses on the Story. I’ve never been to a conference that has such an intense focus on the story of God. That isn’t to say that other conferences don’t have entertaining or engaging speakers. They do. But they often focus on a theme or topic, as opposed to helping students encounter the Bible in a new and fresh way. MERGE is entirely about helping students to take a fresh look at the story of God and, whats more, MERGE encourages students to realize that the Christian faith is about how our lives merge with the story of God, today.

3. MERGE is fun without being all about entertainment. The organizers of MERGE know that students want to have a good time. But, from my observation, they also understand that the story of God is the most exciting story ever written. They aren’t there to entertain students for a week, but to help those students experience God and his story in fresh ways.

4. MERGE isn’t about the emotion. Too often I’ve seen emotion used to manipulate students into making a decision that lasts for a couple days, or a few weeks, at most. MERGE isn’t about manipulating students. It’s not about calling for a decision in an emotionally charged service. There were elements of MERGE that were very emotional. I saw my students shed tears and even shed a few of my own. But the point wasn’t the emotion, and the emotion wasn’t used to call for false decisions.

5. MERGE calls students to participate in the story. Bearing in mind #4 above, MERGE still calls students to change their lives and the world. The final experience on the final day included a time to brainstorm with your group about ways we could join in the mission of God throughout our communities and the world. This caused us to think, a lot. I know it challenged some of the students in our group to think seriously about their goals in life. The thing is, it wasn’t a one night episode. Some of my students are still, two months later, processing through those questions. They haven’t yet completely made a decision, or they have made smaller decisions that lead on a particular trajectory. This is what I want to see after a retreat.

MERGE is amazing, but it isn’t a cure all. Just like any summer trip, it is highly dependent on what you do week to week before and after. But perhaps that aspect of summer trips is best left for another day.

If you’re still interested, take a look at this highlights video from MERGE 2011. Look close and you’ll see me and several of the students from our group.