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.

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