Anyone involved in ‘next generation’ ministry understands the complexity of discipleship. It involves many nuanced levels of engagement, from the simple conversations around the snack table at a church’s youth group event to the heartfelt prayer times during worship. Ultimately, the hope is to mentor each student into a relationship with Jesus.
Martin Sanders in The Power of Mentoring writes that, “Mentoring is viewed as the facilitation of the lifelong developmental process whereby individuals move through various stages of human, emotional, spiritual, educational, intellectual and other aspects of development.”
Mentoring is a slow process that changes over the course of a person’s life. Mentoring should look different in every stage of life, but have the same principals no matter what. However, it’s important to emphasize that sometimes the mentorship process is broken, and our hearts are broken with it. We can have childish reactions as adults simply because our inner child has pain that has not been regulated under the power of the cross and His church. Mentoring is essential to the Christian walk. Christ displayed it with a rag-tag group of likely teenage boys (or at least in their early 20’s) that we call “the disciples”. It takes relationship, time, effort, and the presence of God’s Spirit.
In the Christian worldview, we all understand this mentoring process to maintain its basis in the centrality of the cross and resurrection as described in the New and Old Testaments. Next Gen workers move through these various topics in order to help encourage faith in the next generation effectively. One of these facets being a general understanding of the biblical narrative, otherwise referred to as “biblical literacy.” However, Christian mentoring becomes harder when the literacy level is unpredictably low. It becomes difficult to see Christ in the entirety of the scriptures if one hasn’t read the story of Christ in the scriptures for themselves yet. Hearing the Gospel is one essential part of mentorship, but reading it on your own is another.
It’s fortunate that in my story I had the privilege to start reading the Bible from a place of curiosity with patient parents. They both did an excellent job at being available while I processed the hard things of the Bible and were honest when they didn’t have the answer. But my Dad was also a pastor, so thinking and relating to God was central in my life. So I had space to grow in my love for Jesus through my personal studies of scripture. But I would be remiss to not acknowledge that this space is rarely available to every family.
Christianity Today reports that, across America, ”only 39 percent say they read the Bible multiple times per year or more” and even more so, “Currently, only 10 percent of Americans report daily Bible reading.” all of which was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. If you’re a Christian this does look problematic. If the Bible is the source of God’s truth, then collectively we are pursuing his truth less and less. This becomes even more problematic if you’re a Bible teacher or professor in a higher education Christian institution. It is easy to jump into the historical context and literary themes if the classroom has an assumed understanding of the basics. However, the biblical literacy rate is falling and falling quickly across all generations. Is there a way to stop it?
It should be mentioned that “biblical literacy” is different from “biblical study.” Karen Engle writes that Biblical study refers to “a person’s ability to read the Bible with enough understanding to explain its basic meaning.” Students need biblical literacy first in order to do biblical study. Biblical literacy is being able to be competent in the structure and events of the Bible. This is usually what we aim for in our Sunday school classes. “Basic meaning” typically comes later in discipleship development after the stories have been established in the Bible. So it should draw some concern in us when we see that biblical literacy is decreasing.
But let’s be clear why we want biblical literacy to increase. It’s because we want it so that way we can see the next generation live Spirit empowered lives. We believe the Bible leads to transformation because the Bible points to Jesus who is the source of transformation. We desire transformation, not only for our sins to be absolved, but so that we can represent the love of Jesus to the people in our world today.
Typically this is the space in the article where I should comment on the failures of the next generation for not reading the Bible the way we do or at all. That is not my goal. Biblical literacy is a discipler issue and the onus is on us, the adults. There’s not one person to blame other than the many things that have changed in the 21st century. There are practical issues such as the various budget cuts churches had to make in 2008 after the Recession, which led to the dismissal of Youth ministry programs. There’s also well known pastoral culture issues, many people view Next Gen. ministry as a stepping stone to your “adult job” as an adult pastor. There’s also the problems we can’t control, such as how the internet has boomed and more importantly, been used. Or the discouraging fact that many trusted teachers of God’s word have failed to live up to the message they proclaim of a transformed life through the Bible (Jerry Falwell Jr. and Ravi Zacharias are only the most notable examples). Yet at the end of the day, there’s only one finger to point to when we see a biblically illiterate generation and that is the people who should have taught them how to read the Bible: us, the adults in their lives.
It’s helpful to point out that this fall in biblical literacy is part of a larger problem in America in which the literacy rate is falling as a whole. It’s so bad that Forbes magazine reports that 160 million Americans have the reading level of a sixth grader and it could inadvertently cost us 2.2 trillion dollars a year. So it’s healthy to acknowledge that when we talk about lower biblical literacy levels we actually just mean “lower literacy rates” as a whole. Regardless, this is a discipler issue. We need a form of biblical literacy to lead the next generation to biblical truth. So how do we do this?
It is not as simple as going back to the “good ole’ days” where kids went to youth group on Wednesdays, church on Sundays, camp in the summer, memorized verses and doctrines, etc. We have to shift our mindset to think of the Next Generation as a culture that needs Jesus and we need to be missional in our approach with them. All of these programs are what we would hope our students would do naturally from their own volition. And if they are doing it, that’s amazing! However, for every other student, it’s important to encourage their growth in the Spirit of Christ first as young believers and as you do that, build their biblical literacy. If you encourage their investigation for Christ healthily, with integrity, in the word you will see more than morals, or cultural impact, you will see them have bigger faith in God.
Biblical literacy can only grow in the next generation if the previous generation disciples from the Spirit first and only. The Holy Spirit wants the next generation to know they are not just servants of God, but primarily beloved of God.
Our desire must be that we hope our students encounter the love of Jesus through the text and allow it to change their lives day by day. Slowly and gently. We all know that it’s only nearness to the cross that we live out the fruits of the Spirit. Behavior and thought management often suffocates a person’s faith journey with Christ.
If we do not communicate the heart of the Holy Spirit to the next generation how can we expect them to desire to read the text that relays the heart of the Spirit? Even more so, if we do not live with integrity and healthily from God’s word, how can we expect to represent Christ to anyone?
If you want Biblical literacy in the next generation, we have to collectively make heart changes. We need a way forward that will inspire the next generation to desire God more. Here are some suggested values and tools to use to assist with that journey.
1. Bounded Set vs. Centered Set
As the discipler of your children or students in your ministry/classroom, you first have to address your heart. Do you view your faith as a set of rules for people to enter and maintain? Do you view the love of Jesus as something that can be lost? Do you feel enslaved by God rather than loved by Him? Then you have a bounded set view of our relationship with Jesus. When we view our relationship with Christ like this, we believe that God only lets some people into his family or that if rules are broken, that person is no longer loved by Christ or at worse is evil. This is legalism. If you’re against legalism, you should abandon this way of seeing your faith. How you believe in Christ’s love will affect how you treat your students and their relationship with God or lack thereof.
A Centered Set perspective views each person as a prodigal son. Whether they’re sinning or returning to the Father, they can be rest assured that the Father is looking out over the horizon and running after them when he sees them come home. Knowing the punishment they deserve, they are not given it because the Father has pardoned them and is celebrating their arrival home.
When you teach the Bible, you must have the perspective of the Father. Otherwise the Bible becomes a code book and not a text of perfect love. Remember the goal of biblical literacy is to follow Jesus who shows us the way to live as Kingdom people.
Let them explore the texts and be available to answer questions they may have. If all they read is one verse let that be enough. Don’t let fear rush a holy process. In sanctification, the process is slow. If they’re behaviors are not inline with a Christian worldview, be patient rather than unfairly firm with them. It takes a while to have behaviors change for the better. If your desire is Christlikeness for your child, understand that the journey will take them their entire life to complete and you cannot force it. You can only create a patient and gentle environment to watch it bloom.
3. Loving the Next Generation, not condescending them
Powell and Griffin write in 3 Big Questions that Change Every Teenager, “One of the reasons young people are drifting from faith is that churches aren’t focused on the questions they care about the most. Instead we’re pitching answers to questions that aren’t anywhere near their strike zone.” Different generations have different questions about God in the Bible. It’s been that way before the medieval church cared about how many angels could stand on a thimble. Help them belong to the conversation of faith by directing them to passages that might help them find answers. Encourage them to investigate Christ centered answers to their questions and partner with them as they do it. If we are condescending to their concerns, we shut off the faith conversation.
4. Electronic devices vs paper Bibles
I hope this is understood with utter politeness. Paper Bibles do not make a holier person. While they are tangible and fun and some students choose them, they are not better. Different people use tools differently. I have used both and know the positives and negatives of using a paper Bible and an electronic Bible. I favor my electronic Bible because of my software’s study tools and I like that it can fit in my pocket.
In fact the Bible Apps that are out there now make it so intuitive to find Hebrew and Greek words in the text. BibleGateway.com is a great example of this. There are also so many free commentaries (albeit outdated) that can itch any curiosities they have. The Bible Project has an app that teaches us how to read the Bible easily at a seminary level. Use it!
5. Exploration over memorization
A memorized verse is helpful for a personal prayer life. If you value this, that is amazing. However, let your students just explore a story in the Bible. Let that count for something. It doesn’t need to be formal devotional time. Encourage your students to explore the story of Christ first and then look for Christophanies (Christ appearances) in the Old Testament afterwards.
There is no way this article can solve all of the problems surrounding biblical illiteracy. But my hope is that by reading this you can sense the urgency we have as disciple-makers to make sure our character is pure and that we are pointing to Christ in everything. We have to walk with them in their understanding of God and point them to the story of Jesus in their lives. Biblical literacy starts with a desire to know God and be known by God in prayer.
Jesus says in John, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” And no, not “good old hard love” which is often used as an excuse to control, but true love that gives freedom to an individual to say yes or no. Tips and Tricks can only get us so far. You can’t make them read the Bible, but you can set up an environment where they know they are free to talk with you about the hard questions they have of their faith in God. From there, you can encourage them to not just read God’s word, but explore it and be part of the greater conversation to know the heart of Christ more.
“3 Big Questions that Change Every Teenager” – Brad Griffin and Kara Powell
Sanders, Martin. The Power of Mentoring (p. 3). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.