Leighton, an eager third-grader, held up his Bible for me to see. “Look what I did!” he exclaimed, pressing it into my hands.
The previous Sunday in worship, third-graders and their parents came to the altar rail to receive a Bible, a pen and yellow highlighter. “The Bible is meant to be used,” I’d told them. “So, use it. And if you wear it out, we’ll give you another one!” I suggested they make notes in their Bibles and highlight verses that were meaningful to them.
It seemed Leighton had taken my instructions to heart. He highlighted John 1:1. And John 1:2. And John 1:3. Then he kept going. His mom smiled and said, “We figured out what he was doing somewhere around the middle of Chapter 3. So we had him stop at John 3:16.”
I knelt to look him in the eyes. “Leighton, you did fantastic!” I said. “You don’t need to highlight everything, but you keep reading, OK?” I handed back his Bible. He grinned at me before heading to the fellowship hall to find a doughnut.
The Scriptures sit at the center of our faith. It is within the word of God that God’s nature is revealed to God’s people. Martin Luther said “the Bible is the cradle that holds the Christ.” We open the Scriptures for meaning and understanding.
The wisdom of Scripture inspires God’s people to take the experience of the head and the heart and move it into action.
But encouraging people of all ages to read the Bible can be a challenge. Sometime during the faith formation process, often between Sunday school and confirmation, our perspective may pivot. Reading the Scriptures becomes less an experience of excitement, mystery and faith and more of an academic pursuit. We reinforce this when we treat the Bible as a textbook for learning rather than an immersive experience of God’s great love.
There’s a difference between knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge is an exercise of the mind. It’s cognitive understanding, which is important when studying Scriptures. But knowledge can’t be our only outcome.
Beyond knowledge lies wisdom. Wisdom is an exercise of the mind and heart together. The wisdom of Scripture inspires God’s people to take the experience of the head and the heart and move it into action.
For children and youth to fall in love with reading and applying Scripture to their lives, we should shift the way we teach it. We can do several things to set the table for head- and heart-learning.
Use the Scriptures every time we meet. Reading the Bible is a faith practice that we must practice. In Sunday school, confirmation and youth groups, integrate Scripture every time so that it becomes an expectation. Have the group bring their own or provide Bibles so they get used to navigating the book and understanding its structure.
Don’t be afraid to read and ask difficult questions. Young people appreciate the authenticity of struggling with challenging passages.
Let go of the need to answer questions. We don’t need to sound like experts. Instead, ask more questions: How do you hear this story? What do you think the person who wrote this would say to us today? What word or phrase stands out to you when you read this? Create space for the wisdom of your community to work. And listen.
Do not be afraid. Some passages are challenging—even difficult. Rather than engage these sections, we tend to read past them. But within these “pinch points” we often grow the most. Don’t be afraid to read and ask difficult questions. Young people appreciate the authenticity of struggling with challenging passages rather than always landing on easy answers.
Engage parents. The Extraordinary Youth Ministry Study, published in 2003, showed that the faith of young people won’t exceed that of their parents or primary faith mentors. Any lack of biblical engagement in young people mirrors that of their parents. Sometimes the best we can do for our children and youth is to engage parents’ faith formation.
Trust the Spirit. Ultimately, we don’t form faith. That is the work of the Spirit. Our work is to create the space and culture where faith formation can happen. So before we engage this work (and before we even begin to prepare), we pray for the Spirit to intercede in the lives of the young people with whom we work.
There is a certain magic to being a third-grader with your first Bible and highlighter in hand. While we can’t return to third grade, we can renew the spirit, passion and energy with which we approach the Scriptures. We can learn to teach and to engage the Bible in new ways so that our children learn to rely on it from elementary school to high school and beyond.
In Psalm 119:105 we are told: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” God’s word illuminates our path and shows us how to lead faithful lives. Let’s create space for God’s light to do its work and then boldly follow it.