By Richard Ross
Youth ministry researcher Chap Clark says, “I’m convinced that the single most important area where we’ve lost ground with kids is in our commitment and ability to ground them in God’s Word.”
As a result, Barry Shafer says, “The church today, including both the adult and teenage generations, is in an era of rampant biblical illiteracy.” Duffy Robbins takes this one step further when he says: “Our young people have become incapable of theological thinking because they don’t have any theology to think about. … And, as Paul warns us, this … leaves us as ‘infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching’ (Ephesians 4:14).”
At the conclusion of the National Study of Youth and Religion, lead researcher Christian Smith reported: “Even though most teens are very positive about religion and say it’s a good thing, the vast majority are incredibly inarticulate about religion. … It doesn’t seem to us that many teens are being very well-educated in their faith traditions.”
To illustrate his point, Smith refers to teenagers in the study from conservative Protestant churches. “About half of their teens say that many religions may be true; more than one-third say it is okay to practice multiple religions; more than one-third believe people should not try to evangelize others; more than one-third say it is okay to pick and choose one’s religious beliefs and not accept the teachings of one’s faith as a whole, and nearly two-thirds say a person can be truly religious and spiritual without being involved in a church.”
Summarizing the entire study, Smith reports, “The net result … is that most religious teenagers’ opinions and views—one can hardly call them worldviews—are vague, limited, and often quite at variance with the actual teachings of their own religion.”
Duffy Robbins considers possible causes when he says: “The church in general, and youth ministry in particular, has demonstrated more of an appetite for goose bumps than for God’s truth, more interest in how our young people feel than how they think. … But where are Christian teenagers learning basic tenets of the Christian faith? And if they don’t understand those basic truths or doctrines … then how does that impact their long-term faith? I’m concerned that too much of our teaching is reduced to what can … be communicated by a worship band illuminated by stage lighting and well-placed candles.”
If church teenagers do not know what they believe, the implications are ominous. According to Glen Schultz: “A person’s concept of reality and truth determines his beliefs. A person’s beliefs shape his values. A person’s values drive his actions. … Beliefs will eventually determine our actions.”
Actions are important, but beliefs shape something far more important that behavior. Josh and Sean McDowell point out that “the Holy Spirit administers Scripture to us like a loving parent in order to provide us with wisdom through its lessons (Prov. 3:5), security through its boundaries (Ex. 20), caution through its warnings (Eph. 4:17–22), and reproof through its discipline (Phil. 2:3–4). We may study God’s Word for correct beliefs. We may even obey God’s Word for right behavior. But we must not forget why. … God gave us the Bible because he wants an intimate loving relationship with us, wants us to enjoy intimate loving relationships with one another, and wants our relationships together to extend us and his kingdom into eternity.”
Here is some good news. Churches that tend to produce teenagers who can articulate their faith do exist. The Study of Exemplary Congregations in Youth Ministry identified characteristics shared by 21 churches that perennially are effective in youth ministry. Even across seven denominations, one shared characteristic that rose to the top was: “Bible study and biblical literacy are extensive and substantive.”
Many more churches could become exemplary on this issue by giving it intentional focus. First, they should ensure that those who teach, disciple, and mentor teenagers grasp the basics of Scripture.
Kenda Dean says, “Teenagers learn to articulate faith by hearing adults articulate theirs. This brings us back to our familiar problem: American adults may be no more religiously articulate than their children. Even if teenagers respond positively to adults who take an interest in them, even if youth engage in meaningful discipleship practices with adults, if adults cannot speak Christian any better than young people can, spiritual apprenticeship fails.”
Kara Powell leads training for youth ministry Bible teachers and volunteers around the country. She reports that “whenever I ask youth leaders to describe the Gospel … heads bow and eyes look down to the carpet. … Our lack of clarity about the ‘good news’ is mirrored—and magnified—in our students.”
Equipping the saints for the work of the ministry may well mean assembling Bible teachers/disciplers weekly or at least monthly. These gatherings can include joyful experiences of community, sharing the spiritual disciplines, and clarifying basic beliefs. The teenagers will be the beneficiaries of adults who are more spiritually alive and who comfortably articulate the truth of Scripture.
Churches wanting to make observable progress on this issue also can press toward reducing teacher-pupil ratios. When high school graduating seniors were asked what they wished they’d had more of in youth group, their number one answer was “time for deep conversation.”
We have had a hunch that learning is more permanent when sessions are more of a dialogue than a monologue. But now we have brain scans that show brains literally lighting up when a teenager moves from passive listening to active responding.
Unfortunately, when one leader has a roomful of students, he or she has little time for individual interaction. The team that interviewed thousands of teenagers for the National Study of Youth and Religion reported, “Indeed, it was our distinct sense that for many of the teens we interviewed, our interview was the first time that any adult had ever asked them what they believed and how it mattered in their life.”
But even if we reduce teacher-pupil ratios, we also must ensure that sessions will cover all the basics of the faith. Every church needs a six- or seven-year plan that does just that. Then that plan shapes choices related to curriculum and resources.
I join you in looking forward to a new generation of young adults who know exactly what they believe.