The Bible is Useful

Recently we took a survey of Youth Specialties customers. The results of one particular question completely shocked me. Here it is:

When I was looking through the initial survey results I turned around to Tic, and said… “Wanna know why so many youth groups are struggling to keep students for the long haul? There’s the problem, right there.

Of our sample of 600 youth leaders 76.8% of them teach mostly topically?

The words of Paul echoed in my head:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17

But apparently many youth workers don’t believe this is true. They believe that topics are more important than Scripture!

Let’s review:

  • All topics are not God-breathed.
  • All topics aren’t useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.
  • All topics are not equipping the man of God for every good work.

But God’s word is!

Look at it another way– Most youth workers are getting in the way of this.

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 2 Timothy 3:14-15

Don’t even give me the parent comeback. “It’s a parents role to teach their kid the Scriptures.” That’s a joke. Youth workers aren’t paid to babysit, are they? Certainly, parents have a role in teaching their children. But, as a person called and equipped to teach and reach middle and high schoolers doesn’t teach the Bible– what kind of example is  that?

Don’t give me the “all the kids in my youth group know the Bible” comeback either. If all you are reaching are kids who were born and raised in the church than you’ve lost sight of what youth ministry is all about in the first place! I would argue that if you aren’t reaching teenagers for Christ than you aren’t likely doing discipleship while going anyway.

Here’s what I am saying.

  • Get back to your first love.
  • Teaching the Bible is more useful than teaching purely topically.
  • Teaching the Bible is taking students to the primary source.
  • Teaching the Bible is equipping your students for every good work.
  • Teaching the Bible is long-sighted and strategic.
  • Teaching the Bible is teaching a man to fish instead of giving a man a fish.
  • Get back to your first love.
  • If you want to change a persons’ life, you need to get them in God’s word.

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in Ahwahnee, California.

20 comments

  1. Here’s just a thought…When we teach topically correctly aren’t we teaching systematic theology? I want my students to be able to process their world in view of scripture. That said we split half systematic and half expository teaching.

  2. Wow–that graphic surprised me, too! I love the Bible and I want my students to love it, too. The only way this will happen is if I put it in their hands and teach from it and share my love for it.

    I use an inductive method for teaching–study the scripture, examine what happened and then apply it. Topical discussion can flow from that. It is important to put Bibles in their hands first and teach from there.

  3. Hey Dave,

    I like the idea of teaching half and half, but no, just because your teaching topically doesn’t mean your teaching systematic theology. My guess would be most topics are like, “love sex and dating” or something like that, not Theology Proper.

    Adam, I would think it’s a stretch to say “topics are more important than scripture” to youth leaders. There are ways to take topics and apply scripture to the topic in an expository fashion. Isn’t important that students see the relevance of scripture outside the safe compartment of the church?

    That being said this post is motivating me to simply teach Bible and the let the text bring out the topics.

    Thanks for the encouragement.

  4. Adam, I think you’re response to the survey is a double standard when you consider that YS publishes more “topical” books then Bible curriculum books. I also agree with the previous post that teaching topically typically includes systematic theology (creation, Christology, eschatology, heaven, etc) and Christian Living. It’s not all “love, sex, and dating” topics.

    Finding decent student curriculum is always a challenge, which is why most youth directors I know write their own. Perhaps YS needs to move away from “Hot Topics” and expand their core Bible curriculum.

  5. @rob- well… a couple thoughts on that. I run the website, not publish the resources. And I’m of the opinion that our resources are only a part of a balanced diet for a youth group. I’ve used tons of YS resources… but rarely as my “main teaching.” My philosophy was always that I taught topics in Sunday School and through books of the Bible in youth group.

    That said, from a publishing it’s a chicken and the egg thing. We have to invest in stuff people will buy or being a publisher would only last so long. So, if the market demanded more bible curriculum we would definitely produce more.

    Also, we have few pretty popular Bible curriculums. The Creative Bible stuff sells pretty well. (As an example)

  6. I’m not sure I’d go as far to say that that topical studies are unbiblical, but i will push back a bit and ask how much of the curriculum that’s being published is topical, YS’ included?

    I think church leaders, sr pastors too, feel a need to make scripture relevant so we approach it backwards. Rather than putting scripture first in our approach to teaching, we put our lives first and say, “What does this say that could pertain to my life?” Hense all the curriculum on sex and abstinence, for example.

    That graph doesn’t surprise me, nor would I say it’s the only cuprit of the teen drop-out rate. As you know, there are a lot of other factors to consider beside biblical literacy, although it’s definitely a big one to address.

  7. @Adam – I’m not knocking YS materials. I’ve used them extensively. I feel like the comments in your original post were too conclusive based on assumptions and overly judgemental. It would be interesting to break down what’s behind the results and ascertain what topics are being taught, what fundamentlals of hermeneutics and pedagogy are being employed, and whether their approach is part of a comprehensive curriculum plan (say 3-5 years), soup du jour, or something in between. Lastly, I’m guilty of making the assumption that your blog is an extension of your employer. Stepping back I realize that it isn’t and therefore my “double standard” comment was inappropriate – and I humbly apologize for that.

  8. Hmmm…would you like some feedback from someone totally off the grid? To understand where I am coming from—I was born, bred and raised in youth groups (even taught a bit) and eventually deconverted from Christianity to atheism.

    The problem I found is in churches (including youth groups) that do bible study; they don’t study the Bible. Whether topical or by book, students are taught within the doctrinal paradigm, without adequate consideration or charity given to alternative positions. Then they go to college, take a bible literature class from a professor outside their church’s belief, and learn about the Synoptic Problem, textual criticism, higher criticism, lack of archeological support for the Tanakh prior to the divided kingdom, Judaic history, apocalyptic literature, chiasms, historical context, etc. Not surprisingly, many dramatically diverge from their previous beliefs.

    Its too bad–the Bible could be such a rich topic for study, looking at how it was written within its time, context and society. How certain books came to be more highly regarded and others disfavored. How textual criticism attempts to peel away introduced errors. So much more interesting than “[monotone voice] How does the Bible apply for my problem today…?” Plus they could be better prepared when those questions do come.

    Admittedly, this may cause one to re-evaluate things such as inerrancy, eschatology and even canonicity, not to mention recognizing mythological development within the stories. And perhaps the fear of touching such sacred cows causes the study to be either ignored or treated superficially.

    Ah…who am I kidding? Parents in such churches would never let their children be taught such things, and a youth group worker who dared raise such serious questions would soon find themselves without a job. And then the parents wonder what happened to their kids in college…

  9. okay, so your email was intriguing and the post+comments even more so. so i’m replying publicly. no, i’m not surprised that 3/4 of youth workers answered that way–it’s what we’ve been trained to do. it’s how most of our churches approach teaching (from the pulpit and otherwise), how we learned ymin, and what the resources point us to–as several comments have alluded to already.

    but what does it mean? i think the question begs some clarification. “do you teach…” where? when? to whom? in small groups, in sunday school, in large group, through worship, through sermons/messages, through retreats?…so it really depends on how folks interpret the answer to that. i’d bet many do what you have done, adam–use one venue to primarily teach scripture and another to primarily go at topics (hopefully through the lens of scripture). but it’s also probably true that many go off the cuff without assessing the balance either way.

    no, our research does not ask this question, so i can’t answer from that perspective (or to what extent it impacts the long-term faith of kids, though we’re exploring that in a number of other ways–shameless plug: http://fulleryouthinstitute.org/college-transition/). interestingly enough, i’m about to shut down my browser and go mostly offline for a writing day…yes, for one of those topical curriculum products! it’s from a totally different approach: research tells us there are areas we’re lacking in preparing kids for post-high-school faith, so we’re writing based on that research a curriculum for seniors. does it include the study of scripture? yes. is it topical? yes. and for a small group of seniors with big questions about life after high school…it’s what i’d want to use (at least at some point).

    but for the core of my overall teaching? i’d chuck all this stuff in favor of scripture if i thought the balance was too far the other direction. thanks for asking, and for ranting.

  10. @Adam. Great post. Not so much because it’s something we didn’t know already, but more so as an encouragement to youth pastors and the like out there, to teach through scripture, not teach through life- to be who we are saying we are are: called to teach and equip a younger generation to ________________________ (fill in the catchy phrase here).

    I think I get where you are angling from- while teaching topically, it’s a cinch to pull out a theme and find scripture to support it. While that’s not necessarily all bad, it’s not all good either. As Tim S. would say- let’s push back a little: one of the main reasons we see topical stuff so prevalent is a lack of creativity and direction of ministries and their leaders. Yeah, I said it. Not bashing any particular ministry or person here- just a rather astute observation through almost 12 years of student ministry trench work.

    50/50 curriculum split? There’s no magic formula here folks. You need to have a hand on what is working, what needs to be said, how things relate, etc… I have almost never seen a topical study that actually teaches systematic theology in its entirety. I’m not saying let’s all move to exegetical teaching, but there is some foundation truth there- no need to make systematic theology “fit” when preaching through scripture.

    Baseline- There should be a common denominator in this conversation: the youth directors themselves: that as they share the Word/message God has given them, the lives of students are changed. Whether it’s one on one, small groups, teaching format; whatever- – Exegetical or topical. If it’s God ordained, then it will work. But I guess that’s another post, eh Adam?

  11. Totally humbled by this discussion. Yep, I’m opinionated and a little judgmental. I guess my question to myself when I look at it is, “I’m not comfortable enough with this that I want to create some discussion.”

    @brad- super thankful for your input.

    I guess, for me, I’ve learned (by doing) that there is a certain richness when you teach through a book of the Bible as opposed to skipping around to topics within a book. (Hope that makes sense) Is it challenging to keep it fresh and relevant? Yup… and I love that challenge!

  12. Hey Adam,

    Thanks again for a great reminder. With a generation that speaks of the Bible being boring, old, irrelevant and so forth it’s a great encouragement to get back to simple teaching of the Bible.

    I was with my network friends the other day and we were talking about how each of us have a passion for our students to hunger for God’s Word, not because it’s a text book and teaches us things but because it’s sweeter than honey, more valuable than gold.

    Woops, I’m starting to preach.

    If they would just tasted it and were given a few tools to understand it they would desire it.

  13. This is a great discussion. Toga, I am most intrigued by your comments. I think you’re right. I think that when we talk about “studying the Bible” most youth pastors have a picture in their mind about felt boards and “bible stories.” I think that’s why most determine to go the topical route and shove jello in each other’s faces.

    However, there are places out there that are pushing kids to actually study the Bible. To ask the hard questions and to teach them about the realities from which the Bible comes. And, you’re right, they are few and far between and often the questions raise deeper more meaningful questions. I think it’s here that we do begin to find some of the reasons for the drop out rate.

    We as pastors to this generation need to engage them with the Scriptures. We need to embrace the reality of social identity theory and talk with them about boundary markers, in groups and out groups. We need them to understand the role of empire in contrast to the kingdom of God. We need to bring these things front and center with the result that they will indeed find that their stories intersect with God’s in a real way.

    Toga, I am sorry that you didn’t have a chance to ask the questions and dive deep. I am sorry that you didn’t have a pastor who was willing to engage in truly diving into the biblical narrative with you. I am hopeful for a generation of pastors to this generation who will call them into a full engagement of the Scriptures.

  14. Creative Bible Lessons in 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus is my favorite YS curriculum, but I am rather biased. 🙂 Good thoughts bro and David, I was ready for you to get your preach on.

  15. This kinda surprises me and kinda doesn’t.. I’m not a youth min person, nor do I desire to be. But growing up in the church, going to a Christian college, interacting with all different denoms and religions, and trying out all kinds of churches this seems almost…. scarily… widely accepted. “This is the only way they’ll understand” as if so say that teenagers are stupid or slow. Which, by the way, they are a lot smarter and perceptive than we give them credit for.

    All this to say, it’s sad and it’s the truth. And, in my own opinion, not just in youth groups. I feel like all kinds of church leaders teach topically. Which in agreement with many of these other comments, can be good or bad. I’ve heard both. Although I was taught to teach scripturally in all of my Bible classes in college.

    Those are just my thoughts. Take them or leave them.
    (NOTE: I feel like, for those of you who don’t know me, I should tell more about who I am: I’m 21 yo and a counseling/criminal justice major at a small private christian college in northern indiana. don’t take my words personally or to heart.)

  16. I’m with TimS, who mentioned that most of the resources out there are topical. This has always irritated me because even if the lesson provides scriptural background, it’s almost always presented with bias to the topic at hand. It seems to me that even a lesson which starts out topical should become textual. That is, the scripture should be allowed to speak for itself instead of just being used to defend whatever position has already been given.

    I also agree w/ Adam that teaching through a book of the Bible is very rich.

    Also, am I the only one who was more shocked by the ~10% of yp’s who said the question didn’t apply to them?

  17. We do both. Sunday nights are teach through a book and break into small groups while Wednesday nights are I guess what you could call topical lessons. However, the lessons always focus on Scripture, we just might skip around from passage to passage from week to week. I agree with Tim S. that we sometimes get it backwards. But I also see that as a biblical author was writing, many times they address a number of issues in just one or two verses. Rom. 12:9-16 addresses love, hating evil, clinging to good, putting others above yourself, being joyful, being patient, share with the needy, rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn, don’t be proud, and associate with people of low position. So when we study or teach these passages, the potential applications are a lot. Therefore, I don’t necessarily think to narrow those down into a topical lesson is necessarily a bad thing.

  18. Drive by Toga and Lisa Bee comments reminded of something David Wells said on Walt Mueller’s blog in response to a question:

    “CPYU: If you were to address a room full of youth workers and you had the opportunity to communicate one message to them, what one message would you communicate?

    DW: It is time to get brave. Let’s stop the pandering. Kids see right through it. Let’s give them the real thing. They are looking for it. No one has demanded anything of them; let us tell them that if they come to Christ, he bids them die. No one has told them that they can know truth as something other than their own private perspectives; let us tell them there is Truth and those who know it, lose their lives. No one has told them that there is a different way of life. What many churches have done has been to run after the kids fearing that they will be lost irretrievably to MTV, rock, sex, and drugs. So, better to give them small, undemanding doses of Christianity that won’t interfere too much with their lives and which they will be willing to accept, than none at all, we think to ourselves. Wrong! If we tell them that they can have Christ on their own terms, we are selling them down the river. They instinctively know that. So, let us not make fools of ourselves anymore.”

    Whether you’re teaching topically or by book, it’s important to teach the truth with passion and integrity, otherwise, kids will see right through it. I think we all strive to teach correct doctrine and theology, but we can’t avoid the hard stuff questions either, even if we don’t know the answers. Allowing the freedom to discuss them goes a long way. As Kara Powell says, no more Red Bull gospel.

  19. And wasn’t “biblical literacy” one of the characteristics that set most young adults who remain in the faith apart from the large percentage that drop the faith during college….

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