Let’s start new conversations about how we read the Bible with teenagers

Matt Laidlaw Image Matt Laidlaw | Aug 7, 2018

Just a few years after my first experience at church and my first time reading the Bible, I found myself leading a high school ministry. The story of how I accidentally became a youth pastor is one for another day, but I was excited about working with high school students, and even more excited about sharing my love for the Bible with them.

However, I hit some massive speed bumps right out of the gate.

All of my passion and excitement about the Bible was met with discomfort, nervousness, and even some embarrassment. Most of my students had grown up in church and many went to Christian school, and yet the majority of them were admittedly completely unfamiliar with the Bible. They lacked the confidence to open it or read it on their own.

Despite attempting to remedy this during my first four years serving in youth ministry, this lack of confidence came to fruition one spring at our senior retreat. In the midst of sharing hopes and fears about the coming season of life, one of our more reserved students vulnerably shared, “I’m actually just really afraid. I’m afraid that I don’t have all of the Bible verses I need to make it through this summer and into my first semester of college. I don’t know where to find them.”

There was a sense of agreement in the room from the other students and leaders. His honesty created space for everyone else to acknowledge they had the same feelings. Aside from empathy for the fear and insecurity expressed by this student, I also experienced a sense of devastation and disappointment.

Despite four years in our high school ministry, and all my best efforts, this student believed there were verses in the Bible about how to survive the first year out of high school and he was scared he didn’t know where to find them. He didn’t really know what the Bible was about or what kind of content it actually contained. As a mature and intelligent eighteen-year-old who would be moving out of state to attend an academically rigorous university, he was essentially confessing he still needed a pastor to spoon-feed him the Bible.

This student loved Jesus and loved the church and was the sort of kid every youth pastor wishes to have, yet he didn’t have any idea how to read the Bible on his own.

Why we need a new conversation about the Bible in youth ministry

But this isn’t just the story of my students and my youth group.

According to the Sticky Faith research conducted by the Fuller Youth Institute, at the end of high school, only 42 percent of students in youth groups said they read the Bible weekly, and only 12 percent read their Bibles daily.[1] In other words, significantly less than half of our youth group graduates are reading the Bible more than once each week.

But before we all start lamenting the apparent biblical illiteracy of today’s young people, it’s worth saying that what also surprised me during my first season as a high school pastor was this: Despite the declared love for the Bible among most of our adult volunteers, many of them were also uncomfortable with Scripture, and felt inadequate opening and reading a Bible with students. In fact, many of our volunteers actively resisted attempts to set them up to do this well.

They wanted our teaching to be “Bible-based,” they wanted the curriculum to teach “biblical values,” but when I wanted them to actually read the Bible with students, I often received blank stares. When I asked students after their small group meeting each week if they opened their Bibles together as a group, they usually replied, “No.”

I don’t believe that young people are uninterested in reading the Bible—they just don’t know how. My experience tells me that most adults are not equipped to cultivate this interest among students. Most of the adult volunteers and students I know who aren’t comfortable with opening and reading the Bible have never had someone model it, do it with them, and let them try it in the context of a relationship.

They’ve never been mentored or apprenticed in this area of their faith.

And they’re also likely feeling somewhere between insecure and embarrassed about it. Maybe you can relate.

While every church and youth group is different, I don’t think this reality was unique to the youth ministry I was leading. Despite youth ministry’s propensity to tape Bible verses on every wall, website, brochure, and T-shirt, many of us haven’t created cultures in our youth ministries where Bible reading is as familiar as dodgeball and pizza.

And when opening the Bible actually seems too scary, the temptation is just to play more games and eat more snacks.

I’m not advocating that we change all of our youth gatherings into two-hour Bible studies, and I don’t think that normalizing Bible reading in our youth group has to come at the expense of fun.

Nor do I think studying the Bible with young people has to mean more proof-texting


more forced Scripture memorization


more “making the Bible relevant” (as if we’re the ones “making” the Bible into something)


more “read the Bible and it will fix all of your problems”


more “here are the ten verses on why you shouldn’t do drugs”


more “if you’re not reading the Bible you’re not a real Christian” sort of shaming


more “let me tell you what the Bible means.”

Seeing the Bible as a book worth reading

Instead, I’m talking about normalizing reading the Bible in your life and in your ministry.

I’m not talking about anything other than considering that the Bible is a book worth reading, and inviting your students to immerse themselves in this book and its stories. As a seventeen-year-old senior in high school, simply being invited into a relationship with the Bible saved my life by introducing me to the God whose story it tells, and I believe this simple invitation could save the lives of others as well.

In ministry, I came to realize that one of the most important tasks I’d have as a high school pastor would be to continue to normalize Bible reading as part of my own life, as a part of our ministry culture, and hopefully as a part of the lives of our volunteers and students.

And if I had to guess, I bet you have some work to do on this, too.

Every time you’re with your students and other leaders, you have the opportunity to model the practice of reading the Bible. Every time you’re giving a talk, leading a small group, or hosting a training, you have the opportunity to apprentice individuals and your entire community toward growing their own relationship with the Bible.

Even if you’re not in charge of your youth ministry, your personal practice of reading the Bible and your willingness to apprentice others can influence a ministry culture of Bible reading. My spiritual journey began with reading this book we call the Bible, and this is likely the most helpful starting point, or restarting point, for you and the young people with whom you’ve been entrusted.

Are you ready to get started—or restarted—on the journey of reading the Bible in your own life and in your ministry?

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Adapted from chapter 2 of How We Read the Bible: 8 Ways to Engage the Bible with our Students

[1] Kara Powell, Brad M. Griffin, and Cheryl Crawford, Sticky Faith Youth Worker Edition: Practical Ideas to Nurture Long-Term Faith in Teenagers, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 143. See fulleryouthinstitute.org/stickyfaith.

Matt Laidlaw Image
Matt Laidlaw

Matthew J. Laidlaw is a co-founder of Open Circle, an "inclusively-Christian" spiritual community in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is an ordained minister and has been serving in executive and administrative leadership while working in both school and church-based pastoral ministry for the past 15 years. Matthew is a graduate of Kuyper College, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and the Living School for Action and Contemplation, and has lived and studied in the Middle East. Matthew and his wife Stephanie live in West Michigan with their two young children.

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