How to plan a youth Bible study so your teenagers will listen

Giovanny Panginda Image Giovanny Panginda Brad M. Griffin Image Brad M. Griffin | Jul 19, 2023

Like any youth pastor with the ambitious task of making a Bible study relatable to my students, I (Gio) tried my best to be creative and think outside the box.

A pizza box, that is.

Unfortunately, my attempt only led this Bible study into chaos.

Picture this: a room filled with hungry young souls, ready to partake in the feast of God’s Word, but even hungrier for the 10 large pizzas on the dining tables. Inspired, I thought, What better way to illustrate Colossians 3:15, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts …” than pointing at something they all could see, smell, and taste?

With unwavering confidence, I embarked on a journey that would forever change the way I approach object lessons in Bible studies. I began, “Let the pizza Christ rule in your hearts.” As I passionately unfolded my pizza-themed message, complete with awkward puns and ingredient metaphors, I could see the confusion clouding their faces. It was as if they were all wanting to ask, What does pepperoni have to do with peace?

I then realized that the humor in my well-intentioned attempt of a sermon just wasn’t going to cut it. I needed to find the right balance between relatability and logic if my teens were going to walk away understanding our Bible study. I thought I was being fun and relatable with pizza; but instead, I was just being cheesy.

You might be groaning along here, but you can relate—right?

Teaching the Bible to teens is challenging sometimes

When it comes to planning and leading a youth Bible study, youth ministry leaders face a host of challenges:

  • We believe the Bible is important but don’t always know how to relate this ancient text to our teenagers’ lives today.
  • We think the Bible is fascinating but sometimes struggle to make it sound interesting to teenagers.
  • We’re pretty good at giving students information but not always as good at keeping their attention.
  • We worry that what we do in youth group doesn’t seem to make much difference outside of youth group. We aren’t so sure our Bible studies lead to transformation.

Gio and I (Brad) are writing this together because we sit in these tensions with you. We’re often feeling them from week to week as we work hands-on with teenagers in our own youth ministries.

We also get a front-row seat to research as it unfolds here at FYI, and we’re excited to share some insights with you so you can strengthen your own Bible study planning muscles and deepen your impact on your students’ lives.

As we plan and lead Bible studies with our teens, here are 3 questions we’re always asking—and you might be asking too.

How do I choose what to study?

Figuring out what to teach from the Bible can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. If you find yourself stuck in the same pattern, wandering aimlessly through passages, or worried your pastor is going to ask you about your plan, here are a few ideas to get you going (ideally together with a ministry team).

  • Ask: What do we want our teens to know after one year with us? Three years? Seven? This answer might change depending on the grade range of your ministry, but it’s worth looking down the road and imagining your students’ knowledge and understanding of Scripture as a result of your ministry. Map it out and then plan a scope and sequence of content across the Old and New Testaments to help you get there.
  • Plan alongside the rest of the church. Whether your church follows a common lectionary, teaches through books of the Bible, or designs topical series (or alternates between approaches), you could consider planning your youth Bible studies in alignment with that content. When approached with intentionality, this alignment can lead to fruitful conversations across generations after church!
  • Point young people to Jesus. As we learned in our Growing Young research, young people are often compelled by Jesus, even when they aren’t so sure about religion. Scripture reveals who Jesus is and how he loved others, showing us what God’s character looks like in real human life.
  • Understand the pulse of your listeners and the forces that shape their lives. Your teens are immersed in the worlds of sports, science, comic books, movies, music, food, and more. How can you harness the power of their passions and intertwine their lived experiences with the incredible story of Jesus?
  • Teach in a way that taps into students’ biggest questions of identity, belonging, and purpose. Using this lens can help us plan teaching that makes connections with questions they’re asking about their own lives—which can help young people take what they’ve learned into the rest of their week.

How do I teach the Bible with my actual students in mind?

I (Brad) have a confession. Sometimes I plan Bible teaching for middle school students as if the room was going to be filled with eager, attentive adults.

With decent attention spans and fully-formed prefrontal lobes.

Every time I prepare for our group, I have to consciously remind myself about who is actually going to be in the room. They’re middle schoolers: sometimes wonderfully curious and energetic, other times lethargic and bored. They have a range of personalities, comfort levels in groups, and familiarity with the Bible and its stories. To serve them faithfully, I can’t prepare like I’m preparing for adults.

If you have the same tendencies, here are a few suggestions.

  • Be real about your real teens. Who’s going to be in the room? What are they like? How do they interact? Considering group size, personalities, uniquenesses, and differences (more on this below) can help you ground your teaching and increase your chances of a successful encounter.
  • Assess your young people’s biblical literacy and be realistic about what they do and don’t know. In our (Brad’s) ministry, students have a pretty wide range of experiences with the Bible. We don’t make assumptions about anything—from the technical aspects to specific characters or storylines—and when using physical Bibles, we help them find their way around. This gives us all the opportunity to look at passages with beginners’ eyes, which is actually more engaging for everyone.
  • Remember that the Bible is like a library with many different types of books inside. Each book has its own style and way of telling stories. For example, sometimes Jesus uses figures of speech—like when he says, "I am the door" in the book of John. He doesn't mean he's a real door; it's a metaphor. So when we read the Bible, it's essential to know what type of book we're reading, such as poetry, history, or letters.
  • Understanding this helps us know if something is meant to be taken literally or if it's a creative way of expressing something. Knowing the genre helps us avoid misunderstandings and connect with the real message of the Bible.
  • Incorporate sensory experiences into your teachings. Our senses play a significant role in connecting emotions and memories. For example, when exploring a study that mentions a particular scent, consider sharing that scent with your group (taking into account any allergies). In my (Gio) ministry, we brought bottles of frankincense and myrrh to allow students to catch a whiff of the fragrances associated with the Christmas story. Similarly, when discussing the "aroma of Christ” described by Paul, we led a conversation about various fragrances each individual enjoyed or disliked. The students brought their favorite scent. By tapping into the power of smell, we can create a more immersive and memorable learning environment.

What curriculum or method should I use to study and teach the Bible with teenagers?

When picking a Bible study method, I (Gio) think about a few things. First, I evaluate how much time we have and what resources we can use. Then, I consider how I want my teens to be involved. Sometimes I might give them a city map or a short encyclopedia entry about the place mentioned in a Bible passage. We'll talk about what we learn and how the context helps us better understand the Bible reading. But if we don't have much time and need a ready-made plan, we can use questions from a student devotional to guide our group discussion.

Here are ideas to build up your toolbox of options—but don’t try to use every tool every time!

  • Inductive Bible study is a way of really getting into the Bible and understanding it better. It's like being a detective, paying close attention to the words and thinking about the time and culture when it was written. This cool process helps you connect more personally with God's Word. Other examples of study methods include acronyms like SOAP (Scripture, Observation, Application, Prayer) and APPLE (Admit, Picture, Probe, Learn, Engage).
  • Read extended passages out loud together, a practice known as communal or public reading of Scripture. Here’s a free starter guide from FYI executive director Kara Powell. Or try bringing biblical narratives to life through collaborative performance. Start by assigning a narrator to lead the story, then involve other young people by assigning them specific characters and their dialogues. Through the act of embodying and empathizing with the characters, teenagers will forge a stronger connection with the narrative, enabling them to grasp its significance on a more personal level.
  • Use questions to teach. Jesus was the great questioner, and we can follow his lead by basing our Bible discussions around good questions. Our research on character-forming discipleship affirms that question-based teaching can lead to transformation. Good questions are open-ended (require more than a yes or no answer) and drive students back to the text for deeper exploration, reflect on the text for greater understanding, wonder about how the text reveals something about God, or react to and connect the text with their own lives in some way.
  • Lean on the work of others by using a good curriculum. FYI has created several adaptable series based on our research into topics like compassion, anxiety, identity, belonging, and purpose.
  • Elevate your weekly Bible study with the help of a student devotional book as your group's trusty guide! I (Gio) discovered the remarkable impact of FYI's teen devotional, 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future. By intertwining the authors' inspiring stories with my own, we didn’t lack for examples. While my teenagers and I delved into the thought-provoking questions provided in each chapter, we soon found ourselves propelled to ask even deeper questions. The best part? Some of my students got so hooked on the topic that they started asking each other follow-up questions, which led to lively and engaging discussions.
  • Check out FYI’s book How We Read the Bible for more ideas about approaches to reading God’s Word with young people.

Cooking up a great Bible study for your youth group

My pizza-themed Bible study may not have settled right, but I discovered the importance of striking a balance.

Embrace creativity, but always seek practicality.

Spark laughter, but kindle deep reflection.

We desire to meet our students where they are, but we must also guide them to a deeper understanding of God's truth. It's like crafting the perfect pizza—not too bland, not too overwhelming, but a harmonious blend of ingredients that satisfies both the palate and the soul. Together, let's savor the privilege of guiding young people toward a deeper connection with God, one slice of truth at a time.

Tweet this: Figuring out what to teach from the Bible can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. #youthministry #biblestudy

Want even more practical tips for planning teen Bible studies? Don't miss our next post:

How to plan a youth Bible study for teens of different ages, experiences, & learning needs

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Photo By: Fa Barboza

Giovanny Panginda Image
Giovanny Panginda

Giovanny Panginda is the Social Media Lead at Fuller Youth Institute. With a BA in Psychology and Sociology from UCLA, he integrates an understanding of human behavior and empathy into content strategies. As a bivocational youth pastor, Giovanny holds an MDiv with an emphasis on Asian American Context from Fuller Theological Seminary. This unique blend of academic knowledge and hands-on experience allows him to connect with the 3 Indonesian American churches he serves. Beyond shaping digital narratives, you’ll find Giovanny behind the lens capturing portraits, indulging in delectable cuisines, or simply enjoying a cup of chai.

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Brad M. Griffin Image
Brad M. Griffin

Brad M. Griffin is the Senior Director of Content & Research for the Fuller Youth Institute, where he develops research-based resources for youth ministry leaders & families. A speaker, writer, and volunteer pastor, Brad is the coauthor of over fifteen books, including Faith Beyond Youth Group, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager & 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future, Growing Young, and Sticky Faith. Brad and his wife, Missy, live in Southern California and share life with their three teenage and young adult kids.

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