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

Giovanny Panginda Image Giovanny Panginda Brad M. Griffin Image Brad M. Griffin | Jul 27, 2023

How would your teenage students describe you as a youth leader?

I, Gio, have been described as enthusiastic, spirited, and fun-loving. And they’re correct. Of course, I will admit that I can be a little “extra” sometimes. During my first 3 years in youth ministry, my extroverted energy was on full blast. I planned the most epic and action-packed activities as ice-breakers before our Bible studies. Think karaoke battles, American Ninja Warrior meets Bible trivia competitions, and enough laughter to fill a football stadium. “The louder, the better” was my measurement for ministry success.

But here’s the plot twist—amidst all the hoorah, I didn’t quite catch on to the fact that most of my young people were introverts. Imagine my surprise when I finally realized that, instead of a huge extravaganza right before Bible study, my teens preferred a cozy, lo-fi gathering with relational games, painting, and even journaling or writing poetry. It was a moment of revelation.

I’ve had to learn to grasp the unique personalities and learning needs of my students, and to appreciate the diverse perspectives they bring to the table. Now, as I plan youth activities and Bible studies, I strive to notice and factor in their individual ways of interacting with the world.

Effective teaching with teens begins by asking yourself some good questions

If your youth group is large or has a broad range of unique personalities and needs, you might feel like adapting for everyone would be a huge task. We see you. But consider Jesus’ calling of his disciples: The shores of the Sea of Galilee served as the backdrop, with Peter and his brother Andrew being the students. During his teaching, Jesus called these fishermen to join him and shared that he would transform them into "fishers of people." Jesus cleverly connected what occupied the disciples’ days with the invitation to follow, capturing their attention and interest. When challenged about paying taxes by Pharisees, Jesus offered a physical Roman coin as a visual aid to enhance his lesson. 

Jesus also used direct questions to challenge the assumptions of his learners. When those who came to learn from him were uncertain or misguided, Jesus probed with questions to get them to see their own thinking flaws and discover the truth for themselves. By considering the setting, audience, lessons, and techniques employed by Jesus, we can see that he was always adapting to effectively engage his learners.

When planning Bible studies for teens of different ages, experiences, and learning styles, here are 3 questions youth leaders often ask. Leading Bible studies with teenagers in mind doesn’t have to mean making major changes to your teaching plan, so we’re including a few tips to help you get started!

How do I plan a ministry where both introverts and extroverts will feel at home?

After that formative revelation about my personal ministry practice, I (Gio) began to recognize that many church settings are typically tailored to suit extroverted individuals. Because of this, I’ve taken time to research and understand the experiences of introverts within the church. A few small shifts in our approach can help us see beyond the surface.

  • Avoid making assumptions about extroverts’ preferences for public roles—like giving announcements or leading worship. Not all extroverts thrive in the spotlight. Some may find joy in behind-the-scenes tasks and taking care of details. It's essential to communicate with outgoing teens, ask for their input, and understand what they genuinely enjoy doing. Additionally, recognize their desire to connect with others and build relationships.

  • Don’t immediately assume that introverted teens are shy or lack opinions. Respect and support their preference for internal thinking by providing group questions or prompts before reading a passage instead of putting them on the spot. Or allow young people time to formulate their thoughts in writing by exploring different ways to reflect and respond such as journaling, texting, or emailing to allow them time to formulate their thoughts in writing. Quieter teens are often more likely to share their perspectives once they’ve been given the opportunity to gather their thoughts.

  • Help young people let it all out. Regardless of personality type, when teens arrive with something on their minds, they’re likely to blurt out randomly during group time. It can help (not only with the randomness, but also with group connection and genuine care) to give everyone an opportunity to share during the first part of your gathering. Gio’s group routinely shares “highs, lows, and buffalos” (a buffalo is something random about the week). Similarly, Brad’s group shares “oil and sand,” where oil is something good or exciting and sand is something gritty, frustrating, or sad. Larger ministries may find that breaking into smaller groups helps facilitate this best.

  • Validate teenagers who speak up. Sometimes young people just need to be heard, and your group might be the only place this week where your students actually feel honored for who they are and what’s on their mind. A simple “Thanks for sharing” or “I’m really glad you spoke up” can go a long way.

How can I teach a group whose experiences are very different?

Teaching a diverse group presents various challenges and opportunities. Yet as we seek to model Jesus’ ministry and leadership to our teens, we’re called to honor and encourage the diverse strengths and contributions each one of them has to offer.

  • Consider sociological differences. What’s your community like? What neighborhoods does your youth group come from? What are their various family situations, racial backgrounds, and income realities? For example, if your group includes immigrant youth, they bring unique perspectives to the Bible and your discussions. If you have a multiethnic makeup of young people, it’s helpful to think through how each one might be able to see themselves in the inclusive stories and examples you use.

  • Rethink the gifts and strengths of youth with disabilities in your ministry. Each teenager on the neurodivergent spectrum or with physical or cognitive disabilities is unique. Invest time into getting to know the student and their family, and to understanding their specific needs and requirements. Are they sensitive to bright lights or loud noises? Will they have a support aide accompanying them to youth group, or could someone in the church offer them that support? What contributions would these young people like to make to the group?

Plan games creatively and inclusively with purpose in mind, helping students of all types build connections in an empathetic environment and actively engage Scripture.

My younger students can get easily distracted. How do I help them focus?

Middle school ministry, mixed-age ministry, or high school groups that trend young all require planning with the assumption that you’ll face your share of random randomness and distraction! Here’s how to prepare wisely for this very normal experience.

  • Working with middle schoolers can be joyful and rewarding. But let’s face it: we need to temper our expectations accordingly if we’re going to enjoy our time together. With middle school students in particular, try for no more than ONE main point for each lesson. Ask: What’s the one thing we want them to remember? This might be a characteristic you want them to remember about God, a question you want them to ask throughout the week, or a truth about themselves you hope to reinforce. Build everything else around that.

  • Expect interruptions. Rather than view distractions and diversions as annoying exceptions, plan for them as the rule. Make a little room for the random. You might even come to see these moments as opportunities for the Spirit to have more freedom in your midst.

  • When the conversation gets off-topic, redirect. Memorize a few helpful phrases like “That’s interesting, but right now we’re going to keep talking about ____;” “I’d love to hear more about that after we’re done with this conversation;” or “I can tell ____ is important to you; let’s come back to it if we have time.” With most young people, this type of redirection goes a long way if you follow up with them personally afterwards and make time to listen.

  • Get them moving. Younger teens and preteens need movement to help them focus and learn. Create lively debates through “walk across the room” or “stand up/sit down if you agree” exercises, and thoughtfully utilize hands-on object lessons to create practical connections with the passages you’re reading. Recently I (Brad) took middle schoolers on a walk around the block while reflecting on the “Road to Emmaus” passage in Luke 24. I gave them a different reflection prompt for each section of the block—some out loud, some in silence—which led to insights that were both amusing and profound.

  • Plan your Bible study assuming you’ll have less time than you need. It can be hard to predict how long an activity will take, or which questions will lead to deep conversations. Be ready for any surprises by having a “bonus” question or activity in mind if there’s time left over. If you plan with flexibility in mind, you’ll likely be less disappointed and enjoy your teenagers more.

The key to making my (Gio’s) youth ministry shine was inclusivity—accommodating different preferences and personalities. So I began incorporating reflective activities like contemplative prayer and journaling. Once I had cultivated their trust, they were more willing to step out of their comfort zone and meet me in the middle.

It's been an incredible journey of growth and understanding, and now our youth ministry shines like a disco ball. (Even if it's a silent one people dance to with wireless headphones!)

If these ideas have sparked your creativity, don’t miss our previous post:
How to plan a youth Bible study so that your teens will listen.

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Photo By: Kelly Sikkema

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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