How to engage young people with the Bible

Adrian Blenkinsop believes we need to release young people to grapple with and experience the Bible themselves

Despite an interest in spirituality, ethics and social justice, over 70 per cent of young people never read the Bible, research has found.

The findings are detailed in the Bible Society Australia's new report, 'The Bible according to Gen Z', and reveal, according to editor Adrian Blenkinsop, that young people are struggling to connect and engage with Scripture.

"Generation Z doubts the authenticity and relevance of the Bible, struggles with its language and is baffled by its stories of strange rituals, bizarre laws and violence," he says, noting that this is the same in almost every developed country.

Matt Valler, Global Project Leader for The Bible Engagement for Youth Project, says that research conducted in Britain suggests some interesting trends.

"Thirteen per cent of teenagers say they read the Bible at least once a month - a figure higher than any church attendance statistics for that age group. However, the trends still all appear to point downwards, particularly in terms of young people and church attendance," he says.

"The issue we are facing in the UK - where the context is very similar to Australia - is whether Christianity can find an authentic postmodern expression. Not just in style or format, but in terms of the deep structures of how we think and live. Young people are basically postmodern, the church is basically not, and therein lays the problem for the future of Bible engagement, and indeed of Christian faith in the UK."

The Bible Society recently published statistics which suggest that much of the British population is clueless about Scripture. Almost a third (29 per cent) of children aged between 8 and 15 did not know that the Nativity story is biblical, while a staggering 46 per cent of parents were unable to specify whether or not the story of Noah and the Ark is found in the Bible.

On the other hand, 6 per cent of children believed Hercules to be a Scriptural character while over half (54 per cent) of parents asked thought that the Hunger Games could be a biblical story.

The concern is that the Bible is considered largely irrelevant by modern society, and parents are simply not bothering to share the well-loved stories with their children.

'The Bible According to Gen Z' picks up on how we can transform these statistics, with individual chapters and case studies focussing on subjects such as reading the Bible through community, interactive story-telling and the context of our culture.

It challenges youth pastors to consider how they might try something new to engage their young people with the Bible, though Adrian notes that there is "no silver bullet to this challenge, there's no one great idea that's working everywhere.

"Actually, the answer lies in the sharing of the journey," he says. "It's important to acknowledge that engaging our young people with the Bible can be hard work. Some of us are doing okay, some of us are struggling. What's important is not to give up, but to hear from others what is working for them, and why, and see if that idea or approach might work in your own context."

Adrian spoke to Christian Today about his research, and how we can encourage young people to get stuck into engaging with the Bible.

CT: Can you describe the scope of the issue of youth disengagement with the Bible and the impact it's having?

AB: It's certainly a global issue – I guess the consequences, and the impact it has differs in each particular cultural setting. In post-Christian cultures –like Australia and the UK – we're finding that at best there is generally apathy toward anything Christian, including the Bible. At worst there is outright anger, and disdain for Christianity and the Bible. My sense is that culturally - again, certainly in the UK and Australia - the Church is still grappling with the implications of no longer being at the centre of culture.  We have lost our place of authority and respect, and with that comes a disregard for the Bible, not only from non-Christians, but also Christians.

How we seek to engage a post-Christian culture with the Bible needs to radically change at a global level. The practices, approaches and certainly the assumptions from just two decades ago need to be changed – and that's a real challenge for churches and mission organisations. I see the implications of Bible disengagement in that youth have no sense of how their personal story might fit into a much bigger story  - God's story, as told through the Bible.

So, the key questions that youth are grappling with, like 'Why am I here?', and 'Do I matter?' can be addressed in part as they engage with the Bible as a 'meta narrative'.  It enables them to begin to get a sense of their own value and place in the world, and where their story fits into a much bigger, unfolding plan or story.

CT: Recent studies from the Bible Society UK show that most children and young people don't know basic biblical stories.  Is it really that important to address this?

(Photo: Geri-Jean Blanchard)

AB: Understanding and knowing Bible stories is important in the broader faith journey of someone. However, knowing the Bible stories without having a sense of why they are a part of the bigger Bible story can lead to a sense of the Bible being a series of weird, hard to understand, and often unbelievable stories in the minds of people.

One of the challenges for churches is seeing people grow as disciples, and a key part of that journey is moving from a Sunday school understanding of God and the Bible - i.e. knowing the popular Bible stories and characters) to an understanding of why they are all in the Bible, and how it all fits together. Also, the opportunity to ask hard questions of the Bible and to explore some of the context and culture behind the stories is vital if people are to move from a 'Sunday school' faith to a deep and robust faith. I was challenged by some survey figures from America last year that indicated that of the 90 per cent of people who come to faith before the age of 18, only 22 per cent will be professing Christians at the age of 35.

CT: Why do you think it's so hard to get young people excited? Is it relevant for them?

AB: I think we have become fixated on trying to make the Bible 'relevant' to young people. The reality is that much of the Bible is not relevant to us. To unpack that a bit more, I mean that much of the Bible was written to a certain people group, at a certain time in history – it wasn't written with a 2014 audience in mind. So we can identify with many situations and people in the Bible – people who went through good and bad times, who struggled with their faith, who endured things we are faced with today – and we can learn, be encouraged and connect with their stories, and that's great – in fact it's vital. However, it's only one of avenues through which the biblical story can transform the life of a person today. The questions I ask of leaders are around 'How can we enable God to speak through this book to young people today?'; 'How can we 'unleash' this book from our own assumptions and knowledge, and enable a young person to bring their open, raw questions and struggles to it?' If the Bible is indeed God's story of creation and re-creation, let's enable him to speak through that story into the story of our young people – and let's get out of the way with our fancy programmes and neatly-packaged youth nights.

CT: How is our post modern, consumerist and individualistic society having an effect on young people and their faith?

AB: It's really significant – and one of the great challenges as we seek to engage a culture that sees the Bible and Christian faith as just one 'option' of spiritual faith available to them. I liken it to a smorgasbord of faith options that a young person is confronted with. So, they pick and choose the 'best bits' from a plethora of world faiths, and form their own unique spirituality.

That's one of the implications of post-modernity. How do we challenge that? How do we open the Bible and say 'Actually, Jesus said there's only one way to the father' (John 14.6)? That's the antithesis of post-modernity. Similarly, our consumerist culture has convinced us that happiness and fulfilment can be found in the purchasing of goods and products, but the message of Jesus was clearly that these things are found in sacrifice and serving others. The message of Scripture is totally counter-cultural!

We approach these issues carefully, gently, knowing that youth culture has nothing to 'judge', or critique their own worldview against other than the Bible, so it's a difficult thing for them to really understand and engage with. We cannot simply stand in front of our young people and tell them 'stop being so damn selfish – it's un-biblical'. When asked if they believed that 'All the miracle stories in the Bible really happened', 25 per cent of young people who attend a Christian school in Australia said it was not true at all, and only 8 per cent said it was definitely true, and of another 2,000 young people surveyed who attend a Christian school, 39 per cent said it was important to pick and choose beliefs from all religions and ideas. In a society that fears 'intolerance', and anything resembling fundamentalism – the Bible is a deeply challenging book to engage with and understand!

CT: You note that there's no universal answer, but what can the individual youth pastor/leader be doing to encourage their young people to get stuck in with Scripture?

AB: I think it's important to firstly give licence to acknowledge that getting young people - and older people - into the Bible can be really hard. However, there are some key principles I've found to be common with Bible engagement practices and methods that are seeing young lives transformed through Scripture. Understanding the learning styles of your young people is key i.e. a 14-year-old boy will not engage with a sit-down Bible study where they are being 'talked to'. Get them moving around, arguing, sharing their opinions and questions, and stimulate their imaginations.

Read the Bible 'on location': so, rather than reading the story of Jesus stilling the storm, go to a beach or lake, stand on the shore and read it together. Often when our senses are engaged the stories in the Bible begin to come alive, and especially for a young person, they can picture themselves there. Also, sharing the ups and downs of Bible engagement with other leaders is key. Find out what's working for other leaders, and see what you can learn, what ideas and methods you can use in your own context. And create a culture that enables and encourages young people to explore the Bible with their peers – where hard questions, opinions and emotions are welcome.

That's the environment in which young people most effectively engage with the Bible, where the Bible starts to come alive and make sense for them: with their mates! That's a real challenge for leaders however – it means relinquishing our control, it means not seeing ourselves as the 'holders of knowledge', whose job it is to impart biblical knowledge into these young people. Unleash the Bible amongst your young people, then stand back and see what God does!

CT: How have your findings changed or impacted the way you approach youth ministry?

AB: Significantly. There's a sense of relief in realising that there is no one 'universal' answer to this issue. I find I'm focussing more on engaging the imaginations of young people around the Bible, approaching the Bible as narrative, and providing opportunities for young people to wrestle, to argue, to challenge the Bible, and their assumptions. This is a departure from my own experiences of Bible study as a teenager – and it's simply about trusting that God is at work in the lives of people everywhere – so my role is to see where God is at work, and in what ways he's speaking to young people, and do what I can to facilitate and encourage that.

Adrian Blenkinsop works with Bible Society Australia, and is passionate about seeing young people engage with the Bible in ways that transform them and their communities. If you'd like to connect with him, email Adrian.blenkinsop@biblesociety.org.au

'The Bible according to Gen Z' is available as an e-book here

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