Awaken Your Students to Scripture
By Bill McNabb and Steven Mabry Posted on October 10 2009
"If you look at a window, you see flyspecks, dust, the crack where Junior's Frisbee hit it. If you look through a window, you see the world beyond.
"Something like this is the difference between those who see the Bible as a Holy Bore and those who see it as the Word of God which speaks out of the depths of an almost unimaginable past into the depths of ourselves."
Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking (Harper & Row, 1973)
A woman read somewhere that dogs were healthier if fed a tablespoon of cod liver oil each day. So each day she followed the same routine—she chased her dog until she caught it, wrestled it down, and managed to force the fishy remedy down the dog's throat.
Until one day when, in the middle of this grueling medical effort, the bottle was kicked over. With a sigh, she loosed her grip on the dog so she could wipe up the mess—only to watch the dog trot to the puddle and begin lapping it up. The dog loved cod liver oil. It was just the owner's method of application the dog objected to.
Almost everyone wants to learn more about God and the Bible—but they are turned off by our method of application. I believe that even the most hardened, apathetic teenager can become interested in the Bible if approached correctly. I've seen it happen. I believe that all people, including teenagers, have a deep spiritual longing and hunger to know more about their Creator.
Yet if that is true, what's the problem? Why aren't kids flocking to our youth groups and Sunday school classes, or holding rallies to demand more time for Bible study? Probably because they do not like our method of application. They have been turned off by boring, predictable, unchallenging, irrelevant, sophomoric attempts to teach them God's Word.
By the time we church-raised kids graduated from high school, we had 12 years of Sunday school and six years of youth group under our belts—and had lost nearly all interest in anything to do with the Bible. After years of enduring discussions characterized by such questions as "Who do you think God would rather us be like—the Apostle Paul or Jack the Ripper?" we still yearned to know God, but weren't sure the Bible had much to say about him. Perhaps Life magazine was onto something in 1957 when it called Sunday school "the most wasted hour of the week." Fortunately, some of us later encountered gifted Bible teachers who reignited our desire to study and know God's Word.
One of the reasons Christian education is in such bad shape, why apathy is rampant in our Sunday school classes and youth groups, is that we have failed to incorporate tenets of educational psychology into our teaching. During the past half-century researchers have gained incredible insight into how we learn and what motivates us to learn, yet this learning has seldom found its way into the church. It's easy to see why this has happened: because teachers and youth leaders value the Bible and consider it the precious Word of God, they assume that others should naturally feel the same way. This attitude has consequently kept Bible teachers from spending much time on improving their motivation and teaching techniques.
That era is now over. As Bible study has become increasingly difficult to interest kids in, most Christian educators now see the need to dramatically improve their teaching abilities.
Basics of Bible Teaching
"Was it always this tough?" I mumble to myself as I struggle to keep the attention of a Bible study class. Did Jesus and Paul have this much trouble when they taught the Scriptures? A teacher friend must have sensed my questions, for he sent me a new slant on the Sermon on the Mount.
Then Jesus took his disciples up onto the mountain and, gathering them around him, he taught them, saying,
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek;
Blessed are they that mourn;
Blessed are the merciful;
Blessed are they that thirst for justice;
Blessed are you when persecuted;
Blessed are you when you suffer;
Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is great in heaven."
Then Simon Peter said, "Are we supposed to know this?"
And Andrew said, "Do we have to write this down?"
And James said, "Will we have a test on this?"
And Philip said, "I don't have any paper."
And Bartholomew said, "Do we have to turn this in?"
And John said, "The other disciples didn't have to learn this."
And Matthew said, "Can I go to the bathroom?"
And Judas said, "What does this have to do with real life?"
And Jesus wept.
When I was in fourth grade, I got my first Bible. It was nothing unusual—the Eastside Church of Christ always gave Bibles to its fourth graders. But I felt so special and unique as the preacher called my name and I walked down the red-carpeted aisle to be presented with The Book. It was a revised Standard Version in black imitation leather with my name stamped in gold on the front and inside, Jesus' words in red—so readers would know this was not just anyone talking. Also inside were reproductions of old masters' paintings of the Bible's greatest hits—bearded, fierce Moses receiving the tablets; Daniel calmly praying, surrounded by frustrated lions whose mouths looked like they had been zippered shut; Jesus with kids hanging all over him, with the caption "Let the little children come unto me."
I took it home and treated it with respect, as I had been taught—that is, I never wrote in it or set other books on top of it. Vowing to read it all the way through, I soon began with Genesis, reading a chapter a night. Although I understood little of what was going on, I plugged on until halfway through Numbers I was overcome with numbing boredom, and I gave up. The Bible was extremely overrated, I decided. I could not figure out why everyone made such a big deal about it or how it had become the world's best seller when it only confused and bored me. I put it on my bookshelf where it rested unread and ignored.
For a while the Bible remained for me a locked treasure chest of wisdom and guidance. I continued to go to church and Sunday school, however, and over the years I gradually unlocked the treasure chest. It took the loving guidance of Sunday school teachers, youth leaders, and college and seminary professors. They helped open for me the beauty, wisdom, and truth of the Bible. The Bible now means so much to me that I can think of no greater calling than to be a teacher of the Bible, helping others unlock the treasure chest.
A few years after finishing seminary, I returned to graduate school to obtain a doctorate in educational psychology, which explores how people learn. My main interest was to find ways I could motivate young people to want to learn about the Bible and how to teach in ways that would be remembered and acted upon. But before I could apply the principles to my Bible teaching, I had to take a fresh look at the Bible—what it is and is not.
The Bible is a positive book.
Teachers of the Bible must first overcome any tendency to see it as a tool to keep us from having fun—which is all it is to most kids, a book full of rules. We have for far too long treated the Bible as Good Advice rather than as Good News. We need to approach Bible study as if we are about to discover together the greatest news ever heard.
I read of a man who frequently dreamed that God ran after him with a paper in his hand. All his life he ran from God, for he believed that paper contained a warrant for his arrest. After accepting the Christian faith, the man said that now, looking back on his dream, he realized the paper was not a warrant for his arrest, but a pardon for his sins.
An early duty in teaching the Bible to young people is convincing them that the Bible is a positive book.
The Bible is an understandable book.
Granted, much of the Bible is complex and difficult to comprehend. A good commentary or Bible handbook is often necessary to get the fullest understanding from a text. And yet it is important to remember the Bible is for everyone. We need not be seminary graduates to understand the Holy Scriptures. When I was in seminary, I listened to a professor expound a theory on St. Mark's use of Old Testament symbols, a lecture that left me with the impression that the professor felt he was the first person in two millennia to understand the Gospel of Mark. Such academic elitism has done a great disservice to the Bible.
The sheer size of the Bible or its language (particularly in an older translation such as the King James Version) can intimidate young people. Our job is to present the Bible as an understandable book, a timeless book. It is not mere ancient history or good literature. Even unbelievers would agree that the Bible is worth studying for its historical data and poetical style, but believers see it as a book that has far more than merely literary value. We believe that the values and principles found in the Bible are relevant not only to their original audiences, but to us today. Often an overlooked "minor" prophet, Amos was the study of a class I recently led. I was amazed at how relevant it was to current American society, despite the book's being written 700 years before Christ. "If God sent a prophet to America today," I asked the class, "what do you think the prophet would say?"
"The same thing Amos said to Israel," students replied. In Amos' description of his society's hedonism and indifference to the poor, the Bible provides a mirror to look at our own society. Sharing this timeless relevance of the Bible with young people is one of the great joys of teaching.
The Bible is an open book.
There have been more books written about the Bible than any other book. It is open to a variety of interpretations. We can interact with it and apply it in countless ways. And that very interaction is why Bible study in a group is exciting. Even Jesus' preferred teaching method was to use parables—which require much interpretation and thought from the reader. It is interesting to see how much others can get out of a story. The second-century church father Origen, for example, interpreted the parable of the Good Samaritan allegorically, claiming to find the following symbols:
Jerusalem: Paradise (from which he was traveling)
Jericho: the world (to which he was traveling)
robbers: hostile influences and enemies of man
wounds: disobedience or sins
priest: The Law
Good Samaritan: Christ
donkey: body of Christ
two denarii: knowledge of the Father and the Son
innkeeper: angels in charge of the church
return of the Good Samaritan: Second Coming of Christ
(Commentary on Luke 10:30-35, Homily XXXIV)
Whether or not we agree with Origen's interpretation, it is nonetheless interesting to ponder his analogies. In The parables of Grace, commentator and theologian Robert Capon claims the story was not about the Samaritan at all, but about the traveler, beaten, abandoned, left for dead—the Christ figure of the parable.
The point is that there are several levels of truth in the Scriptures. The Bible is a book open to a variety of interpretations, and there is often more than one valid way of looking at a particular passage.
The Bible is a challenging book.
Not a book of pat answers and platitudes, it creates tension and forces us to think. When we remember, for example, that Samaritans were not an ancient affiliate of the Red Cross, but hated enemies of the Jews—when we remember this, we see beyond the sweet moralism about being nice to highway casualties. Christ's parable is a stinging indictment of cultural prejudice and the tendency of all societies to exclude certain groups. If Jesus were to tell the story today to American listeners, he would probably describe a PLO terrorist who stopped to help the man after George Bush and Mother Teresa had passed by on the other side.
The Bible challenges our preconceived notions and cherished cultural assumptions. "Jesus is not the answer—he is the question," noted the great theologian Karl Barth in his Evangelical Theology. "He is the shattering disturbance that covers our lives and causes us to question that which we had once uncritically accepted." As we help our kids to get inside the Bible, they will discover that it challenges and confronts many of their attitudes and actions.
The Bible is a guidebook.
It provides the directions, but not the destination. Its purpose is to lead us to a relationship with God. Technically, in fact, it is not the Word of God. "In the beginning was the Word," says the first chapter of John's Gospel, "and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." In a literal sense, Jesus is the Word of God, and the Bible is the book about the Word of God.
Its purpose is to lead us to a knowledge of our savior. "Your word is a lamp to my feet," sang the psalmist, and his words say something about the proper place of the Bible in the Christian life. A lamp does little good at night held either behind your back or up in front of your eyes. Held properly, however, the lamp of the Bible illuminates the paths of our lives.
Like anything of course, the Bible can become an idol. Some people post it on the coffee table, as if to ward off evil spirits. I was raised to revere the Bible as a holy book; in my circles it was the Holy Bible as Palestine was the Holy Land. As I grew older, I eventually realized that the Bible points us to God, but it is not God. We use it to draw us closer to its author, but we do not worship it.
How to Approach Bible Study
Scholars use the terms exegesis to describe the process of figuring out what the Bible says, and hermeneutics to describe the task of interpreting what it means for our lives. For our purposes, exegesis and hermeneutics can be simplified into four steps:
Find the main point of the passage. We do this by asking what we think the author was trying to convey. Most biblical texts have one main point and several subpoints. If we focus on the subpoints, we risk getting off on side roads, thus missing the main point of the text.
For example, Jesus told a parable about a man who found a treasure hidden in another man's field (Matt. 13:44). The finder did not tell the field's owner about the treasure, but instead he secretly liquidated his assets so he could buy the field and own the treasure. Most scholars agree that this is a parable about the inestimable value of the kingdom of God and the need to sacrifice to obtain it; it is not primarily about how we should respond when we find someone's lost property. If we focus on the ethical propriety of the man's actions, we miss the main point of the parable.
So the first step in Bible study is to consider the intent of the author and determine his main point.
- Consider the context. The Bible was not written in a vacuum. Its words were spoken and written to people who lived during a particular century in a particular culture. An understanding of that historical context is vital to discovering the meaning of the text. The story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19, for example, makes little sense to those who do not understand how the Jews of Jesus' time felt about tax collectors. Commentaries and Bible dictionaries can assist us in understanding the context.
Interpret the part by the whole. Each individual part of the Bible must be read in light of the whole Scripture. Taking one passage out of the context of the whole can lead to disastrous results. For example, Psalm 137:9—"Happy is he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks"—must be read in light of Jesus' later admonition to love our enemies. Many of the cults and heresies of history can be traced to failing to heed this principle of interpretation.
What many teenagers need is not merely more Bible knowledge, but a framework that links the bits and pieces they already know. The teenager who wrote the following answer to the question "How would you describe Jesus?" had some details straight, but he needed to see the big picture. Jesus is a man who was God's son, and uh, the Virgin Mary got him there and then he started to teach about God and so the Jews didn't believe. So he went to the Gentiles and the Gentiles started to believe and he used to come back and forth to the Jewish city and the chief priest didn't like him and all so they started to want to plan on things so they could kill him. Well, God's plan for Jesus was for him to die for sins. So he died on the cross, the place to die for sins. See, in the Old Testament, they used to have an ark and there was a torn curtain and that only one person is supposed to go in there and take a perfect lamb, and Jesus was perfect. Okay. So when Jesus dies for our sins, for all our sins, they are forgiven. So that was just like the lamb but it's for, you don't have to burn a lamb for everything. (Cited in Helping Youth Interpret the Bible, by Roger Goebbel and others)
This kid needed to see the connections between events and concepts, needed to interpret the parts by the whole. Bits of scriptural knowledge isolated from the whole are useless. Our job as teachers is to help kids see the big picture.
- Apply the passage to our own lives. Bible study is worth little if it is based only on intellectual curiosity. The three points mentioned above are only the preparation for the question "What is God saying to me through this passage?" Our job as Bible teachers is more than getting our students to understand what the Bible says about a particular issue; we must help them understand what God is saying to them personally. I like to end each Bible study with this question: "How would your life be different if you really took this passage seriously?" This final step of Bible study provides an avenue for the lessons of Scripture to be applied to our everyday lives.
Adapted from Teaching the Bible Creatively, published by Youth Specialties/Zondervan.