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Unpacking Scripture in Youth Ministry focuses on how to teach and present the Bible in the lives of teenagers. Andrew Root argues that teens are constant interpreters – always asking the questions, who am I? and what do others think of me? – and so youth ministers must teach them to interpret the actions of God as revealed in the Bible. This view is different than teaching biblical knowledge – memory verses and Bible facts – and it’s different than teaching them to interpret the Bible themselves. Rather, ...
Unpacking Scripture in Youth Ministry focuses on how to teach and present the Bible in the lives of teenagers. Andrew Root argues that teens are constant interpreters – always asking the questions, who am I? and what do others think of me? – and so youth ministers must teach them to interpret the actions of God as revealed in the Bible. This view is different than teaching biblical knowledge – memory verses and Bible facts – and it’s different than teaching them to interpret the Bible themselves. Rather, they are to view the Bible as a tool for interpreting God’s actions and then respond with their own actions.
It was 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning when the phone rudely awakened Nadia from her weekend slumber. Disoriented, and less than enthused, she answered with a slight edge to her voice: "Hello?"
"Yes, hello, is this Nadia?" asked the voice on the other end of the line.
Of course it is, stupid. Who else would it be? Nadia thought to herself as she shook the sleep from her brain. But instead she simply answered, "Yes," figuring this polite and professional voice on the other end of the line was some telemarketer.
"This is Hank Mathis."
Hank Mathis. Nadia knew the name—but in her sleepy state, she struggled to place it. She felt an irrational stab of panic, like when you're a high school student and the principal addresses you by name—you just figure something must be wrong.
After a few seconds of struggling to find a face for Hank Mathis, it came to her: Hank Mathis oversaw the facilities at the church where Nadia was the youth pastor.
"Oh, hello, Hank," Nadia said, now trying to act fully awake, as if she'd just returned from a four-mile run and was now sitting down to read a novel over a breakfast of grapefruit and egg whites. In reality, she was half asleep, sitting in her bed in an old concert T-shirt.
"We have a problem, Nadia," Hank said, cutting to the chase.
"Oh ...?" Nadia returned, having no idea what he could mean.
"It seems that some time around midnight, someone broke into the church building."
"Okay ..." Nadia responded, still having no idea why Hank would call her about this, especially at 7 a.m. on a Saturday.
"Well," continued Hank Mathis, "we have good reason to believe it was teenagers."
"Really? Why do you think that?" Nadia said, trying not to be offended by Hank's assumption that anything bad that happens must be teenagers.
"Well, because your youth room was a mess after the break-in—and the custodian confirmed that it had been clean when he left the building last night. Plus, when the silent alarm went off, the security company contacted the police. The officer who responded said he saw four or five teenagers run out the emergency exit."
This seemed like substantial evidence; Nadia had to drop her suspicion that they were unjustly blaming adolescents.
"We would like to talk to you about this," Hank continued.
"Okay, sure," said Nadia. "But who is we?"
"The facilities committee," Hank answered. "We've scheduled a meeting for tomorrow right after worship. We'll see you around 12:30."
After church the following day, Nadia met with the committee. She was fairly sure none of her youth group kids would have broken into the church. That the committee requested a meeting with her made Nadia a little suspicious—and to be honest, somewhat offended. It was as if she were to blame any time a teenager did something wrong; as if she alone were responsible for every kid in the universe.
As she sat down with the committee, Nadia did everything she could to hide her wariness. "Well, Nadia," started Hank Mathis, "as I told you on the phone, the church had a break-in of teenagers ..." Nadia hid a smile, thinking to herself, we should be praying that young people will want to break into the church, instead of running from it. But she was still uncertain what this had to do with her; she was confident none of the kids from the youth group would do this. At least she didn't think they would.
"Well," continued Hank, "it seems that the teenagers got in through the front doors. Those doors were dead-bolted, but it seems the latch on the left-side door wasn't locked into place on the floor. It was unhooked. So even with the doors dead-bolted, the teenagers could pull it open."
As Hank said this, things became clearer. On Friday evening, Nadia had hosted a youth Bible study at the church. Wanting to make a comfortable space for the Bible study, she'd recruited Justin, one of her youth group kids, to help her move a newly donated couch into the youth room. They'd unlatched the left-side door to get the couch through, and she'd obviously forgotten to reengage the brace that locked it into place. The break-in was her fault, after all; a simple mistake, but nevertheless her mistake.
"According to the church calendar," Hank continued, "you led a Bible study that night?"
Feeling embarrassed, Nadia placed her fingers on her forehead and confessed, "Yes, we had a Bible study. Justin and I moved a couch in earlier that afternoon, and I neglected to re-latch the side door. I'm so sorry. It was my fault."
The committee responded to her confession with looks that contained some disappointment, but mostly understanding. It appeared her confession had given Hank what he wanted—but then he added, "The thing is, Nadia, that cost us $400. If the security company has to contact the police, that costs us money."
"I understand," said Nadia, "and I'm very sorry."
"I can see that it was a mistake—and mistakes happen," said Hank, now softening some. "But these kids who broke in and messed up the youth room, do you think they were the kids from the Bible study? If so, I'd like there to be some consequences for them."
Nadia really couldn't imagine that any of "her" kids would have done this. Maybe Justin? He'd been in trouble a few times at school. But the officer reported that he'd seen four or five young people running from the building. Frankly, Justin didn't have that many friends. "I really can't imagine that any of the church kids would do this. I don't even think they'd be out that late. It really doesn't add up," Nadia said, her face contorted in thought.
"Are you sure it wasn't someone from your group?" asked Mrs. Richards, a women in her early seventies. Several times over the past year or two, Mrs. Richards had commented to Nadia (and to anyone else who'd listen) about her concern for the spiritual, moral, and biblical formation of "today's teens."
"I really don't think so," said Nadia.
"Well, regardless," said Mrs. Richards, "I'm concerned because these kids just don't know the Bible."
Nadia looked confused, wondering where this quick change in topics and concerns was coming from. But it was Mrs. Richards—and this had been her pet concern for a while.
Mrs. Richards continued, "They just don't seem to care about the Bible, and they surely don't know basic information about the Bible. I mean, we can't expect youth to behave like Christians if they don't know the Christian textbook. Maybe it's time to rethink what you're doing with Bible study. Do you agree?"
Nadia was shocked, not because Mrs. Richards was saying these things, but because the group seemed comfortable with the leap she seemed to be making. Somehow everyone seemed to think it was fine that this conversation about a break-in at the church had turned into an examination of Nadia's approach to teaching the Bible.
Nadia sat in silence after the question, hoping someone would remind Mrs. Richards of the purpose of the meeting. But when no one spoke, Nadia figured she needed to say something.
"Well, Mrs. Richards, I think you're right. I mean, I don't think young people know the Bible like they may have a few generations back. But I think the truth is that it's not just a problem among our youth but also their parents. I don't think their moms and dads know the Bible very well, either." Nadia hoped that this would take the heat off of her and remind Mrs. Richards and the spectators that biblical illiteracy was a much bigger issue, one that needed to be considered by the whole church.
But Mrs. Richards didn't back down. "Yes, younger people just don't know the Bible. Folks my children's age don't know the Bible, and now neither do my grandchildren—and that's what really bothers me. I want my grandchildren to know the Bible."
Nadia respected the intensity that spilled from Mrs. Richards, even though she found her questions inappropriately timed. Nadia nodded, hoping Mrs. Richards had blown off the necessary steam.
But just as the conversation seemed about to move in a welcome new direction, Tommy spoke up. Tommy was in his late forties, but he'd been part of the congregation since he was a teenager. "That's interesting. So how do you teach the Bible, Nadia? I mean, if it's true that both kids and their parents don't know it, then a major piece of what you do must be getting kids to know and understand the Bible, right?"
Now Nadia felt like she'd been trapped. She'd admitted the Bible was important—and she believed it was. But now Tommy was assuming it was Nadia's job to get kids "to know the Bible." That wasn't really the way she understood her role as a youth worker. But she knew that answering honestly would just continue a conversation she didn't want to be having right now.
"Well, I don't know ..." Nadia said. But the minute the words left her lips, she realized this answer wasn't going to satisfy anyone.
"I'm not sure I understand," returned Tommy. "You just said kids don't know God's Word very well, but you don't think helping them know the Bible is your job? What do you mean?"
"I'm not saying it isn't important—maybe even very, very important," Nadia said, hoping upon hope that she'd stumble onto some new thought or direction that would lead her out of this danger zone.
But as Nadia searched for something to say, Mrs. Richards jumped in: "See that's what worries me, and I've talked with Pastor Jerry about it. We have to be more intentional about teaching the Bible. When I was a kid we quizzed and tested on the Bible. I memorized nearly one hundred verses as a teenager, and even at my age, I can still repeat them. I think that's so important! You need to know this stuff to be a strong Christian believer."
"Yes," added Tommy, "maybe the youth ministry should focus more on testing and accountability for biblical knowledge. I mean, if we want kids to have this knowledge, then we should have some requirements and standards. God knows they'll have to meet standards in the work world anyway."
Now Nadia was very uncomfortable, and that discomfort pushed a statement out of her mouth that she regretted almost immediately. "I don't think the Bible is that kind of book," she said. "I don't think it's a textbook, and I don't think we do our kids a favor to force them to memorize it so they can pass some test. The Bible is central to me and my ministry, but I don't think the point is just basic 'knowledge.' I don't think that's how we're meant to read it or, really, to live it out."
Closing her mouth, wishing she could tape it shut, Nadia felt disembodied, as flashes of intensity and regret raced from head to toe and back again within her. Oh, no! What did I just say? Nadia thought to herself, and, where did all that come from? Even though she'd taught countless Bible studies, she recognized in that moment that she hadn't really done much thinking about her view of Scripture. She'd never really stopped to think about what she really wanted kids to do with the Bible—or what she hoped the Bible would do to them, for that matter.
Nadia sat in silence, holding her breath, the air trapped deep in her lungs. The members of the facilities committee just stared back at her. It was as if she'd just admitted she'd been running a drug ring at the youth group, or that she was stripping to make extra money. They all just looked at her, several with their mouths agape, as if her comments had snagged their chins and tugged them down.
Mrs. Richards just shook her head, and Nadia thought she might have seen her wipe a tear from her eye. But if nothing else, Nadia's statement seemed to shock Hank Mathis back to the subject at hand. "Okay," he said, clearing his throat, "about the door ..."
"Wait," interrupted Tommy. "Before we move on, Hank, I want to ask Nadia a question." Nadia now released the air she had pinned in her lungs. She had to—her heart was beating so fast that her body was demanding new air to push the anxiety through her blood.
"Okay," said Hank.
Tommy shifted to the edge of his chair and leaned forward. His face was contorted in confusion. "Nadia, what is the Bible to you? I mean, what's its authority? And, if you say it's not a textbook, then what is it? And if kids aren't supposed to memorize it or be quizzed on it, then how are they supposed to know it?"
Nadia gulped hard, "Well ..."
Excerpted from Unpacking Scripture in Youth Ministry by Andrew Root Copyright © 2012 by Andrew Root. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Preface to a Peculiar Project 9
1 The Chronicles of Nadia 13
2 The Bible, the Eunuch, and Hermeneutical Animals 21
3 The Authority of Scripture 47
4 What the Bible Is 73
5 Reading the Bible 93
Questions for Reflection and Discussion 115