I have a concern about one concept that is affecting all of the various ministries in the church, but I want to specifically focus on youth ministry and how this concept is affecting and changing it. My area of concern is what I am going to call intellectualism.
I define intellectualism as the process in which growth can only be realized and achieved by utilizing fresh, newly discovered information in contrast to the simple and profound. It is the concept that you must always teach something new rather than something simple (that is, the Bible). Though the exploration of new truth, and exposing ourselves to ideas that we previously did not know, is a good practice and a needed part of spiritual growth, intellectualism creates an adverse climate in youth ministries and churches across our nation. Intellectualism looks down upon the simple, yet profound, teaching of the Word of God in favor of teaching new ideas with fresh methods.
Intellectualism has been packaged with many different marketing labels and catch phrases, like “digging deeper,” “going beneath the surface,” “teens need to be challenged harder,” “relevant truth,” “creative times with God,” “a fresh perspective,” and many other ways to describe ministry growth using all kinds of explosive adjectives.
In themselves, these ideas and phrases are not wrong; they just represent an accommodation to the social and cultural norms that pull on us as communicators. As absolute truth has given way to relativism in our culture, the lust for “fresh and new ideas” has gained great strength. When our world strays further into the philosophy where everyone defines their own truth, it seems to create a lust for newness. And while no one seems to be able to tell anyone else they are right or wrong, many love to admire someone’s journey to find new knowledge, new ideas. This concept has crept into the youth culture of the church and is changing the way we minister.
Our students seem to get “bored” in church faster than ever before, as they realize that studying the Bible is hard work in “an old, familiar book” (as opposed to fresh and new) and this kind of Bible study is expected all week long. Many think they should be able to come to church to lounge and relax instead of coming to seek, learn, and grow. And when they encounter this mindset, youth leaders often have one of three reactions.
Reaction 1: Insecurity
Sometimes we feel that the kids are not engaged because of our inadequacy as a teacher (and that may be a reason); but regardless of our own abilities, even the best youth leader can become very insecure. We may try to shock our teens with fresh, new ideas or feel we can’t ever repeat truth previously studied. This leads our ministry away from a focus on the simple truths of God’s Word.
Reaction 2: The Overachiever Mentality
Related to insecurity, this mentality causes some leaders to feel that we always need to teach something new or we need to stretch farther than we ever have in order to keep attention and growth in our youth groups.
Reaction 3: The Balanced Approach
This approach understands that we will need to teach repetitive truth at times, because the Bible repeats itself often and cross-references itself. It also is content to teach the Word of God and let the simple truths of each passage be profound, seeking to apply how we can use the simple truth in our lives.
Too often I’ve seen teens (and later on college age young people and adults) who are so stuffed with truth that seeking to apply it and live it out is lost in the sea of knowledge. We don’t need to reach for new ideas and new concepts every time we teach. It would be far better to teach the Bible in a simple yet profound way and help teens focus on living out the truth they know.
The sad way I have seen this manifesting itself in our youth culture is that youth communicators feel more and more that they have to apologize for being “boring” if the biblical truth they are teaching is something that isn’t brand new, or if the truth is “simple” instead of “fresh.” Don’t get me wrong—for the youth ministry leader to be boring with God’s truth is not a good idea. We need to be dynamic and creative in our presentation of God’s Word. I just want to encourage you not to be enslaved by the idea that repeating biblical truth, or teaching simple truths, should be avoided if we want to be good and effective Bible teachers.
I think it would be a great idea for us to let our teens know there will be times as we study the Word of God that they will hear a passage or truth they’ve heard before. We should instruct them that when this happens, don’t turn off your brains, but resolve to apply the truth principle to your life. It’s good to remind our students that the Christian life is not a sprint, but a marathon. We should be continually striving to live for Christ in every way until we are in His presence, since we will never be perfect this side of Heaven. Often I have said to my students that when God repeats Himself in His Word, it’s not because He has a speech impediment; it’s because we have a learning disability. With this mentality we will slowly melt away from the insecurities that plague us and the over-achiever mode that is easy to slip into.
When we free ourselves from the bondage of intellectualism (always having to teach something new) we are free to help teens get back to the heart of Bible study. We can once again bring back the lost art of observing the text. What a joy it is to see teens read a passage and make observations (that maybe even seem simple) from that text and see biblical truth that applies directly to their lives. In this paradigm, I often say to my students: “Let the simple be profound.” When we are always seeking the new, we can easily step away from Scriptures and roam ever closer to our own ideas. But when we allow the simple truths of God’s Word to truly sink in, they shake us to the core!
Teaching through the Word of God systematically in Bible book studies, character studies, the life of Christ—we need to be balanced in our approach to what we teach. When we teach the Bible this way, we have the perfect opportunity to exemplify Hebrews 4:12 and 2 Timothy 3:16-17. God’s Word is powerful and it is full of great truth that does transform lives. All we really have to do, as we teach it, is believe it and present it accurately! The next time you feel anxious about your lesson because it seems like a repeat or it seems simple, pour yourself into presenting it correctly and dynamically and challenge your students to let the simple be profound. Then watch God’s Word impact lives.
(Coming soon: Part 3)