A young boy was walking around the playground pulling a piece of string. His teacher approached him and asked, “Why are you pulling that piece of string?” The boy replied, “Because it’s a lot easier than pushing it.”
When it comes to encouraging young people to read God’s word, it’s a lot easier to lead from the front than to push from the back. When adults engage in regular personal Bible study, teenagers can much more easily develop a lifelong habit themselves.
Having said that though, even in churches and families with good adult role models, Christian teenagers can often be indifferent about personal Bible study. Ask them to list their favorite activities, and personal Bible reading is rarely one of them. But ask what will help in their Christian life, and studying God’s word will almost certainly come top. So how do we help teenagers see that what is good for them may also be enjoyable?
(Just to say, if you actually are a teenager reading this, all these things apply to adults too but they’re more likely to read it if it’s not targeted at them. People are generally happier reading about how to change other people rather than themselves. Also, bear in mind that it’s a really good thing if there are adults in your life who want to read the Bible more.)
Three positive message those teenagers (who definitely aren’t reading this) need to hear:
1. The Bible is about Jesus not us.
When we approach the Bible thinking it’s about us, most of it seems completely irrelevant. The exasperated teen asks, “How do these levitical laws or endless genealogies help me do my homework or cope with the tensions in my friendship group?!” As a result, the Bible either lies unread, or passages must be twisted to be about us—making Bible study very hard work. Sally Lloyd Jones’ introduction to the excellent Jesus Storybook Bible makes the same point, “The Bible isn’t about us and what we should be doing, it’s about God and what he has done.”
The message of the Bible then is the good news about Jesus. As Paul reminds Timothy, the holy Scriptures “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 3 v 15). We need to remind our teenagers of the same thing. When they read God’s word from this perspective (that of offering, describing and testifying to Christ) it makes a lot more sense. Paul then adds that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Sadly even some our most ‘Bible-centered’ ministries reverse the priority of this.
Jesus himself was exasperated when the Pharisees made this mistake. They wish to be teachers of righteousness, training and equipping people in works, but John’s gospel records Jesus saying, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, and yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (5:39-40). Their Bible study is missing the very purpose for which it was written. If our teens are to enjoy the Bible, they need to be reminded that the Bible is about Jesus.
2. God loves you whether you’re reading the Bible or not.
It’s easy to give the impression that reading the Bible earns God’s favor. You’d think this would increase teen Bible reading, but actually, the opposite is true. Young people generally end up thinking: “Because I haven’t been reading God’s word, He’s not very happy with me. So I’ll avoid God and feel like a fraud in Christian company.” To get back in God’s good books (pardon the pun) then takes a major act of recommitment. Just notice how personal Bible reading spikes after a Christian residential trip, then declines as the “recommitment experience” wears off.
We don’t read the Bible so God thinks we’re great, but so we remember that He is. The Father in the story of the Prodigal doesn’t start loving his wayward offspring because he heard he’d “come to his senses” in a far-off pigsty. No, he loved him all the time. Picking up the Bible up after a long break doesn’t require any act of recommitment on a teenager’s part at all. Incidentally, the older brother (who also wrongly believed the Father’s love had to be earned) is the equivalent of the diligent Bible reader who thinks ‘devotions’ describe their activity rather than God’s.
3. Bible times don’t have to be quiet times.
I once saw a child’s t-shirt that said, “God loves you more when you’re quiet.” It’s an idea that I don’t think we quite grow out of.
Now, obviously there is a significant number of Bible verses promoting quietness and stillness, so I’m not saying silent contemplation doesn’t have its place. And many of us could probably do with slowing down a little each day. But the reason it’s important to stress the difference between personal Bible reading and volume is that Jesus didn’t just come to save introverts. He came to save sinners of all sorts. And his Word is to be enjoyed by all of them too. Many teens see Bible study as something other people do, or that they might do when they’re older because literal “quiet times” just aren’t the kind of thing they’re into. So you can encourage teens to act out Acts, declare Deuteronomy or sing the Psalms. You can read aloud, draw what you read, write songs as a response. Good Bible study notes can help teenagers engage with God’s word in creative ways and multimedia resources may be good too.
Bible Reading? Sweet.
If we want our teens to agree with the Psalmist that the Bible is sweet like honey and more precious than gold, we’ll do well to remind them of these things. And if we really want to change their habits we might even want to be reminded of them ourselves.