“Do you think the Bible is true?” My college professor looked me straight in the eye and coyly requested a response. We had just read the two passages in Genesis that depict the story of Noah’s ark. In chapter 6, God asked Noah to bring two of all living creatures, male and female. In chapter 7, God told Noah to bring seven pairs of all clean animals and one pair of all unclean. My professor wanted to know: If the Bible contradicts itself, can it be true? I was 18 years old.
That moment began my reckoning with the Scriptures and faith that had been given to me at birth. My church taught me to love the stories of the Bible and the God they depict, and now my college was asking me to explore that faith more deeply. Along my journey through college and beyond, I felt a persistent tension – perhaps I would need to choose between the unwavering faith of my parents and the critical scholarship of my professors.
Train Up a Child
Do youth think the Bible is true? I regularly wonder how we as church leaders might invite youth to believe. There is a children’s curriculum called Godly Play that I think of as a helpful model. Built on the work of the Rev. Dr. Jerome Berryman, Godly Play invites young children into the stories of Scripture. It nourishes that innate capacity of children to wonder – “Why, Mom? Why, Dad? How, Teacher?”
Godly Play transforms the classroom into a sacred space with bookshelves holding the stories of Scripture. Props for each story enable the teacher to share not simply by reading the story but by bringing it to life. It truly is an exercise in storytelling. Lessons conclude with wondering questions such as:
- I wonder what you liked about this story?
- I wonder what you didn’t like?
- I wonder where you see yourself in this story?
It’s a curriculum, I’d suggest, that prepares children to ask and respond to “grown-up” questions about the Bible and faith.
Training Youth for Lifelong Faith and Ministry
When I served at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, I discovered what I think of as a youth version of Godly Play: an engaging group of high school youth theology programs located on college, university, seminary or theological school campuses.
For example, Duke annually hosts the Duke Youth Academy for Christian Formation (DYA). It is a space for youth to dive more deeply into their faith. Dr. Fred Edie and his colleagues built a program that asked each participant questions like, “What does it mean to be baptized?” and “How do you live as a faithful Christian?” They brought the Scriptures to life for youth, helping them practice spiritual disciplines and imagine how faith matters for their lives.
There are 100+ of these youth theology programs at colleges and universities across the country, and they comprise the Youth Theology Network (YTN). Supported by Lilly Endowment Inc. and resourced by the Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE), where I serve as a consultant, these programs welcome rising 9th-12th graders for unique on-campus experiences. They focus on bridging the gap in faith formation from high school to college and beyond.
These programs are collaborating with churches to cultivate the next generation of Christian leaders. They listen to youth ministers and learn how to support them well. They offer summer weeklong experiences for high schoolers, sometimes coupled with yearlong mentoring and service opportunities back at home. They also support alumni as they enter college, offering on-campus resources and leadership roles.
The Youth Theology Network programs are helping youth explore the Scriptures, engage with contemporary moral and ethical challenges, and consider whether and how they might serve in ministry someday.
Youth Theology Network in Action
In this time of pandemic, many YTN programs are innovating virtual approaches to high school youth ministry.