It Starts With a Challenge: Getting Our Teenagers Into the Bible

By Mark DeVries

As a teenager, I was challenged to read the Bible on my own, not just read with others in my youth group in a Bible study, but on my own.  No one would be ringing a bell or setting a timer for me.  The challenge was for me to take the initiative myself.

I can still remember that first morning of reading.  I woke up a little earlier, sat at our kitchen table, opened up my Reach Out New Testament and started to read, though I had absolutely no clue where to start.  I have no recollection at all about the specific content I read that morning.

What I do remember is my mom coming into the kitchen and asking what in the world I was doing up so early.  Noticing the hour and that I was reading the Bible, she asked, “Honey, don’t you think you need to get more sleep?”

And that day, I chose to continue reading.  And that choice, in spite of (maybe because of) the awkwardness, launched me into the wobbly habit of reading the Scripture.  Over the next 35 (sometimes unsettled and unsettling) years, no spiritual practices sustained me and kept me anchored as a follower of Christ quite like the practice of regularly engaging with the Scripture on my own.  Though there have been seasons of haphazard inconsistency, of doubting God, and of neglect, seldom a week has gone by over the past 3 and a half decades that I didn’t find myself opening the Bible for myself.

And it all started with a single challenge from a single leader.

In a time when biblical illiteracy is rampant, when most church-going youth (and adults for that matter!) have settled into a mushy, uninformed, build-your-own-god approach to the Christianity, I’m thrilled that the Center for Biblical Studies has created the Bible Challenge.  This simple initiative has the potential to do for countless sleeping Christians what my youth leader did for me so many years ago: Invite the young (and not so young) into deliberate, regular, personal engagement with the text of the Bible outside of any formal teaching and learning setting .

As a youth pastor for over 30 years now, having watched thousands of youth pass through our ministries, I’ve observed a few patterns among those students who live out their faith anchored in the spiritual practice of personal study of the Scripture.  The more of these patterns are in place, the more likely it is that our youth will continue in the life-giving, faith-shaping habit of regular Scripture reading on their own.  To that end, I offer the five characteristics of youth who become lifelong students of Scripture for themselves:

  1. They Are Surrounded by Parents and Other Adults Engaged in Bible Study Themselves:  One of the patterns showing up again and again in the research on the spirituality of adolescence is that parents generally “get what they are” when it comes to the faith of their children.  If young people have parents who are themselves regularly in the habit of studying the Scripture on their own, those youth are much more likely to develop a similar lifelong practice.  In addition, youth having significant relationships with other adults outside the family for whom personal Bible reading is the norm can have a similar beneficial effect.
  2. They Are Challenged to Try Out the Spiritual Practice of Personal Bible Reading for Themselves:  We will never know exactly when a young person might be primed and ready for such a challenge.  And so the wise parent and pastor makes sure that such invitations are just a regular part of the hidden (or not so hidden) curriculum of the church and the youth ministry.
  3. They Are Given a Place to Start: I clearly remember my leaders giving me lots of places and plans for reading.  I started with the Proverb of the day, reading Proverbs 1 on the first of the month, Proverbs 2 on the second, etc.  At other times, I did a psalm a day, and still other times divided the Bible into chunks that allowed me to complete the reading of the entire New Testament or Old Testament or entire Bible in a year.
  4. They Connect With Other Youth Who Practice the Christian Oddity of Reading Their Own Bibles: When I started my Bible reading regimen, I did so with a group of friends in a youth group with me.  The challenge came from an adult, but the stickiness of the practice came from the fact that 2 or 3 other guys were taking on the same challenge together.  There will be those, even in the church, who make fun of those who read their Bibles on their own (I had a few of those in my seminary!).  Being a part of a community that values this practice can keep us “in the game,” even when others might pigeonhole this practice as unsophisticated or fundamentalist.
  5.  They Are Invited to Re-Engage With Lots of Grace: For some youth, failing at Bible reading can become loaded with guilt and shame, so much so that they assume that their falling away from reading the Bible must mean that they no longer believe in God at all.  As surely as a teenager begins the practice of regular Bible reading, he or she will experience seasons when the chaos of growing up interrupts the habit.   For those youth, a grace-based community can invite that youth back into the habit of studying the Scripture without guilt-laden attempts to persuade.

I hope you’ll join the Center for Biblical Studies and me in taking on a different kind of Bible Challenge: The challenge of inviting teenagers into the regular practice of reading the Bible on their own.  Someone took on that challenge for me, and my life and faith are inestimably different because of it.

Mark DeVries is the Associate Pastor for Youth and Their Families at First Presbyterian Church, Nashville, Tennessee.  He is the author of Sustainable Youth Ministry and the founder of Youth Ministry Architects, a consulting team that works with churches in transition in their youth ministries.