Those who regularly read by blog know that I often write about how individual Christians, and the churches they lead, can relate to postmodern teenagers and young adults. In numerous blogs I have expressed the importance of music in these efforts. I have also discussed a variety of ways to use technology. I have stressed the importance of using more of a "discussion" format than a "lecture" format. I have also stressed the need to be open about our own weaknesses and failures as they relate to our spiritual journey. But recently a friend asked me how I actually teach the Bible to postmodern people. He expressed appreciation for my emphasis on music, technology, discussion and authenticity, but he longed to know how to open up the Bible and share its powerful truth with postmodern people who view that Book so differently than evangelical Christians. He addressed his question to me because I regularly speak to large groups of unchurched teenagers and young adults, and many of them are turning to faith in Christ. In his mind, I must be doing something right and he wanted to know what it was. What I share below is what I have learned from my own experience, it may not work for everyone, but it does work well for me.
When we prepare to teach or preach the Bible to teenagers or young adults, we need to remember that we live in a culture that is biblically illiterate. Most young adults do not know the stories in the Bible. Therefore, if we refer to biblical stories as illustrations, our young adult audience may not follow our flow of thought very well. This is not because they are stupid or uninterested. It is simply because they do not know the stories we are referring to so casually. If we want to use a biblical story as an illustration for some point we are making, we are going to have to take the time to tell that story to the audience. We simply cannot assume they already know it. The same would be true about using various words that may convey significant meaning to a churched audience, but have no meaning whatsoever to a non-churched listener.
In my personal experience, I have found it very helpful to pick a book of the Bible and teach through the entire book over a period of time. I pretty much teach through the book paragraph by paragraph. That helps the hearers build a base of understanding for that particular book. Then, when I refer back to a story from that same book, which was covered in a previous lesson, they tend to follow it better.
In addition to not having a general knowledge of the Bible, young adults do not automatically accept what they do know about the Bible as true. Even if we tell a biblical story that illustrates a point, or quote multiple verses that we think "proves" the truth we are teaching, we may not be convincing the listeners because young adults tend to be skeptical of absolute truth. Using a large number of verses from various parts of the Bible can actually be counter-productive. Part of this is due to them not knowing enough about the various parts of the Bible to be able to follow along, and part of this is due to a tendency for pastors and teachers to take one verse out of context when needing to "pump up" a weak exegesis of another verse. Young adults may not know much about the Bible, but they are not fooled by weak explanations or poor contextual analysis. Since jumping around from passage to passage is very confusing to them, giving them additional verses actually does not convince them any more than just giving them solid teaching on a subject from one good passage of scripture.
Personally, I have found that if I wrap the entire lesson around a single scripture passage and spend time explaining that passage well, young adults tend to be able to focus better on the truth that I am trying to convey. This is different than when I first started in ministry and "topical" studies were more in vogue. Topical studies are more helpful if the hearers have a general understanding of the Bible. Topical studies are less helpful if the hearers have little or no general understanding of Biblical teaching or theology.
Because teenagers and young adults are not sure the Bible is absolute truth, it makes little sense to ask them to make a spiritual commitment on the spot. This does not mean that we should not move them toward making deeply personal spiritual commitments; it simply means that they are unlikely to make such commitments instantly. Instead, preachers and teachers should consider challenging young adults to think deeply about the truth that has just been conveyed. Young adults should be challenged to reflectively contemplate biblical truth and only asked to make a commitment to that truth once they have come to a reflective conclusion. In my own ministry, I often tell the students in advance of certain dates in which we will be having a baptism, or some other spiritual milestone, and ask them to come see me before that date if they are ready to make some type of spiritual commitment. That allows them time to consider making a spiritual decision, but does not force them to decide without having thought it through completely.
Will teaching through the Bible a paragraph at a time with each lesson focused on that specific passage and then asking young adults to think about it on their own at a later date actually work? It sure works in our ministry in Vermont! Vermont is extremely postmodern. Vermont is the least religious state in America. Very few young adults in Vermont have a connection to a church of any kind, and even fewer have a connection to an evangelical church. Yet, the church that I help lead has over 180 teenagers enrolled in our youth ministry, with a weekly attendance at our primary youth gathering of 50-75 teens. We do not employ a paid youth worker, but have a team of adult volunteers who work together to lead the ministry. Most of the young adults we reach come without their parents.
It has been our experience that postmodern teenagers and young adults are curious about spiritual things and they do want to know that the Bible says about various issues they are facing in their lives. It may just take awhile before they accept biblical concepts as truth. When we get frustrated with how long it takes for them to come around, we remind ourselves of that wonderful Biblical truth that says no one comes to the Father unless the Spirit draws them. Let us teach and preach the Word, filled with His Spirit, and patiently await the Father to draw the next generation to Himself.