I struggled with reading the Bible as a teenager. After graduating from Sunday School with a certificate in scripture memorisation and a third-place finish in the annual Bible Quiz, I failed miserably at the task entrusted to me by every camp and youth leader of developing a regular ‘quiet time’ habit. Even though I was told (repeatedly) that reading the Bible was important to my relationship with God, I struggled to move beyond short bursts of reading when attempting to ‘draw closer to God’.
I exited my teens years wearing only the few rags of scriptures that had been passed on to me. I’m sure I was not alone in my experience.
Thirty years later not much has changed. According to research done in 2016 by the Barna Group, of the American teens who owned a Bible, forty-four percent read the Bible three or four times a year, and one in four (25%) say they read the Bible at least once a week; this includes three percent who report daily Bible reading.
So how can we help teens to read the Bible?
I suggest we take a walk with Jesus…to Emmaus.
The bitter taste of the Bible
Doctor Luke recounts a story of two disciples on their way to the village of Emmaus the Sunday after Jesus’ crucifixion (Luke 24:13-35). We are told that Cleopas and his travelling companion are downcast because they “had hoped that he (Jesus from Nazareth) was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). These two disciples clearly knew the Hebrew scriptures but the idea of the Messiah being a ‘suffering servant’, clashed with their belief of him being a conquering king in the mould of King David.
The Bible challenged their worldview.
The Bible has a way of doing that with our lives. Its stories invite us to view the world through different eyes. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.
The Apostle John would later write in his divine revelation about the time he ate a scroll, which tasted like honey but then “when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour” (Revelation 10:10).
The worldview of the Bible is ‘other’ and can leave a bitter taste in the life of the unsuspecting teen who is seeking to place their personal experience of life above the authority of the Bible.
Teens often approach the Bible like they do Google, with their questions. But the Bible won’t allow itself to be defined as a Q&A book about life. It is the announcement of a Kingdom that is now but not yet.
Perhaps we don’t warn teens enough about the radical nature of the Bible. We tell them to read it like it was a bedtime story about Bambi and not one about the Lion of Judah.
Talking about the Bible
After listening to the reasons for their despair, Jesus enters into a conversation with the two disciples about the Hebrew bible. Let’s hear that another way. The Bible was talking with them. The Word (made flesh) was in dialogue with them.
Professor Malan Nel, senior research fellow in Practical Theology at the University of Pretoria writes:
The word ‘word’ has become far too technical when we use it as ‘Word of God’ – in most cases referring to the written and even printed word of God: the Biblos/Book. It is of course not true. ‘Word’ refers first of all to talking. The talking God and the God talk, one can say. Thinking of it this way helps us to never forget that we are listening to a talking God and we are talking to a listening God. The Biblical report of this talk of God or this God talk carries the character of a dialogue.
By default, when we say to teens ‘read your Bible’, they will approach it just like any other book. But it’s not like any other book. Its stories reveal a conversation that has been taking place between God and humanity since the very beginning.
A teen who comes with an ear to listen is more likely to encounter a divine dialogue than just words on a page.
Eating the Bible
When they arrive at the village of Emmaus, the disciples ask Jesus to stay with them. “So he went in to stay with them” (Luke 24:29).
They invited the Word ‘inside’.
Centuries earlier the prophet Ezekiel was instructed to “eat what is before you, eat this scroll; then go and speak to the people of Israel” (Ezekiel 3:1). Ezekiel didn’t read the scroll. He digested it. It became part of his bloodstream. Ezekiel took it inside him and it gave him life.
Jesus was the Word dwelling among us (John 1:14) because he lived what was spoken of him. He was a living example of what was written in the scriptures.
Teens need to see the Bible in the flesh. They need to be witness to the re-living of the ancient story time and again by the adults around them. Teens need us to bridge the ancient world of the Bible and their post-modern world of today.
As Jesus joined Cleopas and his travelling companion on the road, so we too need to come along side teens and “explain(ed) to them what was said in all the Scriptures” by embodying the Word, so that the truths of Scripture are not just upon our lips but upon our lives.
Our lives should be Bible graffiti to this generation.
Experiencing the Bible
As the two disciples took the Living Word into their home, something happened in them. After Jesus left, they exclaimed: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).
This is my prayer for my two teenagers, the youth I minister with at the church and this generation of young people.
I pray that as they ‘taste and see’ that the Bible is ‘good’ (for them), they will encounter the person of Jesus who “took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them” (Luke 24:30) for every page of this ancient text is dripping with his life giving blood.