This summer, my student leaders and I are reading and discussing Help! I'm a Student Leader by Doug Fields.
The week before our summer mission trip, we discussed Ch. 3 of this book, entitled “Student Leaders Deepen Their Faith.” As part of our discussion, I asked students to rank-order four things that impact faith: Relationships, experiences (retreats, conferences, regular youth group meetings, etc.), service (mission trips & regular justice work), and reading Scripture. What I learned was not surprising. According to my students, relationships have most impacted their faith while Scripture has least impacted it.
Even though this didn't surprise me, I'll admit it left me feeling disheartened.
I mean, I'm a youth worker. I want students to love, value, and appreciate Scripture, especially since I regularly see them do these things at youth group. There, they willingly dig into Scripture, wrestle with it, ask questions, and learn from it. Despite this, I suspect the results of my survey reflect the fact that outside of youth group, even my student leaders rarely, if ever, open their Bibles.
Having realized this, I left this meeting excited for our recent mission trip to Red Lake Indian Reservation through Youth Works Missions, knowing that our schedule would force these students to take a 30-minute quiet time each morning.
On the first day, the program staffer introduced devoes and told students they'd have an impact on their day, something that many of my students vehemently disagreed with.
At the end of their first quiet time, students were saying things like, “Why do we have to do this?” “Can't I do this with a friend?” and “This is boring.”
In response to these comments, I asked students to keep trying. I told them to work through their devotional book, journal, or pray. I challenged them to explore Scripture, typically recommending they start with Psalms, the Gospel of John, or a book of the Bible they'd never heard of. I let them know I'd be praying for them and that I wanted to hear more about how their time was going.
By Day Three, the conversation changed dramatically. Instead of saying, “This is boring”, students started asking questions. One student excitedly came up to me and asked about a name that sounded like gibberish. Eventually, I figured out she was talking about Nehemiah, which she continued reading throughout the week. Each day, I looked forward to hearing her observations and to answering her questions. Most of all, I looked forward to seeing her and others engage with and learn from Scripture on their own.
Because this is a practice and discipline that will serve students well in the future, especially as they transition to college and go through the difficult process of finding a church or campus ministry.
While faith is communal, research from the National Study of Youth and Religion and College Transition Project supports the idea that community is not enough to make the faith of our teens stick after they graduate from youth group and survive the difficult transition to college and adulthood.
Among other things, for this to happen, students must not only take ownership of their faith, they must also learn to grow in their faith even during those times when no one is encouraging them to do so. Teaching students to read, wrestle with, value, and love Scripture on their own is one of the best ways we can do this.
If, that is, we can leave out the legalism and guilt that so often gets attached to this practice.
I don't ever want my students to feel as though they're somehow less Christian, less of a child of God, if they miss their daily quiet time.
What I want them to know is the story of their faith and their place in it. Scripture teaches this.
What I want them to know is Jesus, who we meet best in the pages of Scripture. More specifically, I want them to intimately know the words of Jesus, including his call to love God and others. I want them to understand that Scripture teaches both. In Jesus, we encounter a revolutionary who transformed the world. The more we get to know him, the more we learn to love God and our neighbors. In the stories of Scripture, we also learn about justice. We're reminded that injustice surrounds us and that as followers of Christ, we are called, even now, to reject complacency and make his kingdom a reality here on earth. This radical calling brings purpose to our lives.
My hope is that during their recent quiet times on our summer mission trip, my students fell more in love with Jesus and that in the process, they began to see themselves in a way that gave them comfort, hope, value, and purpose.
My hope is that those quiet times wet their appetite for more and that they will continue to explore Scripture on their own. I hope that in a year, if I were once again to poll my student leaders, I'd discover the prominent role Scripture played in the development of their faith.
I want this for them.
I long for this for them... Not because I think they're bad people if they don't read Scripture but because I think they'll be changed people if they do.