I was pretty much born in Sunday School with a Bible in hand. My dad has been a senior pastor since 1998, and before that, he was ministering in youth and assistant pastoring roles at various congregations. As if that weren’t enough to bolster my religious résumé, both of my grandfathers were lead pastors at varying stages of their lives as well. Needless to say, I’ve always been in church. Sunday School is more a part of who I am and less a place I go to every week.
So much of what’s taught in Sunday School within mainline Christianity, though, fails to deliver what students actually need. The place where teens should be learning how to read and study their Bibles has become a place that reduces Scripture to a series of moralistic stories that seek to make them “good.” Such is why scores of students graduate without a firm grasp on how to read their Bible rightly.
Reading the Bible wrongly means reading it with you at the center of it all (also known as narcigesis). We oftentimes go hero-hunting in the biblical narrative, hoping our teens emulate the spiritual superstars and steer clear of the degenerates. In every story, we look for the victor and seek to apply their victory to our lives. In this way, we’re no longer actually preaching from God’s Word. Rather, we’re delivering speeches from the Aesop’s Fables Bible. “Here’s a story about this guy or that girl, and here’s the moral lesson we can learn from them.” “Be like this person; don’t be like that person.” As such, teens are made to believe that God only works with and in and through the spiritually strong and heroically holy. It’s no wonder, then, that Christian youth culture is in such decline.
Our incessant self-centered interpretation of Scripture has led to this inevitable dilemma. All too often, our ego and self-importance slips into the way we read and study God’s Word. Lengthy passages, entire books even, are taken out of context and refocused to align with our self-absorbed spirituality that masquerades as “Christian.” What a testament to our inescapable sin nature that even our Bible reading can turn into a self-righteous performance.
There’s a profound need for a resurgence of Christological youth ministries. I, too, see and feel this need. I have prayerfully sought to remain principally Jesus-centered in every sermon I deliver. As a youth leader, I must be stubbornly resolve myself to read and preach the Bible with glasses dipped in crimson. The interpretive lens for all of Scripture is the blood of Christ, spilled for my faults, on behalf of my sins. Rather than being merely a manual by which we seek to instill morals into our youth, God’s Word ought to be viewed as a divine narrative of rebellion, redemption, and rescue, all pointing to the true Deliverer for all mankind. It’s the story of how a righteous God can love and save and adopt unrighteous people, and call them his own. All through the body and blood of Jesus.
The hero of every story and the subject of every message is Christ crucified. He is the narrative. He is the point. Therefore, the story of David and Goliath isn’t about your teens’ faith winning the day. It’s about God’s faith for them, and God’s Son stepping out on their behalf and taking their place. They don’t have to be God’s champion. Christ is God’s champion, the One who steps into the fray on their behalf. He goes into the gap to take on their fight as his own. He goes into the battlefield for them to slay sin, death, and hell by his righteous grace. Jesus is the victor. He is the champion of God and the advocate for sinners, like you and me.
Likewise, the Parable of the Good Samaritan isn’t a biblical grid through which we can determine our teens’ level of compassion for the needy. It’s not about getting them to see themselves as the indifferent Priest or the uncaring Levite in hopes of them making a decision to be more like the sympathetic Samaritan. No, they need to see themselves as the beaten and bruised traveler who’s left for dead in the ditch. It’s Jesus who is the Good Samaritan. He’s the Redeemer who meets us in our ruin. He’s the Healer who hunts down those who are in shambles. He’s Restorer who has promised to fix all our brokenness by his righteous grace.
In the end, all our moralistic sermons from the Aesop’s Fables Bible just confound the message of Scripture and implicitly train teenagers to understand God as one who only uses good people who don’t mess up. My teens don’t need to be given another moralistic message about what they need to strive to be like. They need to be told about the One who came to live and die for them. They need to be told that Christ came to earth not to fraternize with the clean people but to make clean the filthy. That Jesus comes for sinners because sinners are all that there are.
Jesus is our sermon. He’s all your teens need to hear. If I truly want to inspire my youth with the message of grace, I should start by reading and teaching my Bible rightly. Instead of from a stance of victory unsure and unsettled, I start from a stance of victory secured and assured already by the Truer and Greater Victor.