The not-so-surprising answer to teen anxiety
The biggest need in youth ministry isn’t better games or cooler leaders, but deep, gospel-rooted, Scripture-saturated, Christ-exalting theology.
I was getting ready to preach on Easter morning and I felt anxious. Every year, our church holds a breakfast before the Easter service. It’s typically a joyful time to celebrate the resurrection together as a church family, but this particular year my mind was screaming to me, “Don’t go! Don’t be around people!”
Normally I’m not an anxious person. I’ve never had a panic attack, and I usually don’t feel nervous before preaching since I’ve been doing it for a while. But for some reason, this morning was different. Thankfully, once I got to church and opened my mouth to preach, all the anxiety melted away.
But what if it didn’t?
What if the anxiety clung to me like a koala to a tree? That’s the reality many teenagers face these days. Researchers have noted the rise of anxiety among teenagers as reported by the New York Times, but answers as to why have been in short supply.
Teenagers aren’t the only ones who are anxious, however. Anxiety seems to afflict parents too, especially Christian parents. Of particular concern for believing parents is the potential of their children “dropping out” of the Christian faith once they get to college. Now, the infamous evangelical “drop out” rate has largely been debunked (See Brandon Shields’ chapter in Perspectives on Family Ministry: 3 Views). Yet, everyone would agree that the church (and parents) has the responsibility to teach children God’s Word before they are sent out to college or the workforce.
But not all methods of teaching the Bible are created equal. In my view, the best method is to use “biblical theology.” Biblical theology isn’t about my theology being biblical while yours is unbiblical. Biblical theology is a method for reading the Bible. As Jim Hamilton puts it, biblical theology is about embracing the “interpretive perspective of the biblical authors.”
In other words: read the Bible like Jesus and the apostles did. How did they do that? They saw the Bible telling one big story leading to Jesus. The New Testament writers saw Jesus as the Last Adam, the perfect Noah who brings rest, the seed of Abraham who blesses the nations, the true Israel who shines God’s glory to the world, and the Davidic King who rules and reigns with justice. Biblical theology then reads all of the smaller stories in light of the Bible’s big story, which unfolds through different covenants that God makes with people.
So why exactly is biblical theology important for teenagers? Here are a few reasons.
1. Biblical theology gives students what they really need: Jesus
Much youth ministry curriculum boils down to “Be a nice person!” or “Don’t have premarital sex.” While such admonitions are important, what students really need is a confrontation with Jesus. He saves teenagers. He changes teenagers. So if youth pastors like me are teaching the Bible without connecting each lesson or passage to Jesus, we’ve failed.
2. Biblical theology gives students the true story of the whole world
Every person lives in light of a larger story, whether they acknowledge it or not. They believe certain things about where they’ve come from, who they are, and where they are going. Those are all story categories. When pastors teach the Bible’s big story, they present “the true story of the whole world.” Teens, then, can draw out their deepest meaning and significance in light of that story, God’s story.
3. Biblical theology gives students a challenge
Most books on interpreting the Bible tell their readers to place each smaller passage in light of the bigger story. But few people do. Why? Because it’s pretty hard. Doing “biblical theology” is not easy because you need to know your Bible front-to-back, back-to-front. You can’t make connections between passages if you don’t know they are there.
But I believe students are up to the challenge of doing biblical theology. If they can master complex technology, they can know the word deeply. Maybe one of the reasons that students seem lackadaisical about the Bible is because they’ve never been challenged to know it. Maybe they’ve never been shown its richness. Teaching them biblical theology can give them a challenge; a challenge that they might just step up for.
Let’s not shrink back from teaching our students the Bible—the whole Bible.