This month I had the privilege of speaking to a group of PCA youth leaders about the challenge of caring for teens who, as newcomers to the Bible, find themselves in a youth group where most of the other kids have grown up in the church. I think most youth groups qualify as “multi-level” in terms of their students’ biblical literacy skills and background knowledge, but in a large group of students (>50) the population of beginners will be particularly noticeable.
Being an older learner and having to catch up on basic biblical literacy can be embarrassing and frustrating for a teen or an adult, so addressing these needs sensitively is a must. Those of us who read the Bible competently as adults will need to grow in our awareness of the skills and background knowledge needed for the task – the tools in our biblical literacy toolkit, if you will: those Bible details that we’re no longer conscious of, like the order of the books or the difference between the Old and New Testaments or what all those little numbers mean. And we’ll need to share these tools with newcomers in ways that foster small successes in safe spaces, to reduce those feelings of incompetence and exposure when they realize they don’t already know what everybody else seems to.
I put together a packet of suggestions, examples and skills lists for our meeting, and it’s linked here for you to use as well. (It’s a Word document, and you have permission to alter and distribute any part of it that you wish.) Briefly, here are the three practical suggestions that I passed on to the youth leaders:
- Messaging: Make the goal of biblical literacy a public one, helping all the kids grow in their awareness of the “toolkit” that’s needed, even if they learned those skills long ago. Help them understand and care about the challenge of being an older learner. Be self-conscious about biblical literacy, calling attention to the skills and background knowledge that you’re tapping whenever you teach from the Bible.
- On-Ramp: Arrange for a regular, anticipated, lively, and brief tutoring session for the youth who need the basics – or, at the very least, use this time to equip peer tutors who can learn some things to pass on to their friends. (The attached packet has lists of skills to target, as well as a handful of quick and catchy teaching ideas. My favorite one is described below.)
- Scaffolding: a term from special education—it refers to the supports that you might offer in a large-group lesson so that kids who don’t already have the biblical literacy skills will be given a boost and be better able to keep up with the rest. Basically, this just means making a list of vocabulary, geography, history, and Bible details relevant to the target passage and introducing these elements before you start the lesson. Here’s an example of how I’d do this for Psalm 23.
(By the way, note that all of these approaches are also exactly what English Language Learners and students who struggle academically will need as they participate in a youth group, regardless of how much experience they already have with the Bible and the church.)
I love the fact that in the Book of Acts, all of the converts to the Christian faith were older learners who had to catch up on their biblical literacy. Even the Apostle Paul had to relearn his theology from the ground up! And all of those Gentiles who didn’t even have the Hebrew Scriptures (our OT) would have had a lot of homework to do. Let your older learners know that they are in good company, and that there’s no shame in being a beginner. Talk about what motivated those early Christians to keep going, if the task seems daunting or frustrating to your students.
You’ll find a handful of teaching ideas in the packet, but I’ll leave you with a quick “Bible hack” for now. One of the hardest things for a new learner (and one that feels the most defeating at first) is trying to find a specific passage in that big book.* You know how it is when you have a dictionary that doesn’t have the little cheat-notches, but you can still estimate about where “mellifluous” would be because you know the Alphabet Song? Well, those Bible books aren’t in ABC order, so a beginner has no clue what’s at the beginning, middle, or end. So do this to help them orient themselves:
- Open your Bible in the middle. What’s there? (Depending on the amount of extra material at the end of their version, it’s usually Psalms or Isaiah/Jeremiah.)
- What kind of book is this? (Wisdom Literature/Major Prophet)
- What’s just before this book? (Wisdom Literature)
- What’s just after this book? (Major Prophets)
- Now take the last half of the Bible and open it in the middle. What’s there? (It will be NT, usually a Gospel.)
- What’s just before the Gospels? (Those elusive Minor Prophets! Tah Dah!)
Have some fun while you care for your older learners, both beginners and old-timers. Since nobody ever arrives at “perfect” biblical literacy, even the leaders will benefit from revisiting their biblical literacy toolkit sometimes!
*Yes, I know that lots of people today access the Bible on one electronic device or another, and so you’d think that it might not be necessary anymore to help them navigate the actual book version. Now, I’m no Luddite, and I certainly recognize and rejoice in the convenience of mobile technology. But there is so much incidental learning that happens when you have an actual Bible in your hands and have to flip through it to find what you’re looking for. As youth leaders, you’d be giving your kids a gift to do this the old-fashioned way. Put a hard-copy Bible in their hands and teach them how to find their way around in it. They’ll learn Before/After, neighbors (groups of books filed together), relative size, comparative layout (poetry v. prose), and the contents of the two Testaments just from rummaging around trying to find Jonah or Philemon.
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