Students reading their Bibles isn’t your problem [Mark Riddle]

Topic / Discipleship

Question about teens reading their bibles from FacebookThis week we’re doing something new here at Life In Student Ministry. I asked you all on Facebook what questions you’d like us to answer and this week each of the authors here will answer the most “liked” question from their own perspective.

The question is this: “What are the most practical, yet effective, ways to get students to read (not speed-read) the Bible on their own?”

Adam Wormann started us off last Monday and Tim Schmoyer followed with his post on Tuesday. Jonathan McKee chimed in yesterday and now it’s Mark Riddle’s input to this question. Tony Myles wraps it up tomorrow.

Teen reading the Bible[ by Mark Riddle ]

I have an affinity for youth pastors who hope for students to integrate the Bible into their lives. I suppose this is because I’m a fan of youth workers, a fan of God, and a fan of students and see the profound ways God transforms us all through the scripture.

Of course, the trick with a question like this is in our hidden assumptions. Mine, as the reader, and yours, as the person with the question. Let’s look for an answer together as we unpack a few of these assumptions.

1. You can’t make someone read their Bible. This seems obvious, but it’s helpful to say.

2. You might be able to “get” someone to read their own Bible, but “getting” someone to read their Bible, but that’s not really the point is it? If I put you in a situation where you are reading the Bible it is probably a notch below making someone read their Bible.

3. The reason both 1 and 2 are difficult and borderline manipulative is that we’re working your agenda here, not the students. In fact, I can’t see anything representing the students agenda in this question, aside from the assumption that students don’t read their own Bible, or that there may be some kind of speed-reading community that is problematic for your context. I guess I’m saying, you “getting” a kid to read his/her Bible can be a good motivation, but isn’t always redemptive for the kid you’re trying to… ahem… get to read their Bible.

4. What is on the kid’s radar? Not all kids. Not all “your” kids. Not the guys or girls. But this individual. What does this kid care about? I’m assuming you’re asking about an individual, not all your kids. You can ask a question about a group, but I can’t answer it. You are on the ground. Does this student talk about a faith in God when you talk to them? Are they satisfied with their faith where it is? Are they looking for it to grow? Can they read? (Seriously.)

5. It’s not your responsibility. You are not responsible to God on whether or not the teens in your ministry read their Bibles. Maybe it would be good to reread that last sentence. If you agree with it, do you act like it? If you disagree, see points #1, #2, and #3. You aren’t responsible for teens faith in Jesus. If you feel like it is your job and that you are responsible for the faith or spiritual disciplines of teens then you’re with either wildly naive, co-dependent, or arrogant. Of course we all waiver between these three things but when we do it’s helpful to recognize that the students aren’t the problem at that point… we are.

6. Connected to #5, it’s not your problem. Solutions that last will come from the person who carry the responsibility for faith, not an outside source. You can impose solutions, give advice, and you can guilt a kid into having time alone reading their Bible, but if you feel like this is your problem to solve, it will always be your problem and not theirs. Give the problem back to the student. They’ll read their Bibles more often in the short run, but resent you (and maybe their faith) in the long run.

7. I feel like we’re getting closer to answering your question… let’s keep going.

8. A teenager reading a Bible is a relatively new thing in the history of the church. Shoot, a person reading a Bible is a new thing. Owning your own Bible (student or otherwise) is even more rare. In fact in the history of both the old and new testaments you’re looking at about 6,500 years of no personal scripture what-so-ever vs. 1,500 years (which is very generous) for even the technology to print a personal book for oneself. And if we’re talking about literacy, we’re hundreds of years, not thousands. I say this because sometimes it’s easy to think about personal Bible study as the cornerstone of faith and transformation when historically it’s never has been. This is not to say that Bible reading is unhelpful, only to say that we in the modern church get a bit worked up about kids who don’t read their Bibles.

9. Because of #8 scripture was not read by most people even in groups. Scripture was heard. Could it be that faith comes by hearing? Scripture is heard, together. Scripture was wrestled with, together. Scripture was lived out… together. Which leads to #10.

10. What does scripture say about reading scripture? The scripture never tells us to read the Bible by ourselves as individuals. (I guess this is obvious in light of #8). Scripture is always a communal event. Paul’s letters were written and read out lead to the whole church. Do you read the Bible together in your youth ministry? I assume a hardy yes or you wouldn’t be asking this kind of question. When you read it, are your students reading or listening? or both? Does scripture take center stage of your time together or does your talk? Where does the agenda of the other students (see #4) enter into transformation in your youth ministry? In what ways does your ministry attempt to live out scripture? Notice that I didn’t ask, “In what ways do you as the youth pastor attempt to have the ministry live out the scripture?” That questions misses the point. Scripture integrated into individuals in a youth ministry community comes from the work God is in the students.

11. If we aren’t making students read scripture and we are “getting” students to read scripture, then maybe an alternative is invitation. Invite students to read or listen with your group. Invite teens to explore kids to engage the scripture you read last week or the week before. Invitation gives power back to them for their faith. Invitation reminds you that manipulation isn’t the work of a pastor. Invitation honors the teen in ways they might not get in other areas of their life.

12. Invite kids into your community as you seek to be faithful to God together. Historically this may make a greater impact on the lives of teens than anything else you do.

I hope this gets close to your question and maybe the questions others might have as well.

QUESTION: How can we invite students to engage with scripture?

Posted on September 15, 2011

  • adamwormann

    I love you, Mark Riddle.

    Seriously, this is a great response. I just need to sit on that for a while.

  • I love point #5 and totally agree with it. One finds freedom (as spiritual leader) when he understands that it is the individual's responsibility to grow spiritually. We can come up with all kinds of ideas and programs, but we can't make anyone grow in Christ-likeness. A few years back a student of mine kept asking me to take them deeper… After wrestling with the request for quite a while it dawned on me that I can only speak the truth to them but I cannot go deeper for anyone. You see a parent can't do the growing for their child as much as they love that child and would like to to the growing for them. A parent can only create the best environment he/she can create for that child to develop and become the best human being he/she could be.
    That being said, we as leaders of youth can't get lazy. We still have an important role to play in their spiritual growth/journey.

  • humbleservant43

    It sounds like youth pastors don't have any responsibilities here. Seriously, some of the things on here make no sense. If the Bible isn't to be read personally, according to Scripture, then the point of a pastor is? There would be no sermon preparation, no sermons, just "communal readings." By not teaching kids how to read their Bibles, we are implying that we, not Scripture, have all the answers. I agree with #1 that we can't make someone read their Bibles, but couldn't we show them how? I really can't make sense of #2. I may have misread, but it sounds like you're saying that reading the Bible is a notch below making someone read theirs. If that's the case then all I'll say is wow. Outside of Scripture, I have nothing. The Bible is inerrant, all that I have to offer outside of it can and will be flawed. #3 is characteristic of the "seeker church" where we worry so much about the people that we forget about God. #5? I agree it's not our responsibility to get them to read their Bibles. However, we are to show the importance of it and personal Bible study correct? 2 Timothy 4:2 does say to Preach the Word right? Not preach about it, but preach It. We aren't responsible for their faith. To an extent that's true, but what about John 21:16? Aren't we told to tend the flock by "rightly handling the word of truth?" #6 I'd agree with. #8 I really can't believe that you said. Basically, only the pastor should have a Bible and the rest should read at the church because that is the Bible model correct? Sorry Tyndale and company for giving your lives so that everyone could experience the word of God. Why else would the Bible have been written in the language of the people if not so that they could read and understand it? For #10, are you seriously saying that the Bible doesn't tell us to personally study the Bible? Let's go to the first two words in Greek of 2 Timothy 2:15: spoudason seauton. Basically, YOU study or study YOURSELF. However, I'm sure if you believed in personal Bible study that you would've already knew that. I cannot agree more with #11 & 12. You should have stated these and left all the rest out.

    Recap: The Bible is the only inerrant authority we have, as soon as we take our eyes off of it, we risk messing it up. The students need to be taught it's importance and how to use it. Advice: read Francis Chan's children's book called "The Big Red Tractor." It deals with this in so many levels.

    Note: I'm not bashing here, just correcting and hoping to help. Agree or not, this post just bothered me.

    • Mark Riddle

      Humble servant –
      Like Becky has already stated, I think you read a very different post than I wrote. As a result you "correction" seems to miss the point completely. I'm open to a conversation, but can you seek to understand what I wrote before you set me straight?

  • Becky

    Humble Servant,

    I agree with your points but I have to say I think we read two different blog post. The only part of what you say that I disagree with is sermon prep. If we are using the Bible as our standard and I believe you are. Where in the Bible were there Bible studies and/or Bible prep? Jesus never wrote a sermon, He stood up and talked anointed by The Spirit. The letters written by Paul and such were just that, letters. They were not prepared sermons. Most Jew's studies the law, which is the 1st 5 books of the Bible. They didn't have the Bible we have now. Are you saying they were not true Christians because they didn't read the Bible? Mark also points out that it is a reasonably new practice for everyone to even own a Bible. Are you saying GOD didn't speak, move or save generation after generation because they didn't have a Bible to read?

    I heard a pastor once say that all of the Bible in in GOD but not all of GOD is in the Bible. He is just to big for that. John 21:25 says 'Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.'

    I believe in reading the Bible. I believe it is alive and living as is a help in our lives. I don't believe in forcing or expecting things like this of people. If we want our youth to desire to read the Bible the best thing for us to do is live by example. I also agree with Mark that while it is good for us to suggest it and want them too it isn't are responsibility to make them.

    GOD put two trees in the garden. They don't just represent good and evil they represent choice. It bothers me that we live in a time where our religion is more about taking choice out of the equation and still calling it love. Would it be great if this youth we are talking about read the Bible every day, sure. Is all lost because he isn't, no. There is a tomorrow and GOD is GOD and we have no idea when and how He is going to make Himself more then just religion to this youth, but a relationship. More then begging, demanding and crossing our fingers on issues like this it might be more effective to just get on our knees and pray that GOD would make the Bible come alive for these youth.

    • humbleservant43

      Actually, most Jews studied the entire Old Testament, it was the Samaritans that only studied the books of Moses or the books of Law, hence the questions by the woman at the well. The sermon prep comment was just a question as to what the actual pastor is supposed to do. I imagine that when the churches received Paul's letters that they gathered together and read them in their entirety (wish I could've seen reactions to some of those). Jesus was God and didn't need to study…or did he? When he was a young boy, it was Jewish custom that he read the Bible (OT) and was taught of his parents and the scriptures depicted the event and the thought that went with the event. Those two things combined make it unmistakable. It was what he thought when he saw himself written in the Bible. When it says lo I come, it’s an expression of, oh there I am. It’s an acknowledgement. In this text is a revelation of the thought not just the action.

      Hebrews 4:12 For the word of God [is] quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and [is] a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

      The Bible will tell you what you are going to be thinking, not just doing. It will tell you what the wicked will think. Could Jesus read peoples thoughts? If you study the Bible and are thoroughly acquainted with conversion and being lost, you will know what people are thinking according to what is written and what the program is. John the Baptist was preaching of repentance and the scribes came along and he said think not that you are Abrahams seed. He knew what they were thinking because in the scriptures is the mental exercise of Gods people and the wicked. The data is in heaven. Jesus had to rely on what the Father’s revelation was to him. The Holy Spirit can only do according to the word. If Jesus never studied the Bible he wouldn’t have known.

      All the books of the Bible were inspired of God and I believe it to be a closed canonical book. Otherwise, the Muslims, LDS and JW's would be considered credible because their books were considered inspired as well.

      I agree with what you say about John 21, but the purpose of John's book is explicit in John 20:30-31 "Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." So the purpose of the book was so that we may believe in Christ. Books are meant to be read, yes? Especially this one.

      Why I believe that Bible study is so important is because I believe that we are regenerated, then justified, and then sanctified, before entering the presence of God in our glorified new bodies. Regeneration is all God. Justification was all Christ. However, we actually play a part in sanctification. To be sanctified is to be set apart (tons of references there). How are we to do that? Paul tells us in Romans 12 that we are to "present [our] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. [And to] not be conformed to this world,but [to] be transformed by the renewal of [our] mind, that by testing [we] may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." Paul is telling them that renewal is on them. They have to renew their minds. How else can we do this except through prayer and the Word of God? I'm not an apostle and I'm not God. I study so that I can be ready in and out of season. If we don't teach them how to study and the importance of the Bible and reading it, then they will be ashamed workers because they will not be able to rightly handle the Word of God as written in 2 Timothy 2:15.

      • Jimmy


        I think in your desire to defend something you've missed the point of Mark's article.

        btw, not every time scripture says "word of God" does it mean scripture.


  • Lindy

    “I say this because sometimes it’s easy to think about personal Bible study as the cornerstone of faith and transformation when historically it’s never has been.”
    –> I think that point 8 greatly undercuts the arguments in points 1-6 by ignoring the rich oral tradition of Scripture memorization as well as the role of the Bible in classical education. Individual knowledge of the Scripture HAS been the cornerstone of faith and transformation from, at least, Moses’ time onward, which is why we’re told to “bind it on our fingers; write it on the tablet of our hearts.” I am sure that you can justifiably argue that certain forms of coercion employed by churches to “encourage” (bribe, guilt or threaten) students to read their Bibles are counter-productive. I agree. I’m just not sure it’s a good idea to lull youth workers into a false sense of confidence – that it’s hard to get students to read their Bibles because you aren’t supposed to, or don’t have to. No, parlor tricks won’t suffice to convince youth, but as you say, lives lived in accordance with it will, because the Bible has forever been keeping its promises. It’s been convicting, repairing, comforting and nurturing. The robust beauty of the Bible reveals itself in communal and personal settings. I spent most of my teens and 20’s running from its truth in one way or another and crashing into either misery or grace as a result. But I’m glad the foundation had been laid, even as it lay seemingly dormant. I get the sense that you are being deliberately provocative for the sake of productive discussion, but all the same, I would be careful about trivializing the Bible’s role in personal growth, by not making it’s private study a priority for youth ministry. God says, “my word will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.“ As a former student of yours, I am, if you will, proof.

  • Mark Riddle

    Great to hear from you.
    As I said in the beginning, I am very fond of scripture and have a special place in my heart for those who hope to see scripture in the live of others.

    What part of my article seemed to trivialize scripture?

    • Lindy

      Oh Mark, you would never trivialize Scripture. I know that. As I understand it, this is a discussion of the concrete role it should play in the setting of youth ministry, and, as a lay person and for the personal reasons mentioned above, I wanted to weigh in on the side of more (or at least not less) personal Bible study for teenagers.

  • adamwormann

    Okay, I got to sit on this for a bit, and read some comments. I'm just going to throw some of my comments in bullets (which, knowing me, will probably expand to paragraphs).

    -The way the post and comments expanded, it reminded me of the place we have given the Bible. More often than not, we restructure the trinity as "Father, Son, and Holy Scriptures."

    -I wholly affirm the scriptures, and believe them to be of critical importance. Mark does as well (from what I've seen and read)

    -I think the point is being missed about desire for Scriptures as opposed to obligatory reading.

    -I think one of the biggest points here that Mark has made (intentionally or otherwise) and that is getting missed is the communal reading and understanding of the Scriptures. We have made the shift to the importance being the individual reading of the Scriptures, and then one person once per week expanding on them. We have missed dialogue and community. If you want to look at the OT, that is what happened there. That's the point about the lack of physical Bibles until recent times – people needed one another to study the Scriptures, and still do.

    -Ultimately, I feel like we're still trapped in a mindset of "it's all about the individual" and miss community. The 12 points all move forward to one thing – Scripture in community. To take away the idea that the Scriptures are being trivialized here astounds me.

  • Sean Miller

    If I may offer my thoughts to these comments,

    Mark I think your answer is brilliant, and I wholeheartedly agree with you, but I can see how it could be misread into saying we don't need to read the bible personally.

    We need to study scripture personally and as a group. The personal reading and ensuing revelations from the HS feed into the communal reading of the Bible and I see that being said in this post.

    And as a youth pastor I really appreciate you writing this. I've been struggling recently with the pressure and this has reinforced what I've been learning; that it's not up to us whether a young person reads the Bible or not, it's up to them.
    And if our focus is on getting them to read the Bible then we're getting it wrong. Our focus should be on helping them to love God and His word more and as they do they'll probably want to read the Bible more. And yeah it is part of our role to equip them to read the Bible personally now that that option is open to us in the western world, but we don't need to panic just because they're not reading they're Bible as much as we think they should.

    We do our best and let them decide what they're going to do, and not worry when they get it wrong.

    Thanks Mark

  • mkenn17


    I appreciate your heart for students and for God's Word. I understand some of the concerns mentioned above and think they are worth discussing. Here are my thoughts:

    1. It is hard to get away from the importance of Scripture in the life of a believer – I think this is why David made it a point to say that God's Word is more precious than gold and sweeter than honey from the comb (Psalm 19:10). Mark certainly emphasized the importance of Scripture so I think it is unfair to insinuate otherwise.

    2. I also think Mark offered some wise counsel with regards to forcing or guilting students into reading the Bible. Often our attempts at this become nothing more than legalism. Studying God's Word will flow out of a love relationship with Jesus Christ – too many students (and believers in general) spend their entire lives trying to earn God's favor through religious exercise and fail to recognize they can do nothing to earn God's favor.

    3. While I agree that personal Bible reading was not possible for many throughout church history, I do not think that means we should trivialize the tremendous privilege we have today. "Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more" (Luke 12:48). God's Word, whether spoken or written, is the only thing that God promises will not return void. We are blessed to live in an age where Scripture is available in written form and we should be good stewards of this opportunity.

    I also think Mark's statement that personal Bible reading cannot be found in Scripture is problematic. Paul asked Timothy to bring the "books and parchments" to him while in prison (2 Timothy 4:13). Virtually every scholar concludes that Paul was asking Timothy to bring him copies of Scripture that were available. We would be foolish to conclude that Paul would not have studied the Scripture personally. We should champion both corporate and personal study of God's Word and both are found in Scripture.

  • Mark Riddle

    Paul read scriptures. Fair enough. Of course I'm not writing a theology of bible reading only exploring the assumptions hidden in the question asked above.
    As for scripture never telling us to read it personally, I'd still stand by that statement, but not because I'm making an argument for or against personal bible reading. Only to say that there are things we assume about faith today that aren't as rooted in scripture as we might think. What many of us as youth workers have invited kids to as Quiet Times for daily personal devotion isn't with in the comprehension of the authors writing the scriptures. It's simply not a part of their context and outside the realm of possibility. We infer that it's there. But because it's not even close to the context of the scripture it doesn't speak to it. Again, not an argument for or against personal bible reading. Just a fact. And the Timothy humble servant mentioned earlier about the Greek words. The greek is plural. You is plural. Or when someone says the bible is inerrent I don't see that in scripture either. In fact I think too highly of scripture and its key role in the life of the church to use the term inerrant.
    Make sense? So my post is about unearthing assumptions so the person asking the question might have a better context to answer it themselves.

    • adamwormann

      I will add though, regarding Paul, that it's not a fair comparison. Paul is the one teaching, the one all the churches look to in authority. I would assume he had the Scriptures, as well as Timothy the pastor. They are critically important. But to imply that applies to everyone, in a time where writings were incredibly scarce…I don't know if that's really applicable here.

    • humbleservant43

      Mark, that can't be more wrong. In 2 Timothy 2:15, the literal translation of the verse is "you be diligent yourself." Furthermore, this wasn't a letter written to a group of people, 2Tim. 1:2 states clearly that this letter was a personal one written to a single recipient, Timothy. At no time does Paul use the plural when addressing Timothy. In fact, there aren't any english translations that share your view on the plural usage because each say "yourself" or "thyself" and not "yourselves" or "thyselves." And I honestly can't believe that you actually said that you "think too highly of scripture" to say that the Bible contains no errors. This translates to me that you are saying that you think so highly of scripture that you think it may contains errors. I honestly respect you for the previous work that you've done in youth ministry, and as I said, I agree that we shouldn't shove students' noses in the Bible by force and your 11 and 12 are spot on, but you can't be more wrong on this. As far as the Bible speaking of itself on inerrancy, how would you handle such verses as 2Tim 3:16 " All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness," 2Pet 1:20-21 "knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." Mark 13:31 "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." and Acts 20:32 "And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified." Not only this, but by you saying that you can't say the Bible is inerrant, you are effectively going against the entire evangelistic tradition and great men who adhered to such doctrines which explicitly states the inerrancy of Scripture such as: Westminster Confession of Faith, Keach's Catechism, The Evangelical Theological Society, The Lausanne Covenant, Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, the Wheaton College Statement of Faith, and of course the Baptist Faith and Message.

      I believe that the Bible affirms itself to be God's word by their majesty(Hos.8:12, 1Cor. 2:6-9, Ps. 119:18; 29), by their purity (Ps. 12:6, 19:7-11, Acts 10:43, 26:22), by it's complete scope of the glory of God (Rom. 3:19; 27, John 5:41-44; 7:16-18), by it's light and power to convert sinners (Acts 18:28, Hebrews 4:12, James 1:18, Psalm 119:79, Rom. 15:4, Acts 20:32, 2 Cor. 4:4-6, 1 Peter 1:23-2:3, 1 Cor. 1:18-25; 2:3-16), and the Spirit of God's witness by and with the Scriptures in the heart of man, which alone is able fully to persuade it that they are the very word of God (John16:13-14; 20:31; 10:27, 1 John 2:20-27, 1 Cor. 2:13-15). The Bible is “without error” or "inerrant" in the sense that all that the Biblical authors intended to teach is true and does not conflict with reality or with the will of God. If you can't affirm that the Bible is inerrant, when the Bible does so itself, then you may as well read out of the The New World Translation, Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, the Quran, the Tao Te Ching, and others.

      • ok. humble servant. ok. i think we've gotten off track a bit from the point of the post to something altogether different.
        To make this easy, I'll say – on Timothy – I'll concede you being right…
        I love the verses you used to talk about the Bible. agree with every word of them.
        I'd use the word inerrant if it were there, but it's not… so I won't. that's all I'm saying. If you can quote me a verse that uses the word inerrant then I'll use it. But like I said, I value the Bible too much to use it. I think the Bible's more important than to apply an extra-blblical word like inerrant. :) but that's just me, please don't hear that as a prescription for you or anyone else.

        and… I'd like to stop our conversation on this… it keeps going in ways that quite frankly make me feel dirty after discussing.

        I get where you're coming from and if it works for you and fits your context, then God bless you. But conversations like this seem to bring out the worst inside me… it makes me want to argue with you, point by point, when my post was an exploration rather than a treatise or doctrinal statement needing a debate. My post was meant to be redemptive, but here I am feeling like I want to argue point by point which is far from redemptive… it feels retributive.

        So, rather than debate, I'll say good night.

        sorry if you feel dirty too.

  • Mark Riddle

    Wonderful discussion so far friends. Thanks!

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