Make this a trend: Teach beyond behavior modification

Where youth ministry is going - Part 3If you missed the past several days of this series, I’m sharing some of the trends I see taking place in youth ministry and the implications they hold for our future. There’s been a lot of great discussion so far! Catch up with the, “Where youth ministry is going,” series with these posts:

Today I want to address something that I wish was a trend. It doesn’t appear to me to be a trend in the youth ministry world right now, but it really needs to become one.

4. What I wish was a trend: Evaluating the content we teach.

I feel like a lot of what we teach in youth ministry is ultimately behavior modification. We’re not really addressing deep, core issues as much as we’re addressing what we see on the outside. We’re teaching kids to act like better Christians more than we are helping them to fall in love with Christ.

When we teach scripture to kids, it usually revolves around questions like:

  • What does God want you to do?
  • How does God want you to live?
  • What does God say about sex, lying, cheating, drinking, etc.

I feel like we’re starting with the teenager’s life and trying to make scripture connect with that instead of first starting with scripture and letting it speak to teenagers and shape their life.

What if we start with a scripture and approach it asking, “What does this scripture say?” and conform our life around that instead of the other way around?

Yes, we want scripture to intersect with their everyday life, but as long as we use the Bible to address their issues, the focus is still on them. They become the foundation instead of scripture. Furthermore, teens begin to subconsciously believe that the Bible is here primarily to tell them what to do and to make their life better somehow by solving their problems. And it makes sense because the focus has always been on them and their life and trying to fit scripture into it instead of approaching scripture first and trying to wrap our lives around whatever it happens to say.

Restoring the element of mystery

Honestly, the way we teach scripture often boils God’s Word down to a three-point outline that gives basic Sunday School answers. Maybe we shouldn’t be giving answers at all, but instead leading students through the process of discovering truth for themselves. Self-discovery has the highest retention and life-transformation anyway.

We give our intro, main points, conclusion, application and kids walk away with no questions, no loose ends to ponder, and very little to wrestle with. We present scripture to them as a nice little present that’s all neatly wrapped up, packaged to look attractive with a little bow on top. We’ve totally removed the element of mystery from the scripture!

Kid want to connect with the depth that’s contained in scripture! Both church kids and non-churched kids alike are looking for that element of mystery. They don’t get it from church, so they find it in Harry Potter, Twilight and World of Warcraft instead.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

There’s been a lot written on this subject, but I’m going to bring it up again because it is so fitting with the problem of using God’s Word to teach behavior modification.

The National Study of Youth and Religion conducted research that’s summarized in Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton’s book, “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.” In it, their findings show that the 5 common religious beliefs among American youth are:

  • A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.

That’s what kids believe about God when they graduate. That’s what they’re taking with them to college.

Obviously, there’s a lot of influences that make up this perception, but what we teach and how we teach it are essential to combating this!

A lot of it goes back to how we teach scripture as something to address issues in their life. I’m not opposed to topical studies, but I think we need a lot more exegetical studies where we start with scripture and go through books of the Bible and pull out all the good, the bad, and the uncomfortable and face it.


  • How does what you teach either combat or unintentionally promote Moralistic Therapeutic Deism?
  • Does your approach to scripture basically address behavior modification?
  • How can your ministry be more intentional of starting with scripture and wrapping our lives around that instead of the other way around?

Posted on February 1, 2012

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