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

  • I agree. I have an activity the teens have named God in a Can. I have an old coffee can full of little strips of paper that have a short scripture on them. Someone in the room will draw a paper and write the scripture on the dry erase board and read it out loud to the group. I then say, “what does that mean?” They end up pulling their own topic out of the scripture and then I say, “What does this scripture/topic say to you about what’s happening in your life right now?” They answer and we have a good discussion. Then I close by saying, “God has taken time to talk you about your life…don’t leave here today and ignore what he’s telling you, and if you struggle with it make sure to ask him for strength.”

    They are learning that the scripture doesn’t always have one meaning, God speaks to each of us according to our struggles and his plan for us. For example we did Ezekiel 36:26-27 this past Sunday. One student said that scripture made him think about how there is a boy on his basketball team who gets on his nerves then he says really mean things to him and he needs to ask God to change his heart toward the boy (He’s an 8th grader BTW). And a girl (a 7th grader) said she has had an attitude with her parents and is getting in trouble because they moved to our town 5 months ago and she misses her friends, she said God is telling her to change her heart toward her parents and stop being angry.

    I love seeing them come to their own realizations, when they leave I know that God has spoken to them. So many times when I give a lecture type lesson I wonder if anyone even payed attention so it’s rewarding to know in those moments that the seeds for transformation were planted…now all they have to do is follow through. I also hope they will take this practice with them when they are adults, to use scripture as a tool to letting God guide their lives.

    • That’s a great idea, Christi! Especially since you’re there to help guide them through the process. Rather than telling them what it means and how it applies, you can ask good questions that lead them to that discovery instead. Plus, it ensures that the group doesn’t get way off track and come up with some crazy conclusion. :)

  • I should add this is an activity I use as a filler when an activity didn’t run as long as I thought it would, or sometimes I get in a pinch and didn’t have time to plan a lesson. So maybe this is an activity I need to make a more regular part of my routine.

  • Did you read “Moral Failure in Student Ministry” by Alvin Reid? That is what I thought about when you told me you wrote this article today.

    • No, I haven’t actually. Is it about this subject?

  • Tim,
    Great post. I’m just getting caught up on this series. I even shared it with our elders to get them thinking through a lot of these concepts. I’ve agreed with it all and love it!

    Basically, when I prepare to teach our students I have a process (a hard word to use for a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kinda guy) I use to make sure that the Gospel is shared to the students without the threat of Moralistic Deism and Behavior Modification. We do topical studies a couple times a year. But for the most part we’re straight expository.

    After I’ve prayed and checked my own heart I take whatever it is that we’re talking about (specific scripture or topic) and I ask these 8 things…

    1) What does this say about God?
    -Address God’s Nature & Mystery
    2) What does this say about Fallen Man?
    -Address our Depravity & need for Jesus
    3) What does the audience need to know about this?
    -Draw them in
    4) How does this affect me?
    -Reveal my own personal struggles and wrestling
    5) Address concerns. challenges and questions about the text?
    -Ask questions before. Get a feel for where they’re at.
    6) How does our ministry’s unique purpose, goals and vision fit in this?
    -How does this impact what we do? If it doesn’t we need to change!
    7) Evoke self-discovery?
    -How can I prompt discovery in my hearers?
    8) Bring it to the Cross.
    -Use all my energy to put the spotlight on Jesus. He guaranteed that if he’d be lifted up he’d draw men to himself. That’s baller! Boom!

    Really paying attention to these things have really helped me not teach sin-management and behavior-modification. It’s changed the way I speak and how our students respond to Jesus.

    Anyway, just a thought. Thanks for what you do!

    • That’s really good, Brandon! Glad to hear you’re thinking through this and teaching accordingly. I like your perspective of it being “sin management,” too. Thanks for sharing this!

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