This article is part of the 7 Tips series.
If you’re a pastor, youth leader, ministry volunteer, or simply a Christian parent of a Christian teenager, you’ve probably struggled with the best approach in talking with young people about theology. We are called to pass on the simple good news of the gospel as of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:1–4)—as well as the rich and “solid” doctrines of the Christian faith (Heb. 5:12). But what does that look like practically? How can we begin helping teenagers think theologically—both formally and informally? Here are seven quick tips that I’ve found helpful (in years of youth ministry . . . and now as my eldest child approaches teenage years!):
1. Seek clarity without dumbing it down.
Think for a moment about the complex subjects that high school students are covering in their classes. They are learning about trigonometry and calculus in math class and about the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade in world history class. They are studying Shakespeare and memorizing scientific formulas. And of course, they are being bombarded by heavy and complex issues through television and social media. Teens can handle serious, rigorous, theological thought. Yes, this will involve some stretching and training of mental muscles that may not have been used before. So, the call is to clarity, as we teach and talk theology, without oversimplification and a dumbing down of the deep truths of God’s Word.
2. Seek to convince teens of the practical implications of theological beliefs and convictions.
It’s so important to help young people understand that they are theologians already, though they may not realize it. They make implicit assumptions about God, even if they don’t formulate these assumptions verbally all of the time. Teens make decisions every day—about what they say, do, think, and wear—that are ultimately influenced by how they think about God and about themselves and others. Again, it may take some convincing, but the practical outgrowth of one’s theological convictions can be impressed upon young people’s minds and hearts. What they believe really will affect how they live.
3. Allow space—and permission—to say, “I don’t know.”
This applies to them and to you as the teacher or parent! At some points in theological discussion, even the wisest theologian in the world is forced to admit humbly and quietly, There is mystery here. The Bible calls us to hold onto certain tensions, which don’t always neatly fit into the kind of ‘box’ we’d like them to.
It’s good for a teenager to hear a pastor, teacher, or parent say, I don’t know that the Bible gives us a definitive answer to that question. But here’s what the Bible does tell us clearly, and so here are the principles I would use to begin thinking through that question. It’s so important for us to model humility to teenagers as we teach them theology.
4. We do need to model firm convictions about what the Bible does state clearly and definitively.
Admitting that there is some mystery about aspects of the end times, for example, is one thing, but denying that the Bible speaks clearly about the deity of Christ or the reality of hell is another! It is not humility to say I’m not sure when the Bible has spoken clearly on a certain subject. There is a time to say, I don’t know, and there are many times when we must say, The Bible addresses this clearly—and we must submit to its authority.
When teens study theology, they are learning more about the lover of their souls.
5. In theological conversations with teenagers, we need to model certainty about the authority, inspiration, reliability, inerrancy, and sufficiency of Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16).
This flows from the last point, of course. What I’m saying here, more specifically and pointedly, is that teenagers need to be directed to the Bible as the true and authoritative Word of God amid a confusing world that tosses hundreds of competing worldviews in their faces every day. In short, we as parents, pastors, and teachers, need to model confidence in God‘s Word.
6. We need to intentionally make real connections between the theological truths of God’s Word and the issues of the day.
It is important, especially for young people who are growing up with their faith under attack (perhaps more viciously than in previous generations), to see how biblical and theological truth can be brought to bear on the issues they face at school and in their friendships. What does the doctrine of creation have to say about human gender and sexuality? What does the doctrine of sin mean for the way that they think about the wrath and judgment of God, the reality of hell, and the exclusivity of Christ (John 14:6)? What does the doctrine of God’s sovereignty mean for the way we think about evil and oppression in our world? As we teach theology to young people, we need to “touch down” regularly in the world where they live, walk, interact, and struggle.
7. We need to teach teenagers theology in the context of a relationship with the living God.
We must never imply—explicitly or implicitly—that the study of theology is a “dead” and purely academic subject. Rather, theological study is an invitation to young people to enter into the exploration of the most interesting person in the entire universe—who also happens to be the one who created them and who bled and died for them. When teens study theology, they are learning more about the lover of their souls. They are thinking about the one who invites them into a relationship of joy and fulfillment for all eternity to come. We need to link theological teaching of young people to a vibrant and intimate relationship with the living God.
Jon Nielson is the author of Knowing God’s Truth: An Introduction to Systematic Theology.
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