Teaching the Bible to Teens

Orthodox Institute,  November 3-6, 2011, Presented by Hollie Benton

We church school teachers are commissioned to teach our youth.  In preparing for this somewhat daunting task, we work at numerous approaches:

  1. Address contemporary issues facing our teens today:  choosing friends, social media, bullying, movies, pop music, school pressures, dating, sexuality, making decisions about college and career, family tensions, etc.
  2. Study a particular virtue or principle of Christianity:  forgiveness, thankfulness, chastity, humility, obedience, hope, faithfulness, etc.
  3. Study a particular aspect of the church:  the liturgy, sacraments, lives of the saints, church history, doctrine, prayer, fasting, monasticism, charitable giving, theosis, etc.

You will notice “The Bible” is not listed as a “particular aspect” of the Church.  Scripture is basic to Christian education.  St. John Chrysostom declares in his introduction to his homilies on Romans, “For from this it is that our countless evils have arisen–from ignorance of the Scriptures; from this it is that the plague of heresies has broken out; from this that there are negligent lives; from this labors without advantage.”

Most would readily agree by suggesting we make scriptural references to every topic we might pursue such as those named above.  For example, a lesson on “Facing school pressures,” might be prepared.  We engage our students by asking what kinds of pressures they and their classmates are facing.  Replies may include “fitting in,” “being popular,” “getting good grades,” “making fun of others to look cool,”  “getting tatoos,” “trying out drinking or drugs,” “having a boyfriend/girlfriend,” “pushing limits with sex,”  “feeling bored or depressed,” “feeling afraid around angry kids who act out,” and the list is overwhelming.  The teacher shows the front page of a popular magazine with a distressed teenager surrounded by popular icons of temptation and a headline of Sex and Peer Pressure:  How to Battle Back.  The teacher forges ahead by telling the story of St. Mary ofEgypt who recognized her sin at the door of the church and continued a life of repentance in the desert.  The teacher mentions the “Cherubic Hymn” which prompts us to “lay aside all earthly cares.”  The teacher uses empathy and may focus on resisting temptation and urge, “Know that you are a beloved child of God.  Pray the Jesus prayer at every moment of temptation.  Keep a journal and reflect on God’s promise that ‘He will not tempt you beyond what you can bear.’  Christ Himself faced temptation and resisted Satan because He was strengthened through prayer and fasting in the dessert.  God knows you’re facing a lot of pressures and He’s there to help you if you call out to Him.”  And we hope and pray that after a one-hour lesson our students can face those pressures at school the next five days feeling a little more equipped, strengthened, and inspired.

Not bad.  A little bit of this, and a little bit of that–engage the students, address the culture, a life of a Saint, a hymn, a prayer, a bit of empathy, practical application, reference to God and a story of Jesus in the Bible–and we’ve got a church school lesson that addresses “Facing School Pressures.”  What has framed the lesson?  It’s clear that the topic, “Facing School Pressures,” has framed the lesson.  We’ve hung bits of things that are holy on its walls, but there’s no doubt that “Facing School Pressures” is the frame, the structure, the foundation, the topic.   It houses the thoughts of our church school students’ minds.

In an age where youth are grappling for identity while social media, markets, and pop stars vie for their attention by concocting appealing stories of teen identity, it can be difficult to hear the voice of the Lord.  It is God’s Word which gives us the true story of who we are, who God is, and how we are to relate to Him and one another.  We will do our youth a disservice if we merely attempt to reorder the chaotic noise of our society in our church school lessons rather than turn our ears to the clear words of healing, purpose, and identity found in the Bible.

What if we church school teachers would not permit “ignorance of the Scriptures” and employed the very Word of God to frame or structure our minds, hearts, and very lives? Contemporary issues like “Facing School Pressures” would necessarily assume their rightful places on the periphery–outside the walls of a Biblical mind and examined through a Scriptural window.  Rather than allowing societal issues facing our teens to dictate what lessons we teach, we can rely upon an orderly, engaging, ready-made curriculum in the Bible.  If the Word of God is the foundation and frame of our hearts and minds, then all other issues, including principles and aspects of the Church, can be measured by the eternal, life-giving Word of God.  The Bible is our Church’s Canon, our “measuring stick.”  It gives the proper interpretation and perspective to all things inside and outside the Church.

For example, begin with the Biblical account of Christ’s temptation and study how Christ responded to Satan.  Students will find that Christ quoted Scripture in every response to Satan.  Even Satan himself taunted Christ with Scripture!  Show that Satan assumed Christ was weak from fasting 40 days and nights, but in effect, Christ was strengthened by the Word of God.  Allow students to dig into the passage and its context and the references to other Scripture.  If there is time, show how the Church has responded to this passage with its story of Mary of Egypt, and prayers, and hymnography.  After a foundation is laid using Scripture, then students can begin to see their need for the Word of God and how to seek His strength in their own temptations at home and school.

My strongest recommendation in Christian education is to start with God’s Word for us.  “If that means reading Scripture together for the church school hour, God will bless that effort,” according to Fr. Marc Boulos of St. Elizabeth’s,OCA, Eagan, MN.  The more Scripture we read, the more we develop an ear for it, the more it pierces our hearts and minds, the more our souls are fed with the Bread of Life.  Encourage students to read Scripture daily with their families, with each other, or on their own.  Students are required to read many hours for school, to learn and prepare for the temporary life ahead of them.  What does God require of us for the eternal life?

TEACHING STRATEGIES

Beyond constant encouragement to read, read, read Scripture, these are a few methods of teaching Scripture that I have used with my own church school students:

1. Commit to reading and studying an entire book for a determined period.  When only bits of Scripture are used for proof-texting our lessons, we run the risk of building up idols made after our own images.  Books I prefer to study with teens include the Gospels or Paul’s letters, Genesis, Exodus, Ruth, 1 or 2 Samuel, 1 or 2 Kings, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Jonah.

2. Develop student ownership.   Discuss the purpose of Christian education at the beginning of the class.  Allow the class to formulate its own objectives of learning which will create a sense of ownership among the students.  Students will often suggest that reading and homework be done prior to the class to make better use of time.  When homework is the expectation communicated by the students, students will rise to the occasion.  When we set the bar too low in our classes, the response is boredom, indifference, and possibly contempt.

3. Expect homework.  Useful homework assignments include reading 1-3 chapters and writing a one-page summary or outline of the text.  Give an example of each on the first day of class.  Homework could take 30-60 minutes each week.  Some students invest more time.  Encourage the use of a class notebook where assignments can be kept and class notes recorded.  Direct students to record particular questions in their homework that could be used in discussion or to help clarify the passage.

4. Bible study strategies in the classroom:

A.  “Coloring the Text” (a method taught to me by Dr. Brian Ashland at St. IgnatiusAOC,Madison,WI)  Using photo-copies of the Biblical passage and colored pencils, encourage students to creatively highlight particular themes or word choices that tend to appear more than once.  For example, “river,” “Jordan,” “baptism,” might all be highlighted with a wavy blue line.  Read one-half or a whole chapter and allow a few minutes for each student or a small group of students to “color the text.”  Then allow time for students to share what was highlighted, which draws out the main characters and themes of the passage.

B.  Mark paragraphs and summarize.  Again, using a pencil and a photo-copy of the text without paragraph markings, allow students to mark their own paragraphs and summarize those paragraphs in three to four words.  I like to have the English appear alongside an original Greek or Hebrew text, to spark students’ interest in Biblical studies. Fr. Marc Boulos does the same, “Very often, with students of all ages, I read the passage aloud in Greek and then read it again in English. It helps the kids get a feel for the poetry of the original language. If the teacher knows modern Greek pronunciation and can read with acumen, you’ll find that kids of all ages are drawn to the rhythm of the gospel text.”  After students read and mark the paragraphs and summarize those paragraphs working alone or in small groups, allow students time to develop the themes or story line of the passage as a class.

C.  If you have a particularly creative group of teens–those who learn by working with material in a kinesthetic, auditory, or visual way–allow them to work more creatively with text.  Although inspired by the Words of Scripture, help students realize that any creative response, including even a basic outline of the passage, cannot be equated with the Word of God itself.  Our creative responses should be offered in humility and love with the knowledge that anything made by our hands or words can function as idols made in the likeness of our own puffed and proud images.  Creative projects might include:

1)  Acting out the text–the effect of dramatizing the text can be poignant.
2)  Creating a “Reader’s Theater.”
3)  Creating a debate–this works well with issues raised in Paul’s letters.
4)  Setting a portion of the text to chant or composing a song.
5)  Setting the text to visual representation, through a poster or drawing.
6)  Comparing the Scriptural text to the icon representation, if available.

The passage itself and the dynamic of your class will likely dictate what type of creative activity might work well in a classroom setting.

D. Provide an object lesson.  One example provided by Fr. Russell Radoicich of the Holy Trinity Serbian Orthodox Church in Butte,MT, is described here:

Object Lesson Example, Christian Giving (II Cor. 9) by Fr. Russell Radoicich

For a class of 40 youth wrap twelve packages of three Oreo cookies (36 cookies total.)  After reading II Cor. 9 and discussing Christian giving, line everyone up, and give the rules.  No breaking cookies. No eating cookies.  Hand out the cookie sets, much like God distributes his gifts.    Immediately the group finds out who is a “have” and who is a “have-not”.  Separate them on opposite sides of the room with the “haves” and “have-nots” facing each other.

A) Now ask who will share.
B) As soon as some one who is a “have-not” is given a single cookie have them move over to the “have” side of the room.
C) Investigate who still has two cookies. Who is willing to give one of the three cookies, but not more?
D) You will end up with four “have-nots” (The poor are always with us.)
E) Find out who is willing to give up what they have for the sake of the other and become a “have-not.”
F) Up the stakes.   Now call the camp cook out loud in front of the youth and tell the cook that the Oreo cookie is now a “Meal Ticket” for the evening meal.  No Cookie = No Food.   Monitor the dynamic carefully as it intensifies.
G) After they struggle a bit, come and save the day as God with abundance. (Give extra Oreo cookies to everyone).  God provides and invites everyone to His feast.  (Eat cookies, and have fun.)
H) Talk about suffering in poverty, and suffering with abundance, and about how it is different when the poor are your friends than when they are anonymous.

5.  Encourage an element of memorization.  Memorize either the structure of the book (the order of parables or events), or key passages.  Suggest that a student volunteer identify a passage of the book for memorization and allow students to help lead memorization practice a few minutes each class session.  We memorize the Word of God in hope that it becomes written on our hearts.  Memorization strategies include:

A)   Repeating the text.
B)   Speaking it rhythmically.
C)   Speaking it with varied voices (whisper, British accent, singing, etc.)
D)   Speaking it with hand gestures or body movement.
E)   Erasing a few words each time the text is repeated.
F)    Writing it out from memory.
G)   Creating a game like “hand the baton”:  one student speaks the passage from memory until he or she hands the baton to another who continues from that point in the passage.

6. See your role as “The first of students.”  Facilitate learning and discussion, and don’t feel pressed to have an answer for every question.  The teacher should focus on clarifying the content of the passage and avoid interpreting difficult passages. What is the plot? Who are the characters? Do the students understand the vocabulary being used? What do alternative translations say?  Fr. Marc Boulos maintains, “If the teacher comes across a difficult verse, the worst thing he or she can do is try to interpret or explain it away.  If the content is hard to accept, that’s OK, just let it stand…let it simmer in your mind and the minds of the students. That’s how it was intended to do its work.”   A difficult question can be very engaging for students of this age.  Be comfortable with the silence.  Let silence feed creative reflection and thoughtfulness.

7.  Encourage and allow student leadership to develop as you work through Biblical texts through discussion, the sharing of summaries, and more creative class projects.  Through discussion, assignments, and projects framed by Scripture, students begin to appropriately view things like, “school pressures,” “humility,” and “church feasts.”  Students can demonstrate their knowledge of Scripture by speaking to issues and aspects of the Church with a Biblical mind.

8.  “What I’m taking away from class today . . . ” At the end of class, encourage each student to share a “Take Away,” like a memory hook or intended action.  (Suggested by Tim Tassopoulos, Holy Transfiguration, Marietta, GA.)  Assuming that not all students are out-going and verbal, allow a moment’s reflection for students to write in response to, “What I’m taking away from class today” in their notebooks, and then allow time to share these verbally.  Revisiting these “Take Away” remarks may help jump-start the next class session.

9.  Keep the Biblical text primary.  Start with the text and stick with the text.  Allow discussion that refers in detail to the text and avoid regular digressions that merely focus on how the Orthodox are better than other Christian groups.  If we want Scripture to do its work, we must allow it to transform us by judging us when we feel contemptuous and haughty and offering hope when we feel weak and alone.  After working through the Biblical text alone, then peak over a shoulder like St. John Chrysostom and read through one of his commentaries.  To continue your learning as “the first of students”, engage the resources available through our seminaries and Orthodox websites and other resources listed below.

10.  If you study other aspects of the Church, such as sacraments or feast days, consider starting with the Bible readings associated with those topics.  After establishing the foundation in Scripture, branch out to the prayers and hymns which were written in response to the Biblical stories that establish our sacraments and feasts.

Attaining superfluous Bible trivia is not the objective in studying the Bible with teens.  We come to a knowledge of God by encountering Him through His Holy Word.  God’s story for us transforms our lives.  It reveals our sin, calls us to repentance, and breathes life and hope into us when the world around us appears hopeless.  The stories of the Bible inspire us to be imitators of Christ and respond, “Not my will, but Thine be done.”  When we use Scripture to frame our church school lessons, the Word of God will inspire transformation as it pierces our hearts and minds through our ears.

ONLINE RESOURCES

The Orthodox Center for the Advancement of Biblical Studies, http://ocabspress.com  Written and audio Bible commentaries, publications, sermons, and exegetical notes by Orthodox Biblical scholars including V. Rev. Dr. Paul Tarazi, Professor of Biblical Studies and Languages, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.

The Jerusalem Above, online Bible Study with Fr. Marc Boulos, http://seocc.org/biblestudy – Seats are limited; email request to participate:  fr.marc@seocc.org

Search the Scriptures, Dr. Jeannie Constantinou http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/searchthescriptures

Select Quotes from St. John Chrysostom on the Benefits and Importance of Scripture Reading for Christians, compiled by Dr. Eugenia Constantinou, University of San Diego, http://www.saintjonah.org/chrysostom_scripture.htm

Orthodox Christian Bible Studies, http://orthodoxyouth.org, Jason Barker provides resources for Bible Studies with Teens.

Orthodox Christian Education Commission, http://orthodoxed.org/links.html The Department of Religious Education of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, http://goarch.org

Christian Education, Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, Let Us Attend:  Sunday’s Gospel for Children, including Reader’s Theatre Page.    http://www.antiochian.org/christianeducation/letusattend

Department of Christian Education, Orthodox Church inAmerica, http://dce.oca.org/resources

Bible Study Tools:  http://www.biblestudytools.com 

CURRICULUM RESOURCES

The CANA Curriculum:  Rejoicing in One Lord, Jesus Christ.  Brookline, MA:  Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, 2005.

Cavins, Jeff and Mark Hart.  T3:  The Great Adventure Teen Timeline Bible Study.  West Chester,PA:  Ascension Press,  2006.  (Catholic)

Constantinides, Rev. Fr. Evagoras. Parables of Our Lord. Brookline,MA:  Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, 1983.

Fitzgerald, Thomas.  The Sacraments of the Orthodox Church and Teenage Ten Commandments.  Brookline,MA:  Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, 1974.

Miller, Andrew and Carole Buleza.  What Would You Do?  Making Your Way in Today’s World.  Middle School Interim Curriculum, 2002.

Nescott, Larice.  In the Beginning.  Yonkers,NY:  Orthodox Christian Education Commission,

1981.

Nicozisin, Rev. Fr. George. Teenage Ten Commandments. Brookline, MA:  Greek Orthodox Archdiocese ofAmerica, 1974.

Sakellariou, Shannon, et al.  A Lamp to My Feet:  An Introduction to the Bible.  Brookline, MA: Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, 2010.

Stylianopoulos, Rev. Fr. Theodore, et al.  Knowing Christ.  Brookline,MA:  Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, 1995.

RESOURCES IN ADOLESCENT FAITH AND DEVELOPMENT

Fowler, James W.  Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for

Meaning. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1976.

Parks, Sharon Daloz.  Big Questions, Worthy Dreams:  Mentoring Young Adults in Their Search

for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith.  San Francisco:  Jossey Bass, 2000.

Parks, Sharon Daloz.  Leadership Can Be Taught:  A Bold Approach for a Complex World.  

Boston:  HarvardBusinessSchoolPress, 2005.

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