Youth Ministry is one of the most important and exciting programs within the church. As someone who works in youth ministry I can honestly say that it is exciting to get to see God working in the lives of teenagers. Of course, it is also a lot of fun. Through youth ministry we are able to connect with teenagers and show them God’s love. We always hope that as they go through our programs they will fall in love with Jesus and that this love will continue as they go on to college. Unfortunately, for many teenagers in America, this is usually not the case. In fact studies have found that most teenagers today leave the church after they enter college. Despite our best efforts our students often fall away from the church and their faith after they leave our youth groups. Many within the church and youth ministry are starting to wonder why this is happening. Why are our students that we poured ourselves into for so many years just walking away? Why are college students not seeking the faith as they did in high school? Well, Barry Shafer attempts to answer these questions in his book Unleashing God’s Word in Youth Ministry.
In the first part of this book Shafer tries to make a case for bringing deeper, inductive Bible study into youth ministry. He argues that the reason college students no longer hold onto their faith is because they were never introduced to the depths within Scripture. Shafer notes that the Bible study aspect of youth ministry has begun to decline in recent years. He tells a story of a Bible club at a middle school that was run by a girl named Gretchen. At one point during the club time a classmate had a question that required Scripture in order to be answered. One of the students picked up a Bible and after flipping through the pages for a while she asked, “Does anyone know how to work one of these things?” (16) Unfortunately, no one knew how to “work” the Bible. Even though many of the students, including Gretchen, were regular church kids that went to youth group none of them were able to use the Bible. Shafer uses this story to drive home the point that the “number one deficiency in student ministry…is good Bible study” (17). He cites several statistics that prove his point, including one where teaching Scripture ranked thirteen out of sixteen in a list of priorities among youth workers.
Shafer also goes right to the Bible itself to show how important it is for us to make Bible study a priority in youth ministry. He focuses mainly on Moses in Deuteronomy right before the Israelites are to enter Canaan. After forty years in the desert the Israelites are about to finally have the land that God had promised. Moses stands before them and says, “Hear now, O Israel, decrees and laws I am about to teach you” (Deut. 4:1). Moses goes onto to remind the Israelites of the laws of God and how they were to live in this new land. Shafer points out that as we read Deuteronomy we actually see how important the Word of God is and why we need to make it a priority in youth ministry. He also points out that in Deuteronomy there are very specific instructions for parents and adults to teach the younger generations about these words of God. Adults needed to make sure that they took the time to teach their children the Scriptures and who God was. Shafer reminds us that teaching our children the Bible and spending time in the Scriptures is just as important today as it was back then. We need to take time to help our students truly understand the Bible. The more time they spend with the Bible, the more they will get to know God. This goes beyond just referencing Scripture in our weekly messages or having them memorize verses. Those are all good things to have but as Shafer points out we need to be more intentional about actually getting our students to read and learn the Bible. We need to take our students deeper into the Bible and really show them how wonderful it is.
Shafer goes on in the second part of the book to lay out a method for inductive Bible study for youth ministry. The three steps in inductive Bible study are: observe interpret, and apply. Throughout the rest of the book he refers to these steps as: God Show Me, God Teach Me, and God Change Me. As our students read through the Bible we can remind them to think about these steps in order to really see the depths of Scripture. The God Show Me step requires us to slow down and read the Bible for what it really says. It is easy for us to assume that we know what the Bible says, especially if we grew up in the church. But when we approach the Bible with “God Show Me” in our minds we have to stop and actually read what it says. When we do this we may actually be surprised by what we find. We may find details and things that never stuck out before. This is often what makes Bible study so interesting even for students that have grown up in church. As we begin our Bible studies, in private or with our students, we need to remember to take time to look at the details of the Bible. Shafer suggests asking six simple questions as we read and to help our students as they read. These are who, what, when, where, why, and how. He encourages us to write the answers to these questions and provides us with a few passages for us to apply this step.
The God Teach Me step helps us to explore the meaning of a passage or to interpret it. As we ask God to teach us about a passage we have to look beyond the details that we found in the God Show Me step. When we are interpreting the Bible we need to be careful not to make it say what we want it to say. Shafer explains what he calls the three asks. These are the three sources that we should use as we try to interpret Scripture. They include: God, Scripture, and other people. Of course God should be the first source for our interpretations. Before we go to a pastor or commentary we need to pray and ask God what his meaning is for a passage. Before our students ask us what a passage means, they need to go to God. After asking God we need to look into other passages of Scripture that might explain the passage we are currently reading. Using a concordance, Bible Dictionary, or a Cross-Reference Bible can point us and our students toward other passages and verses that can help us in our interpretation. Finally, Shafer encourages us to go to other people for help. Other people include pastors, friends, and commentaries. Shafer lists a few commentaries that can be helpful for students to look at. He also reminds us that paying attention to the genre as well as the literary and cultural context of a passage is important for our interpretations.
We read the Bible in order to find how it applies to our lives. Teenagers are especially wondering how the Bible applies to their lives. They want to know how this book, this book that was written ages ago, is relevant to them in their own unique situations. They want to know what God is trying to say to them and what he wants them to do. This is why the God Change Me step is so important in youth ministry Bible study. As Shafer says, “If we study the Bible but miss applying it, I wouldn’t say we’ve wasted our time, but I’d sure say we’ve missed the point” (124). The Bible is something that we read as a gift from God that is supposed to guide us in our lives. If we read it without also applying what we read it just becomes another book. Application is what makes the Bible personal. As we read we should always be praying for God to show us what to as a result of what we are reading. The Bible should change us as we read it. This change can be either internal or external. Internal application can be a change of thinking or attitude. External application can look like a mission project, forgiving someone or asking for forgiveness. An important part of the application step is accountability. As we find ways that God is asking us to apply Scripture to our lives it is always helpful to have someone who can check up on us to make sure we commit to these applications.
Shafer finishes this book by giving us a few practical tools and tips to use as we start to use this method with our students. These include investigating the languages of the Bible and looking up the definitions of words in the passages we are studying. Even introducing these languages to our students can help make their experience with it so much deeper. There are quite a few websites that we can use to help our students explore the languages of the Bible and see how it adds depth. We can even do word studies with our students. Shafer also provides an example of a way to do a character study with students to mix the Bible study up a little. Mission trips are another good way to use this inductive method of Bible study. We can use it to prepare for the trip, encourage our students to use it during the trip, and as a follow up after the trip. Intentional, inductive Bible study is something that we can easily introduce to different aspects of youth ministry. It can actually add depth to our ministries and give our students excitement about their faith.
Overall, I enjoyed this book quite a bit. This is actually a topic that I am very passionate about. I appreciate that Shafer has taken the time to do the research on and really think about how important Bible study is for youth ministry. Many students leave the youth ministry stage without really knowing what the Bible says. They miss out on the depths of Scripture. Shafer recognizes that this is a huge problem and we need to refocus our efforts to make sure that our students are given the opportunity to explore the Bible. One important thing he points out that I appreciate is that we should not be afraid of Bible study being boring. In youth ministry it can often be easy to make our programs too fun. Games and activities are an important part of youth ministry but many times we end up making these the only part of it. But we don’t always realize that our students are also craving depth. They want to know what the Bible has to say and they want to know God. Games are good but they won’t give our students the depth they long for. Only God can do that. The best way for us to show our students God is by really getting them to engage with the Bible. I also appreciate that Shafer makes this book very practical which is usually the point of youth ministry books. He provides real life examples for his arguments and method. For each step within this method he provides passages of Scripture for the reader to practice with. He also gives us resources to look into and give our students. Throughout Unleashing God’s Word in Youth Ministry Shafer demonstrates a solid understanding of the need for deeper Bible study within youth ministry and provides a very practical method for youth workers to meet this need.