If your church is like mine, you probably spend quite a bit of time and effort teaching the Bible to teenagers. I think this is a very important task, but there are some important questions related to teaching teens. First, although you may be teaching, are your students actually learning about the Bible and Christianity? Second, how do you know if they are learning or not?
The National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) was a massive research study conducted from 2002-2005. More than 3,300 American teenagers between the ages of 13-17 were included in the study. Of that number, 267 sat down for follow-up face-to-face interviews, and 2,500 of the 3,300 were revisited a couple of years later to see how their religious lives changed as they aged. The study included teens from all different religious backgrounds: Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Agnostic, etc.
The results of the study were illuminating, but also, from a Christian perspective, concerning: the NSYR found that three out of four American teenagers claim to be Christian, but only about half consider their faith to be important, and less than half practice their faith as a part of their daily lives. Furthermore, the report showed that “the vast majority” of U.S. teens are “incredibly inarticulate about their faith.” In other words, even those teens who claim to be Christians are unable to explain what it means to be a Christian or what they actually believe.
When asked questions about what they believed religiously, here were some of the actual responses:
- “Uh, I haven’t really thought about that [pause]. I don’t know.”
- “I believe in the [pause], I, ohhh [pause], I don’t think I’d really like to talk about that.”
- “Hm, I don’t know, I’d have to like ask somebody or something, I don’t know.”
- “Um, I guess I believe…[laughs], um, I don’t know. I don’t really know how to answer it.”
Now, if you were to ask young people in your congregation questions like, “What does it mean to you to be a Christian?” or “What is the Gospel?” or “What does God want for your life?”, I’m sure that some could come up with some pretty good answers. At the same time, I know that some would struggle as well, and I know this not just because of what the NSYR says, but also because I have worked with lots of teenagers over the years and have asked these exact questions and witnessed firsthand the difficulties that teens have articulating their faith.
Assessment in Bible Class
With all of this in mind, I have become convicted that it is not enough for us to teach teens at church; we also need to assess what they have learned and do that in such a way that they are given the opportunity to put what they have learned into words.
In other words, I believe that assessment should be a major part of what we do in Bible class. To be sure, this can be done in a variety of ways:
- Class discussions where students verbalize their beliefs or their understanding of what has been taught
- Presentations where students share material they have learned with other students
- Objective tests and quizzes where students demonstrate their learning (matching, multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, etc.)
- Short answer and essay tests where students write out what they have learned in their own words
As an example, we recently spent a quarter in our Sunday Morning High School Bible Class studying the Sermon on the Mount. At the end of that time, I wanted to evaluate how effective the class had been, and what the students had learned. Below are some questions from the short answer test I gave my students, along with some of their actual answers:
We talked a lot in this series about how in the Sermon on the Mount (SOTM), Jesus was describing what His kingdom looked like, and that it is an alternative community. What do we mean by that term?
–We don’t live how the world lives. We stand out.
–A community that is set apart with a different set of standards than the world.
At the beginning of the SOTM, Jesus described what citizens of the kingdom look like with the beatitudes. In general, how are these characteristics that Jesus values different from what the world values?
–What He values seems very weak and powerless, while the world values riches and power.
–In general, the values of Jesus are much different than the ones of the world. The values of Jesus are sometimes viewed as weaknesses by the world, like being meek, being poor, and being persecuted.
What does it mean to live as salt and light in the world?
–We have to season the Earth and preserve it and show the good in an evil world.
–Salt makes things taste better and light helps us to see. We need to make the world a better place by being the salt in how we act and we need to be the light that leads and shows people the way to Christ.
–Salt helps preserve food and also make it better, we as Christians should strive to preserve and save lost souls. The light shines in the dark. We are supposed to live like Christ, thus shining our light, in the world, which is the darkness.
Explain Matthew 5.43-48 in your own words.
–We need to strive to treat everyone the way we want to be treated or better because God gives good to everyone and we are told to strive to be like Him.
–Loving those who love you is a normal basic thing that takes no effort, but loving those who hurt you is a challenge. Jesus died for all of us and that show His love even for those who put Him to death.
–Matthew 5.43-48 is saying it’s easy to love those who are good to you and that even the people of the world do that. But it is much harder to love those who do you wrong and mistreat you. As an Alternative Community we must be different from the world and show love to everyone, especially those who do us wrong.
Explain the following quote and how it relates to Matthew 6.1-4: “There is a significant difference in being seen doing good works and in doing good works to be seen.”
–It’s all about motives. If the only reason you are doing a good deed is to be seen doing that good deed, then your motives are wrong. We should do good deeds with the thought of actually helping someone.
–When we do good we should do it out of the goodness of our hearts to help others, not to get recognition for it.
–If you do something to be seen, you want someone to reward you, but if you do something and happen to be seen doing it, you’re doing it because you know it’s right.
Matthew 6.25-34 talks about worry, and in class, we said that in a sense, when we worry, we are declaring that we are atheists. How is that true?
–When we worry we’re essentially saying no one will take care of us and we’re going to have to do it on our own.
–We should not worry because God is in control of everything. If we worry, in a sense we are saying that we don’t trust God and that we think He can’t do for us what we think we need Him to do.
–God tells us not to worry and if we have worries, He tells us to give them to Him, but if we don’t give our worries to Him, we essentially are doubting God and His ability to handle our problems.
What parable does Jesus use in Matthew 7.24-27 to end the SOTM? How does this parable function as the “Invitation” to the Sermon? What response is Jesus seeking from His audience?
–Building on the sand vs. solid foundation. It warns them of the dangers of not taking the invitation and not following Him.
–He used the parable of the man who built his house on the rock and it stood firm and the other man who built his house on sand and it fell apart. We should strive to build our faith on Jesus where it won’t fall apart.
–The wise and foolish builders. It is an “Invitation” because he is making them evaluate themselves. He is expecting them to really think about their foundation and whether or not it’s with Christ instead of the world.
What was something new that you learned in this study?
–It helped me to grow stronger in my faith. It has helped me in my attitude toward others by treating everyone as good as possible.
Now, as you read through the answers above, you may have had some quibbles here or there, but for the most part, I was very pleased with these responses, because they showed that the students paid attention in class and also grasped significant concepts from Jesus’ Sermon.
But the point of this post isn’t that my students are brilliant—I love them, but trust me, they’re not! 🙂 The point is that in the face of research which states that teenagers generally lack the ability to put their faith into words, we as teachers need to give them the opportunity to practice doing just that.
You can do that through a test as I did above, through a less formal method of assessment like a class discussion, or a host of other ways, but it is imperative that we help teenagers be articulate about what they believe. After all, how can young people share the Gospel if they don’t know how to put it into words?
Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005): 31; Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 10.
In the interests of full disclosure, I had some students give answers that were not nearly as good as the ones I shared above. At the same time, three of my best students were not in class that day, so their answers (which likely would have been very good) are not reflected either.