Are We Failing to Communicate God’s Word?

If asked, most of us would say communicating God’s word to our students is one of our highest priorities. Our conviction is that prevailing ministries are built on God’s word; we have a personal love for biblical truth; we’re passionate about its message; and we’ve seen God change lives with it—so we invest a significant amount of time, resources, and programming to preach and teach Scripture. Unfortunately, many of us feel like we’re not getting Scripture into their lives like we’d want. It seems there have been some changes in the ways our students receive, process, and value information. Combined with the normal challenges of spiritually forming teenagers, we find it extremely difficult to effectively communicate God’s word to our students.

As we discuss this issue, we sense that we’re not the only ones wrestling with this challenge. So, we’re proposing that we find ways to put our heads together and brainstorm some ideas about how we can capture the emerging generation’s imagination with the compelling story of what God has done throughout history as recorded in Scripture. To start the conversation we’ll list some of the assumptions we’re beginning to work with and some of the questions we can’t answer at this time. We invite you to look these over, consider them, and be part of a conversation with other committed youth workers.

Let us first begin with our assumptions:

  • The emerging generation is not prone to read books in order to discover their world; and visual mediums such as movies, the internet, and television shape their perceptions of the world the way the written word shaped the perceptions of previous generations.

While this generation still reads to some degree, their mode of learning is shifting away from text/word/lecture dominated. To say they’re primarily visual is only part of the truth. It’s a complex situation with many contributing factors. However one can look at many indicators and statistics, whether hours-per-day viewing television, literacy rates, or scholastic test scores, and all these studies mean one thing when you’re teaching your students: it’s difficult for them to listen to you and learn when you’re teaching through lecture.

  • The emerging generation is biblically illiterate.

The students new to our groups have little or no knowledge of key verses, stories, or characters. Those involved for any period of time have some understanding of Scripture, but only bits and pieces of information; and they don’t view Scripture as a unified whole. Sadly, we must agree with George Lindbeck’s statement, as cited in Tony Jones’ Postmodern Youth Ministry, that “there was a time when every educated person, no matter how professedly unbelieving or secular, knew the actual text from Genesis to Revelation with a thoroughness that would put contemporary ministers and even theologians to shame.” This is no longer the case.

  • Students are film literate.

Multi-media is becoming the dominant language of teenage culture, primarily because movies do a great job of telling compelling stories that involve a multi-sensory combination of interesting celebrities and hit soundtracks. Just by hearing how many movies are seen and how much television is watched each week, it’s easy to see why most students are ignorant of God’s story but intimate with Hollywood’s stories. The deeper implication is that students’ beliefs are shaped by what’s seen. Ask and you’ll find that most students’ (and adults’) beliefs about Jesus, salvation, and worldview have been shaped by movies, television, and other visual media.

  • Students easily relate to compelling stories but struggle to relate to propositional teaching.

I had excellent teachers who taught me to compose a sermon by having a thesis statement, followed by my first, second, and third points. The only problem is that my students’ eyes glaze over when I teach propositionally, and an hour later they cannot tell me what I talked about. However, students can recall three years later compelling stories I’ve told in my preaching.

  • Youth workers and churches don’t have the visual story-telling resources to introduce students to the Scriptures in a culturally relevant way.

If most students don’t have a basic understanding of how Scripture fits together as an organic whole, and if they don’t see that it’s a singular story beginning in Genesis, coming to completion in Revelation, and if they don’t see the story unfolding today, they don’t know how to integrate singular messages, studies, or stories. They have a level of ignorance that becomes an impenetrable barrier that will stay with them in their transition from adolescence to adulthood. Students could attend Sunday morning worship, youth group, and small group studies and still never move beyond a basic level of understanding the Christian story. They can be deeply moved by gifted speakers, make commitments to Christ, and yet remain spiritual infants, having threads of the story, while failing to understand the grand tapestry of drama contained in Scripture.

Questions we’re asking:

As teachers, here are some questions we’re asking as we try to figure out how to impact this generation.

  • How can we communicate God’s word, which has been passed down in a written form, to a generation that is primarily visual?
  • Is much of Scripture easily re-translated to visual communication? Since its roots were in the Jewish oral tradition, a lot of Scripture began as storytelling, which eventually was written down. Since a film begins as written story in a script, is it possible to use the stories of Scripture to create scripts, and ultimately, visual stories?
  • If the Christian story, as told in Scripture, is the most compelling story the world will ever hear, how can we relearn how to tell the story so that it moves peoples’ hearts and souls?
  • Modern evangelicalism reads like a tax form: all the info is there, but it’s not inspiring. To quote Leonard Sweet, “Postmoderns don’t approach life as a problem to be solved but a mystery to be experienced and lived.” The Bible-as-list is a modern concept, separating by theme, etc. (this is how I’ve tried to attack the Bible at times, but perhaps story, maybe arranged chronologically, would be the best approach now).

In other words, contemporary evangelicals have dissected the Scriptures to the point where the story is lost—it becomes about facts and singular, untouchable truths. Contemporary evangelicals believe that they can separate themselves from the Scriptures and objectively figure out the truths within the text.

  • Since the Christian story no longer captures our students’ imaginations, what storylines do capture their imaginations and govern their lives?

What storylines are the most dominant themes that define our kids lives? Is it the storyline of being rich, successful, good-looking man or woman, finding pleasure?

  • What are some effective ways visual tools can be used?

Martin Luther published his New Testament with 22 woodcut illustrations, so could we publish visual tools that communicate to this generation in the language and media with which they’re already familiar? Since storytellers and movie producers are so effective at influencing students through movies, how can we harness and use that medium in our ministry? What if some of our innovative, creative teachers gave their best efforts to find ways to communicate to this emerging generation? What if we tried to communicate God’s story creatively and effectively using the medium of film—a language understood by teenagers and young adults? With 90% of the decisions to follow Christ made before the age of 19, are the stakes high enough for us to gather and invest the resources it will take to create a relevant, compelling medium that connects with this emerging generation?

  • How will we pay for these expensive projects?

Bob Briner, in his book Roaring Lambs, was very confident that funding would be available for innovative, creative Christians who came up with compelling ideas for works of art (movies, television shows, stage productions), and he gave several inspiring examples. But how can we pay for quality, full-scale productions that can easily cost millions of dollars? Also, when we consider how little money is available to media projects targeting teens, and when we see that most foundation grants favor established, long-term ministries, how will we find the money to pursue these projects?

Amos 8:11-14 says, “‘The time is surely coming,’ says the Sovereign Lord, ‘when I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of bread or water but of hearing the words of the Lord. People will stagger everywhere from sea to sea, searching for the word of the Lord, running here and going there, but they will not find it. Beautiful girls and fine young men will grow faint and weary, thirsting for the Lord’s word. And those who worship and swear by the idols of Samaria, Dan, and Beersheba will fall down, never to rise again.'”

We feel that a famine is upon us and it’s urgent that we find ways to capture the imagination of this generation with the awesomeness of God’s story.


[Reprinted from an article written by Justin Bell and Wes Dillon]