We’re excited to have Jen Bradbury as one of our NYWC speakers. This blog post is a great start to the conversations she’ll be navigating in her seminar: The Jesus Gap. Check out more information HERE.
My research from The Jesus Gap found there’s a gap between what youth workers think churched teens believe about Jesus and what they actually know about him. In response to this data, many youth workers have told me, “I agree there’s a gap. But how do I even begin to catch them up? How do you start building a strong Christology in teens who know nothing about Jesus?”
If this is you, don’t despair. Instead, start with the basics, with Jesus himself.
Make your first series of every new school year Jesus-focused, something many youth workers fear doing because they assume teens who have grown up in the church already know the Jesus story.
My research shows that’s not the case.
Even those teens who have grown up in the church lack a basic understanding of who Jesus is, what Jesus did, and why Jesus matters to their faith. Maybe this is because for too long, we’ve assumed they know this stuff and so we’ve skipped it in favor of other important theological topics. Or maybe it’s because we simply tell them the facts, never actually giving them the chance to wrestle with and question Jesus. Or maybe it’s a reflection of the general Biblical illiteracy sweeping our nation. Perhaps it shows how seldom even our churched teens are actually in church. Regardless of the reason, though, since teens don’t know the basics of the Jesus story, that’s your starting point.
So open the Gospels and dig in. My research suggests including the following types of stories in your Jesus series:
1) Jesus’ birth.
Nothing shows how Jesus is both fully human and divine quite like the story of his birth. To keep this story fresh, each time you teach it, do so from a different Gospel. Although we seldom use John 1 as a Christmas narrative, doing so further emphasizes the incarnation.
2) A childhood story.
I realize these are slim-pickings. Yet, they’re there. You can cover Jesus’ naming and his presentation in the temple (Luke 2:21-38), the slaughter of the innocents (Matthew 2:13-23), or the boy Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:31-52). These stories humanize Jesus and make him relatable. What’s more, they stoke curiosity amongst students who wonder what it would have been like to be Jesus growing up or who question why more stories about Jesus’ childhood and adolescence aren’t included in our Biblical narrative.
3) A story that emphasizes what Jesus taught.
Teens mistakingly believe Jesus died to make us happy. To correct this and other misunderstandings regarding what Jesus taught, every time you do a Jesus series, teach something that shows (and offers a corrective) regarding what Jesus taught.
4) A miracle.
Nothing shows Jesus’ divinity quite like a miracle. So include a different one each time you do a Jesus series. To help expose students to a wider breadth of Jesus’ ministry, avoid Jesus’ greatest hits (The five loaves and two fish as well as the calming of the storm).
5) Something that shows Jesus’ humanity.
To counterbalance Jesus’ miracles, teach a story that emphasizes Jesus’ humanity. Talk about the times Jesus ate, slept, cried, and prayed. As you talk about both Jesus’ divinity and humanity, explore why both beliefs are central to the Christian faith.
6) Something that shows one of Jesus’ supposed sins.
More than half of the teens who participated in my research believe Jesus sinned. Given this, every time you do a Jesus series, teach a different one of the stories teens mistakingly believe illustrate Jesus’ sins, like Jesus overturning tables in the temple or Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath. As you do, compare what Jesus does (and doesn’t do) to the 10 Commandments and then wrestle with what wrongs Jesus’ actions are actually making right.
7) Jesus’ death and resurrection.
So often, we leave this part of the Jesus story out because we assume teens hear it every Easter. And sure, most churched teens believe Jesus rose from the dead. Funny thing is, many also believe he did so even though they’re not sure he was God. So teach Jesus’ death and resurrection. Wrestle with why Jesus died. Talk about how the resurrection demonstrates Jesus’ divinity. Explore the impact Jesus’ resurrection had on his followers and the difference it makes in the lives of Christ-followers today (including you!).
Doing a lone Jesus series each year won’t singlehandedly undo poor Christologies. But it’ll help teens in your ministry begin to build a solid foundation on which they can create a consequential faith that will make a difference in not only their lives, but the world around them.
Jen Bradbury is the director of youth ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. She’s the author of The Jesus Gap: What Teens Actually Believe About Jesus, The Real Jesus, and Unleashing the Hidden Potential of Your Student Leaders. Jen blogs at ymjen.com and enjoys hiking, traveling, and playing games with her husband, Doug, and daughter, Hope.