Speaking Biblically

It is not often that a twelve year old takes an interest in the bible, so when one sat in our office and began to leaf through the Old Testament I was pleasantly surprised. Even more surprising was that he was quizzing the youth workers on its contents. I have to admit that this particular version of the Holy Writ was in fact an illustrated, comic-style bible. This did not diminish the fact that a young person who once called Christianity "a load of s#@t" was taking an interest in its contents.

In the face of the onslaught of questioning we were facing, I wondered if we would be able to maintain our visage of being good Christians. We have earned our right to be called "Bible Bashers" and I was blown if I was going to loose that esteemed title due to a small slip in our bible knowledge. The inquisition consisted, in the main, of chronological questions such as, "who came after Moses?" and I think we muddled through okay and emerged unscathed with our nerdy title intact.

When it comes to our young people, such interactions with scripture are as rare as outings to the botanic gardens. Our young people display a range of reactions to the opening of bibles. Once a young person ran from the room letting out a mock scream as I unearthed a tatty copy of God’s word. There is sometimes a roll of the eyes, a glazed look or an apathetic sigh as a team member attempts exposition or even a reading from the world’s best selling book. In contrast, I sometimes teach a bible class to teenagers of a similar age at church. In this context the topics are undiluted and not designed to meet an expectation of child safety. We once examined what the bible had to say about Satan and his cohort of demons for some forty five minutes. We discussed evil and the wrath of God as we read portions of the writings of John and Paul. And maybe that’s a problem: In church on Sunday morning we don’t have to sanitize the message. It is much more difficult to engage with what the bible teaches with teenagers who are not well versed in biblical literature, and with some who are not well versed in any literature. So my question is: why is it that the bible plays such a shrinking role in Christian youth work, especially amongst workers involved with unchurched youth? I would love to be able to say that we do use it, and then to add the usual caveat that young people these days grow up in a visual world and books are a thing of the past but that is a cop-out. I just can’t get away with it because it does not say "In the beginning was the video game…" and Jesus does not ask us to look at his jpeg computer graphic and obey it. You see, the bible itself holds me to account and it does not seem to abide the excuses I present to it.

So what for us, as Christian youth workers? Should we hide the books in the cupboard to gather dust lest we be rejected by our youth groups for being a bit weird? Maybe we could retell the stories in modern language and avoid the tough bits like sin and eternity. We could filter it down, create a youth worker’s canon. It could be given a thorough risk assessment and parts that seem to encourage radical living removed and thinned out. We could then create a new doctrine which uses this filtered version: doctrines of self-esteem, human flourishing and being nice to each other. But again the bible pulls us up on this, Paul does not hesitate to proclaim the "whole will of God" (Acts 20:27) and we should not hesitate either.

Of course there are some who argue that the bible is not really the word of God at all - they argue that it is a collection of fables and poetry that contain signposts pointing to the "good life". They don’t so much avoid its use as disregard its power. I can’t help wondering that this attitude to the voice of God reduces the metaphors of "hammer" and "sword" (Jer 23:29, Heb 4:12) from iron and steal to plastic imitations from a toy shop. The blow-up toy versions would surely be unable to "break rock into pieces" (Jer 23:29) and divide "soul and spirit, joint and marrow." (Heb 4:12) It would certainly be unable to "strike down nations" (Rev 19:15). The bible tells us that God’s voice can break cedar, shake the desert, twist oaks and strip forests bare (Ps 29). It is certainly no toy and demands that we take it seriously for God says, "This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word." (Isaiah 66:2)

I long for young people to hear the "powerful," "majestic" and "flawless" (Ps 29, Prov 30:5) word of God and for those words to be a lamp for their feet (Ps 119:105). I have been working with young people for fifteen years and have never been more convinced that in that old book are the answers to questions that all young people have. These questions are not ultimately answered by a new therapy or emotional management program but by what God has to say to them by His word in the bible. The issues young people face in their families, schools and in their own heads are not wholly resolvable by human effort but by the words of God which offer the eternal hope of the Kingdom. It may be that it sets a young person trembling, but is that such a bad thing? It might be that they reject the youth worker, but who are you trying to please - The young person or the God? But I don’t think we should limit what God can do when he gets a chance to say something in the conversation we have with young people. The young quizmaster in our office finished his quiz and gave his life to Christ moments later. He believed in the word and gave his life to Jesus and was saved! We took him shopping straight away and bought him his own bible.

It is my growing passion for this book that has led me to move on from Oxford Youth Works to devote time to study it. My family and I plan to move to Chicago, USA in the summer. I will attend Moody Bible Institute and sit for a degree. I leave Oxford Youth Works with tremendous memories of what God has done in us and through us over the past three years. We have had to change and move forward, wrestle with tough questions and seek the will of God above all things. It is my belief that Oxford Youth Works is part of God’s mission to the young people of Oxford. I am thankful that I have been part of bringing the good news about Jesus to many young people in this city and pray that many will come to know God and His goodness, love and mercy through what Jesus accomplished on the cross.

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