Recent books on Generation Z make much of the short attention spans of today’s students. (See James White’s book Meet Generation Z). They mention how today’s youth would rather watch a video than read a book (See Jean Twenge’s book iGen).
It’s common knowledge that students’ use of online access has had a profound impact upon how they think and process information. Students have more information at their fingertips than any other generation in our nation’s history; however, they need help filtering the information and thinking deeply about it. They possess the capacity to think deeply about subjects but need mentors who will guide them through that process. Particularly, youth pastors and adult leaders need to help their students love God with their minds.
Here are 5 ways that you can help engage your students’ minds:
Have your students give you questions they want answered regarding God, the Bible, spiritual matters, how their faith relates to their culture, etc. Offer Bible studies/sermons periodically through the year that focus on answering these questions. Conduct a “stump the youth pastor” night periodically where you allow the students to ask you questions on the fly. Present a series on hard questions and offer biblical answers. Your willingness to invite, ask, engage, and answer such questions will create an atmosphere where students feel the freedom and motivation to ask questions regarding their faith. Such questions help students to engage their minds regarding their relationship with God.
Don’t underestimate your students’ ability to think deeply about doctrinal issues. One of the tragic mistakes we make in youth ministry is dumbing down biblical doctrine because we do not believe our students can handle it. My experience in youth ministry has been that students will reach whatever bar we set. If we set the bar low regarding doctrinal understanding, that’s where they will be spiritually. If we set the bar high and wade into deeper water doctrinally, that’s where our students will be spiritually. Of course, we must contextualize and communicate effectively across the various grade levels when teaching our students; however, we should never sell them short in their ability to comprehend the deep things of God.
Teach your students biblical and systematic theology. Help your students develop an understanding of the metanarrative of Scripture. Teach them how God reveals Himself progressively through the Old Testament into the New Testament. Help them to think about how God’s redemptive plan for humankind is seen throughout Scripture. Guide them in thinking deeply about what the Bible says regarding the person of God, humanity, sin, the atonement, salvation, conversion, justification, and other critical doctrines. I’ve found that students enjoy learning doctrine when it is taught in a way that is engaging and understandable.
Help your students think about how the Bible relates to contemporary issues and topics. Show your students how Scripture speaks to science. If all truth is God’s truth, it is unhealthy ignore science and treat it as if it doesn’t exist. Students face questions about the relationship between faith and science in their classrooms. It would be a tragedy if they graduated from high school without ever learning how the Bible speaks to science and how they should relate their faith to science. Engage students regarding how the Bible speaks to issues of gender identity and the definition of the family. Students hear other voices speaking into these issues. In short, be a catalyst who helps them to think deeply about how Scripture relates to these contemporary issues and topics.
Discipline yourself to think deeply about God, to love Him with your mind. Students will only go as far as they see us going. We are examples to them regarding how we are to love God with our minds. If we are shallow thinkers, they will also be shallow thinkers. If we strive to think deeply about the Bible and matters of faith, we set an example for them to follow. If we avoid relating our faith to particular subjects and topics, they will disengage their faith regarding these topics. We should model for them how to become serious students of the Word and how to think deeply about how the Bible relates to the world around us. Encouraging our students to think deeply about their faith also motivates us to seek answers regarding these matters first so that we can communicate them more effectively to our students.
Although the above list is not exhaustive, it does give some general steps that we can take to help our students love God with their minds. If you follow these steps, be prepared for God to stretch and grow you as you disciple your students. Motivate your students to love God with their minds.
Tim McKnight is Associate Professor of Youth Ministry and Missions and Director of the Global Center for Youth Ministry at Anderson University in Anderson, SC.