Three Strategies for Increasing Teen Bible Usage
by Robert Feduccia
“Catholics don’t know Scripture.”
That is phrase is often said. It is often repeated. It is often laughed at. It should also be a challenge to those of us in youth ministry.
In two years’ time, we will honor the 80th anniversary of “Divino Afflante Spiritu”, the encyclical from Pope Pius XII that encourages Catholics to read the Bible. This urging to Catholics was reinforced at Vatican II with the dogmatic constitution “Dei Verbum” which was promulgated in 1965.
In the years after the council, there was a big movement among Catholics to know the Bible better. New and more accessible translations came out. People gathered in Bible studies and used newly published guides to the Scriptures. Seminaries increased the number of Scripture classes. There seemed to be real momentum.
Then this movement hit a wall.
I see that wall whenever I ask Catholics—both adults and teens—to go to the Bible. If I say, “Please turn to Judges 20:24-36,” I have to allow a long time for everyone in the group to find it. Granted, Judges isn’t the best-known book of the Bible for a Catholic, but regardless of the book, this is my experience. The Bible is a foreign land to Catholic teens.
One of the guiding principles for us at Equipping the Saints is that the Bible is our textbook.
The mind of the Church is for our teens to know Scripture, to be conversant with Scripture, and to love Scripture. When I express to teens the need for spending time with the Word of God, I begin with the fact that God creates by speaking his Word. We are not yet the people we want to be and we are not yet the people God wants us to be. We are still being created. If we are to be created into the people God wants us to be, then He will need to speak to us. God speaks through his Word.
Our job as youth ministers is to foster discipleship and to help teens yield to the work of God in their lives. If we are not teaching our teens how read, know, and love Scripture, our ministry is lacking.
In light of that, here are three initial steps for having the Word of God be more central to your ministry and having your teens be more comfortable with the Bible.
Have them bring their Bibles to every youth gathering or Bible study. Actually, this is step two, because there’s no point in having them bring their Bibles if they won’t have an opportunity to use them. So first, look back through the last six presentations you gave to your teens. How many Scripture passages did you use? How were the passages displayed? Did you use a slide deck that displayed the passages? Did you include them in a handout? Did you use Scripture at all? Make sure you are rooting your own talks or presentations in the words of Scripture so it will make sense for the teens to bring their Bibles.
I have felt the call to use the Bible more in my own ministry. The stories that I tell really do reveal ways God has broken through in my life. These personal experiences are evidence that the story and activity of God seen in the Bible is active in my life. Share examples from your own life that point to Scripture. Make that connection explicit. Root your talks and presentations in the Word of God, then ask the teens to find those passages. Otherwise, our own transient egos are at the center of our presentations rather than the eternal Word of God.
Use a common translation and edition of the Bible. Teens will look things up in their Bibles in the same way they look things up in school. They will go to the table of contents and find the page number. They will go to the beginning of the book and thumb their way through until they find chapter and verse. Then they will share with each other the page number. For that reason, it is important that in group settings you use a common edition. This will be an investment on the parish’s part, but there is no greater investment in the spiritual life of a teen than buying them a Bible. Have a bookshelf in your youth room that is filled with Bibles that they pull out and bring back. Buy each person their own for use during sessions or during Bible studies. I recommend purchasing a New American Bible Revised Edition, because it matches the translation used at Mass.
One affordable option from the Catholic World Press/World Bible Publishers, in particular, will likely look very familiar to you. (ISBN: 0529064847)
Use tabs to make referencing Scripture easier. In addition to purchasing Bibles, purchase Bible tabs for your teens. I have to admit that I do something as an inside joke with myself. Whenever I see a Catholic that has tabs on their Bible, I ask them, “So, are you a charismatic or a convert?” I can’t remember a time that I have asked that question and the person responded, “Neither. I am a cradle Catholic who wants to know the Bible better and the tabs help me to find the book I want to go to.” Of course, I don’t mean to disparage converting to Catholicism nor the charismatic experience. Instead, I want to encourage a broader population of Catholics to love Scripture. Tabs are simple and they help navigate through the seventy-three books in the canon of Scripture.
Again, this is an investment, but a small one. At the Autom web site, you can order several packages of tabs for one low price.
Then, have a tabbing party. Take a night to have your teens apply tabs to their Bibles. Get food for everyone (nothing too messy, so they won’t get food all over their Bibles), and start applying the tabs to the appropriate books. Break them into small groups and have them apply their tabs together. Then play a game with them. Call out a Scripture passage and challenge them to find it. When everyone in their group has found the passage, they should stand up and recite it in unison. The first group to do that in each round gets a prize. You can also provide an overall prize for the group that gets the most right. Make building their speed and familiarity with their Bibles fun.
If we want to change the perception that “Catholics don’t know Scripture,” it starts by making Scripture available to our young people, making it easy to reference, and encouraging them to do so regularly. These are simple strategies, but they make all the difference in forming Catholics who know and live God’s Word—chapter and verse.