“I’ll time you!” These magic words can change slow, distracted children into speedy, motivated workers in an instant. The challenge of getting the task done in a certain time is a motivator for us from the beginning. There is an innate desire within us to be challenged and to accomplish goals that others have set for us. I think this is because behind nearly every challenge is a hidden message from the one who issued the challenge: “I believe in you!” Challenges exist to push us farther than we think we can go. Youth are used to receiving challenges. Their teachers challenge them with projects, group work and tests that stretch them. Their coaches push them in conditioning, drills and games to constantly improve and do things by the end of the season that they didn’t think were possible at the beginning. Their employers push them to be responsible, to show up on time and to work just as hard as any of the adults. But where are they receiving challenges in the church?
This question has been in the forefront of my mind the past few weeks as I’ve been planning for the start of our regular youth group meetings. My natural thought for the Bible study portion of the meetings is to do a lesson, message or Bible study that I lead. I love teaching. I love speaking. I love giving messages about Jesus. That is an area I have experience in, I am trained in and I have gifts in. I have some great truths to share from God’s Word, and if I do most, if not all, of the talking, then I can guarantee that those truths come out clearly.
Here’s the problem I’ve been wrestling with: where is the challenge in that? At what point am I offering the youth the chance to stretch themselves, to learn skills, to grow, to think for themselves, to encounter God’s Word on their own? Is an application point at the end of a message enough? Through my  methodology, am I communicating to the youth that I don’t believe in them?
I do not have the solution to this problem, nor do I have answers to all these questions. However, out of this struggle emerged an idea that I am willing to give a shot. My tendency is to give a message or lead a discussion in which I either talk the entire time, or ask questions to which I have a specific answer that I’m looking for, leaving little room for input on the part of the youth. Instead of doing that for an hour, I’m trying to prepare a 45 minute Bible study in which the youth are given time to wrestle with the Bible on their own. They write their own thoughts while reading the text and then talk in groups of three to four about it. Discussion questions guide them through the text and help with context and application, but the key is that the youth themselves are providing the answers and ideas, not just me. Following the Bible study, I give a 10 minute message that draws on what they learned in the Bible study and brings it all together. If I do the message at the beginning, then the Bible study will be the youth spitting back what they learned from the message. But if it’s at the end, the Bible study becomes a time where they are challenged to study the Bible themselves and engage in the text on their own, while the message becomes a concluding thought on the truths that the youth themselves discovered from God’s Word.
I’ve tried this method, and it is certainly a work in progress. I am still working on talking less in the Bible study. I’m working on asking better questions and learning how to guide the youth through the text. The youth are still working on what to do when they read the Bible. They are getting used to having to think about it themselves. But here’s what I was able to communicate to the youth when I was explaining the change in format. I was able to tell them that I believe in them. I believe they can read God’s Word. I believe that the Bible speaks to them, just as it does to me. I want God’s Word to be living and active in their lives. I value their input. I want them to be able to study the Bible on their own. I want this to build a foundation for their lives on the rock of the Word of God.
Most of the time I’m concerned about dealing with the challenging (or difficult) youth, rather than challenging the youth to do something difficult. Letting the kids engage in the Word on their own is difficult for me to plan, it’s difficult for me to give up time from my messages, it’s difficult for me to resist jumping in with my answers, but it’s also more difficult for the youth to have to discuss rather than just listen, it’s difficult for the youth to stay engaged, and it’s difficult for them to wrestle with the text on their own. Hopefully the repetition is helping this sink in. Challenges are difficult. But I believe the youth can do this, and I believe God’s Word will do what it says it’s going to do. I believe that if I truly want to change the lives of these young people, I need everything to be centered in God’s Word, because He is the one who changes lives and makes all things new, not me.