When I first entered youth ministry five years ago, I was working on my B.A. in Biblical Studies. At that time I was taking a class on John's gospel and teaching a Sunday school class on....*drum roll please*....John. Go figure. I absorbed all of the information I learned in that class and tried to teach the students the same thing.
It didn't really work.
Later, when I was actually a youth pastor (not just volunteering), I thought I would astound my students with my brilliance and teach them everything I knew about 1 John. I would talk about the Greek and would talk about the context of Gnosticism and what the Gnostics believed...
I think they were asleep about twenty minutes in.
Eventually, I went to work at a great youth ministry called Alabaster in Greenville, SC. There, I was simply one teacher among three and all of us were pretty solid in our theology. It was here that I learned to practice application and bring the text down to more manageable levels for students.
However, my burden for teaching deep things from the text remained. Eventually, I moved into a head teaching role and I started teaching exegetically through different books of the N.T. We got into some pretty deep stuff too but the students really seemed to enjoy it. I tried to let the students talk and discuss stuff more and I humbled myself by asking God to teach me through the students.
My time at Alabaster taught me something very important: you can teach extremely deep material to students if you package it the right way. I would argue that you can teach on near college or seminary level to students if you think of creative ways of packaging the message. This isn't an easy task, but it is an important one.
It is important because if you preach for the obvious message and the easy application, when the students get to college they will have no real foundation. This is why, I believe, so many students walk away from the faith. The sad fact is that many youth pastors don't provide anything of substance. That is a tragedy.
Over time I have realized that youth need to have a strong foundation in a few areas. I want to address a few issues I have taught my youth on and I think have been very beneficial.
1. 6th-8th need to learn about a theology of the cross and the storyline of the Bible. Truthfully, I think that they need to have the storyline down before 6th grade but that seldom happens. You absolutely have to provide this foundation. If not, it is impossible to exegetically responsible and understandable when you want to go deeper.
I realized the importance of this a few weeks back when I made reference to Paul saying we were not bound by the law. A few of my very mature students responded, "So it's ok that we speed?" I had been using the term Law and they thought I was talking about our governments law. Oops. This makes whole sections of the Bible largely impossible to understand if you don't get it. This is why THEY HAVE to learn the storyline of the Bible.
2. Teach your youth hermeneutics. If you blow it here, you blow it. It is that simple. Your students need to learn about context. They need to learn not to rip passages out of context. They need to learn how to use commentaries and how to conduct word studies. They need to learn about genre. Why? Because if they don't they will get hammered at college when professors rip apart their precious "life verses."
3. Teach your 10th-12th graders textual transmission and how we have our Bible.I remember when I stumbled across the fact that the first part of John 8 was not original to John. It absolutely rocked my belief. I thought the Bible was inerrant. I thought it had no mistakes! It was until later that I learned that we believe that the original manuscripts are inerrant. Now, this posed a problem to me but it really shouldn't have. I just didn't know how we got our Bible and how we received our text. If someone had walked through these issues with me, I would have avoided many months of searching out what it really meant that the Bible was inerrant. So teach your youth basics like this. It will save them pain when a secular professor points it out later.
4. Point out to your students difficulties in the Bible and provide an apologetic for those issues. Don't hide the fact that the Bible has tricky passages. It is truly tough to reconcile the different accounts of the resurrection. Don't hide that but offer solutions. Their teachers won't hide the fact that there are difficulties but they will NOT offer solutions. We shouldn't hide either but we need to instil confidence in students as well. Turning a blind eye to these issues doesn't help.
Tell them that there are people who don't accept Pauline authorship of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus and then tell them why. THEN, tell them why YOU DO accept it. Believe it or not, your youth ARE interested in this. Tell them about the controversies and then get them to weigh in on what they think! They truly do want to share!
Tell them about the JEDP theory. You don't need to go into every detail but be broad enough so they get it. Then tell them why you reject it! Have fun with it! Make a game show out of it.
5. Teach them heresies and theological terms. Kids love drama. Theology is full of drama. Teach them the heresies and then have fun debating it with them. My students genuinely had fun talking about the various heresies of the Trinity. Give them modern day examples of heretics. Teach them theological terms like Christology, Soteriology, Eschatology, pneumatology...and have fun with it. Have them sound it out in fun ways. Have them model different theologies using their bodies as the diagrams.
In other words, be crazy and use that craziness to teach youth incredible amounts of depth. You will be glad you did.