The First Text Message: 5 Ways To Engage Youth With Scripture

by Apostolate, Catholic Bible Studies And Reflections, Family

I had fifty eyes glaring back at me with exhaustion and boredom. It was my first foray into a Catholic middle school classroom as a guest teacher for religion. I was twenty-one years old, relatively “hip” by preadolescent standards, and one week on the job as a new parish youth minister. After a whopping thirty minutes of preparation for a Bible study on peer pressure, there I stood, Bible in one hand and coffee in the other. I was woefully unprepared but didn’t know it. In retrospect, it would have been easier and less daunting to be lowered into a lion’s den where — like Daniel — God may have shown mercy on me; these middle schoolers did not. 

Sent to engage their minds and enliven their hearts, I believe I only reaffirmed the age-old adage held by most preteens, “The Bible is old and there’s nothing in it for me.” Now, as adults, we know that statement to be categorically false. Holy Scripture is the most important and incomparable written work in history. But just as it needed translation over the centuries from ancient Hebrew and Greek and Latin, God’s Word still needs “translation” for a modern, twenty-first century mind… especially a teen (or pre-teen) mind. 

So what’s the trick? How do we get kids who are concerned about text messages on their phones to open their minds and hearts to God’s original text message, the Holy Bible? Well, after countless attempts, many failures, and (I’d like to think) many successes in the almost thirty years since that initial try, I’ve developed a few ideas for us parents and catechists to remember:

5 Ways To Engage Catholic Youth With Scripture

  1. Consider culture, not just age.

We often view youth — especially in the formative, middle school years — as “disengaged” or overly screen dependent. While this may be true in part, their developmental stage is not always to blame. Studies indicate that for a generation that has never known a world without YouTube or smartphones, screens tend to yield quicker and higher retention rates than traditional “talk at them” teaching methods. Today’s preadolescent mind actually learns better through screens. It’s vital we do not automatically dismiss their perceived boredom as based on age rather than life experience.

2.               Everyone likes a good story.

Too often, catechesis prioritizes fact memorization over evangelization, formation over transformation. The Bible is the greatest story ever told (actually, hundreds of stories). When we frame our “lessons” more from a storytelling perspective rather than an informational one, far more is retained mentally and spiritually, and can be accessed and interiorized for years to come.

3.               Don’t reinvent the wheel.

When I was a youth minister there was a glaring hole in Scriptural resources for youth, so I was forced to create my Bible studies from scratch. I’m overjoyed to say that is no longer the case. There is a plethora of resources available today. In addition to my full-time work at Life Teen (check out for more information), I have been blessed to partner with Ascension Press on multiple series. If you’re looking for something fun and engaging, our new Encounter: The Bible Timeline for Middle School study is unparalleled. From its eye-popping graphics and animations to its quick pacing and humor, there has never been anything like it in Catholic Bible Study! You can check out a free preview here.

4.               Believe that less can be more.

We adults often like the sound of our own voices, and while we may find ourselves engaged by someone unpacking pearls of wisdom from holy writ for forty minutes at a time, the same is not true for a junior higher. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking a lesson has to last a certain time for it to be effective. When it comes to retention with adolescents, less is always more. Better one deep truth absorbed in fifteen minutes than several facts misunderstood (and later forgotten) in thirty.

5.               God laughs.

Psalm 2 tells us that God laughs. Holy laughter is divinely inspired and so very necessary, especially with teenagers. When diving into the Bible, yes, there’s a time to be serious and plenty of time to pray and reflect; but if your time together does not have some fun built in, you’re likely approaching it wrong. Our young people spend enough time in the classroom. Bible study should not feel like math or science class. Bake in some time to emotionally exhale, and you’ll have souls far more desiring a spiritual inhale. It’s a sin to bore a kid with the Gospel.

So, there we have it: five quick and time-tested strategies based on decades of successes and failures with middle schoolers. This is a battle worth fighting! Don’t lose heart and don’t ever quit. The only time we “fail” is when we forget to pray and refuse to try. Put yourself out there and let the Spirit use you to raise up the next great generation of Catholics!

More Resources For Catholic Middle School Youth Ministry

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Image: Photo by Adam McCoid on Unsplash

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