Chapter OneWHAT IS HOLISTIC TEACHING?
(And Why Teaching Well Matters)
"My Christian friends would] say they're Christians because they say they believe in
God, and they go to church usually. And I say, 'That doesn't make you a Christian.
What makes you a Christian is believing all that and living it out.' They don't live it out.
They do far worse things than I do and that makes them hypocrites."-CLAIRE, A COLLEGE FRESHMAN
"I think a lot of people are losing their religion. Definitely. Even me, I know that when I
grew up I used to go to church every Sunday, and now it's become holidays. But I think
as long as you have your own thing, whether it's meditation-anything that centers you
in life is good. Do I pray? Yeah, I do."-ACTRESS KIRSTEN DUNST
* * *
The future of the church is in trouble, and those of us who teach youth need
to step up and accept our share of the blame. God has entrusted us with a high
and holy calling, but we've treated it like it's just another chore in life. We
rarely take the time to do it well, and often would prefer not to do it at all. We
wait until the last minute to get ready (if we take the time at all), and only put
in the effort to do it right when we know something special is happening, like
visitors or evaluation.
The Current Climate of Religious and Biblical
Understanding in Youth Culture
Our sloppiness in teaching God's Word haunts us with the maturing of the young
people we typically call Generation X. Witness the incredibly high number of public
figures between ages 20 and 35 who either grew up in the church or call themselves
Christian, but use that term very differently than most of us might. Here are
a few quotations from or about some well-known performers:
JESSICA SIMPSONis "a minister's daughter, a poor kid who moved seven times before
she was eight as her father, Joe, sought work as a youth minister and therapist for
abused kids in Baptist parishes around Dallas."
"The Bible. That's my favorite book. I was an usher in church; my grandmother played
the piano. And my father's a deacon now."-SKINNY DEVILLE (real name William Hughes) of the gangsta rap
group Nappy Roots
"I have an intense history with Christianity."-BEN MOODY, whose band, EVANESCENCE, had their albums pulled
from Christian bookstores when it was discovered that band
members drank and swore.
"I love the teachings of Christ, but I don't think of myself as a Christian by anyone's
"I'm a believer in Jesus Christ."-TOM DELONGE OF BLINK-182
"I pray before we go on stage and I pray at night." (explaining that he absolutely believes in God, but hopes that God is not judgmental about his behavior.)
-MARK HOPPUS OF BLINK-182, KNOWN FOR THEIR PROFANITY-LACED
LYRICS, CONCERTS IN THE NUDE, AND VIDEOS FEATURING PORN STARS
NO DOUBT lead singer GWEN STEFANI"was raised in a Christian family, which is what she blames for her worst faults-namely that she is too judgmental and
not open enough."
"I was angry, I was battling myself in my brain. I was kind of tormented by it because I was
dealing with guilt issues about all the Ten Commandments and all the other things the
Bible says I wasn't living in my life . [But now] I'm at peace with it. There's no guilt
anymore."-CREED'S SCOTT STAPP
"I mean, all three of us have faith, and I think we all believe there is a God . but it's not
a Christian God or a Buddhist God or a Muslim God. It's the God I see when I look at
my little boy. It's the God I see in nature . It's the God that is revealed to me through
the world around me."-CREED'S SCOTT STAPP
"We continuously surround ourselves with spiritual people, and give God our
praise . It's a great thing that we speak up for our Christianity, and nobody's gonna
tell us to stop."-BEYONCE KNOWLES OF DESTINY'S CHILD
"I'm a Christian. I go to church."-BRITNEY SPEARS
"I can honestly say that I'm a Christian, but my spirituality has been developed on the
road and is based on my experiences with God."-JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE, who grew up in a Baptist church
with what he calls frowning, judgmental elders.
"Sure," you might be thinking, "but these are famous people. We shouldn't
expect them to reflect the experiences and attitudes of the typical kids in our
churches." Yet all of these now-famous people once were youth in our churches
and have since formed less-than-biblical, or at least radically nontraditional, views of
God, Christianity, and personal faith. These are some of the gifted, talented, and
driven kids that God created to be singing his praises and serving his kingdom.
They're no different from the "regular" teens we see every week at school, in our
neighborhoods, and in our ministries.
Still not convinced? Then take a look at what some other, non-famous young
people say about their experience growing up in church.
Amazing Conversions is a terrific book by Bob Altemeyer and Bruce Hunsberger
(Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1997) that chronicles the stories of forty-six
college freshmen they called "Amazing Apostates." That is, these students were
identified in a survey of more than 2,000 college freshmen as being among those
who were raised in church-going, Christian families but had abandoned their faith
by the time they reached college. Consider the following excerpts:
Anne says she was very devout all the way through high school, until age 17, when she started seeing things differently. "I just started making up my own mind, and stopped believing basically about the church" (p.39). "I didn't like being told how you
should interpret different readings. Why can't you make up your own mind?" (p. 41).
Bill thinks it very unlikely that he will ever return to religion. "Those things
aren't nearly as important to me as freedom of thought and freedom of expression" (p.44).
"I am a lot stronger than I would be if I had let Christ control my life instead of making my decisions" (p.45).
Dwight expressed concern that "you don't have a choice. They only give you one side and
that's what you have to believe in" (p. 50).
[Eleanor] also hunted for answers in the Bible, which she read every evening
before she went to bed . But they were answers she could not accept (p. 54).
These examples could go on and on, but you get the gist. The authors make
several interesting conclusions and observations based on their study. They note
that several of the young people compare the religious teaching of their youth to
Santa Claus: "My parents told me that was true, too," remarked one student. "What
is the evidence for God, really?" (p. 111, emphasis original).
The authors conclude that the "nuclear" cause of the amazing apostasy they
uncovered originates with this issue: Can you believe in the Bible, and its story of
the existence of God? (p. 111). When youth struggled with questions of belief, the
church offered them little support. Those participants who went to pastors with
their questions said that clergy offered reasoned answers to the questions more
often than parents, but failed to convince. "I couldn't get a straight answer," said
Chuck (p. 112). The authors concluded that "Traditional religious teachings would
'come up short' in the truth department more often in bright minds, if the teachings
did not make sense" (p. 121, emphasis original).
I doubt it would take much effort for you to think of people you grew up with
or teenagers you've taught in church who would say many of these same things. A
lot of the youth growing up in our churches now are developing similar attitudes.
It's time to get serious about addressing the problem.
More evidence comes from a company called Highway Video in Mountain
View, California (www.highwayvideo.com), that has produced a series of film
shorts over the past few years with some very disturbing content. Among their
great products are some "person on the street" interviews asking basic religious questions.
Prayer, truth, death, and going to church have all been subjects. The comments
of these anonymous interviewees indicate an alarming lack of understanding
about the God of the Bible, even among those who grew up in the church.
All of this leads to the inescapable conclusion that the church has done a very
poor job of making disciples of most of the teenagers God has put in our care.
So what does that mean for those of us who are called to teach youth? After
reading this chapter, one of my students at John Brown University commented, "I
think the church not only does a very poor job of teaching, but an even worse job
of bringing up effective teachers." I agree, but this doesn't have to be the case. We
can teach teenagers not just what the Bible says, but why we trust the Bible and
how the Bible should make a difference in our everyday lives. And we can equip almost
any willing Christian to be a very good teacher.
Both anecdotal and statistical evidence indicates that
we are losing our youth, especially the older, brighter
ones. Kids who are expressive, inquisitive, artistic, MARGINALIZED,
or doubting have an exceedingly difficult time
finding teachers who connect with them in our churches.
Rather than challenging students to excellence in a variety
of ways, we are in the midst of a youth ministry culture
where we are attempting to "Love them into the kingdom." Anybody can do that,
right? Evidently not. Somehow we're falling short. Just loving them is not enough.
The world loves them too. Most kids know just as many non-Christians who love
them as Christians. And non-Christians are rarely seen as hypocrites, which is a
very big deal to teens.
There was a lot of speculation that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001,
would spark a spiritual revival in America's churches. Just six months later, most
churches (except the largest megachurches) were back to their pre-9/11 attendance
levels. Christians keep waiting for something to happen that will shake people into
revival. But until we do a better job of teaching God's truth and making disciples,
external events will never bring sustained change.
While many public polls have shown an increase in spirituality in North
America, they have also shown a marked decrease in people, including teens, who
identify themselves as evangelicals. One research report summarized the trend in
The percentage of teens who are evangelicals-i.e., those who are not only born again but also
believe in the accuracy of the Bible, personal responsibility to evangelize, believe in salvation by
grace alone, and possess orthodox biblical views on God, Jesus, and Satan-has declined from 10
percent in 1995 to just 4 percent today.
This is also reflected in research that indicates
declining attendance at youth group meetings. We
who are youth ministry leaders have been largely blinded
by the apparent growth in attendance at megachurch
youth events. We need to keep in mind that these
churches represent a tiny percentage of churches in
America. Even if these congregations are growing (and
some reported attendance numbers have been called
into doubt recently), there are tens of thousands of
other North American churches in which youth participation
It isn't that God is no longer important to young people. In fact, more
youth say they think about God and the meaning of life regularly than ever
before. They just aren't doing it in Christian churches or in evangelically
ORTHODOX ways as much.
To stop this bleeding, we must do a better job of passing on the faith. We
can't just tell kids what they are to believe-as indicated above, that strategy
doesn't work well. And we have to do more than just make sure kids feel close
to God. That tends to leave them questioning in those moments when they
don't feel close to him.
The best way to raise the next generation of Christian believers is to teach
holistically. Feed their souls, challenge their minds, strengthen their emotions,
and guide their actions. This is the type of holistic teaching we see in Scripture.
The Biblical Basis for Holistic Teaching
To teach holistically is to touch every part of who the student is. This includes the
physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual realms. The idea is to teach individuals
in the way God has created us, as whole beings made in his image, rather
than fragmented parts.
Somehow, over the past several decades, teaching in the church has become
dominated by several troubling tendencies. In some congregations, teaching is
focused entirely on memorizing portions of Scripture. In others, ill-educated lay
people facilitate discussions for groups of other lay people-which too often
amounts to the blind leading the blind. Other churches feature teachers who talk
for the entire class time, what Lois LeBar calls, "Teaching that is only poor lay
None of these strategies affects the head, heart, and hands of students. What
the church needs are teachers who understand the mandate to share knowledge,
motivate students, and lead them to become radical world-changers for Christ.
There is ample biblical support for the idea that humans are whole persons
and should be taught as such. Often called the SHEMA, Deuteronomy 6:4-9 says it
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.