Billy Graham once told the story of a personal crisis of faith, early in his ministry, regarding the nature of the Bible. Having been confronted by another evangelist about his outdated perspective on the inspiration of Scripture (the belief that the Bible is the Word of God and that God directed its writing through human authors), Graham wrestled to settle his beliefs. After a period of extensive soul-searching and reflection, Graham finally relented, praying, “O Lord, there are many things in this book I don’t understand. There are many problems in it for which I have no solution. . . . But, Father, by faith I am going to accept this as Thy Word. From this moment on I am going to trust the Bible as the Word of God.”1
As Christians, we likely can identify with Graham’s difficulty. At some point, all Christians must decide what they believe about the Bible and what role the Scriptures will play in their decision-making and daily lives. The earlier one makes the decision, the better. For that reason, parents, pastors, teachers, and other adults who influence the lives of younger Christians must take seriously their responsibility to help them develop a sound doctrine of the Bible and understand how to apply it in their lives.
All Christians must decide what they believe about the Bible and what role the Scriptures will play in their decision-making and daily lives
With that goal in mind, in a recent study entitled The Open Generation, the Barna Group published key findings of their search to understand Generation Z’s perspective on Jesus, the Bible, and making an impact through the quest for justice around the world. The authors note, “Teens have respect for the Bible and are curious about its content, but they don’t seem sure of how scripture can inform and influence the world around them.”2 In other words, they are open to its lessons, but struggle to connect its teachings to daily life.
Knowing how to help young adults, teenagers, and even children in our lives understand the Bible begins with considering the specific questions they are asking. The Barna Group’s research points to a few key uncertainties:
Is the Bible True?
The veracity of Scripture is a foundational doctrine, because if we do not believe the Bible is true, then we cannot hold to its teachings with any certainty. What do teens think about it?
Thirty-one percent of all respondents to the Barna Group study reported that the Bible is a source of truth, with 29 percent indicating they believe it is completely reliable.3
Among those described as Bible-engaged (those who hold a high view of the Bible and read it several times per week), those numbers climb to 83 and 81 percent, respectively.4
While this initially seems like encouraging news, another statistic reveals a concerning reality. Globally, 46 percent of respondents indicated it was more important to them that the Bible promote good while only 36 percent felt it was more important that the Bible be true.5 Among Bible-engaged students, 57 percent were more concerned that it be true, while only 41 percent believed it was more important that it promote good.6
In short, a large percentage of Gen Z, even those who claim to be Christian and to be in the Word regularly, would rather that the Bible promote “goodness” than be true. That’s not a tenable position for believers, especially when what the Bible teaches conflicts with what the world defines as “good,” as it does regularly.
Is the Bible Relevant to Me?
Believing that the Bible is true is vitally important, but holding that belief alone does not necessarily mean teens feel that the Bible is meaningful or should play any role in their lives today. After all, as the apostle James notes, even demonic beings believe God is one, yet they are still in rebellion against God (James 2:19).
The Barna Group study reveals that 31 percent of all respondents believe that the Bible has teachings that are relevant to the world today, with 30 percent noting that it contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life, and 30 percent indicating it should be followed.7 Again, the numbers among Bible-engaged students are significantly higher, with 81 percent reporting the Bible’s teachings are relevant today, 80 percent indicating it contains everything a person needs to know to live a meaningful life, and 82 percent feeling it should be followed.8 The study also explored teenagers’ responses to the Bible, concluding that those who own a Bible associate the following feelings with it: Peaceful (50 percent), Motivated (39 percent), Loved (38 percent), and Alive (30 percent).9 Less encouraging, however, are the following associations: Bored (7 percent), Disappointed (5 percent), Angry (4 percent), and Discouraged (4 percent).
It should come as no surprise that Bible-engaged students view the Bible as highly relevant and are nearly twice as likely to associate positive feelings with the Bible as those who are not.10 Our concern is not just for those students who read the Bible regularly, however, and many Gen Z members are not sure that the Bible carries meaning for them today.
How Do I Apply the Bible to My Life?
For many teenagers today, especially those who are not regularly a part of a church or who do not have a habit of Bible reading, their openness to the Bible does not lead to valuing it enough to apply it in their lives. Apart from the influence of a Christian, they might not even know how.
Respondents to the Barna Group study gave the following responses regarding reading the Bible. Twenty-two percent reported not fully understanding the Bible, 12 percent indicated they do not know where to start, 11 percent noted not knowing how to apply it, and 6 percent stated they had no one to help them with the task.11 Although we might expect the numbers among Bible-engaged students to be significantly lower because of the support systems in place (families and churches), the numbers are not strikingly different.
How Can We Help?
The study draws an interesting and encouraging conclusion: “Teens can be misunderstood by the adults in their lives. . . . But data shows this rising generation may pleasantly surprise them. Many teens desire mentorship and welcome guidance—from their parents and others. And when it comes to Bible engagement, we see parents and church leaders play a prominent role in supporting a teen’s knowledge of the Bible.”12 Their questions about the Bible are worldview questions, and we can take some key actions to help them develop their beliefs.
Help Them Find Proof of the Bible’s Truth and Reliability
Whether or not the Bible is true is the foundational question for teens seeking answers today, whether they realize it or not. Pat answers won’t do, however, and we have to engage with them intelligently, treating their questions seriously. In fact, Summit’s own curriculum resources Building on the Rock, Walking in Truth, and Understanding the Times all take this approach and help build a solid worldview anchored in the truth of the Bible.
Whether or not the Bible is true is the foundational question for teens seeking answers today
Show Them How the Bible Is Relevant in Your Life
As the saying goes, more is caught than taught, and as parents or other influential adults, we have a responsibility to live out our faith boldly so the next generation can emulate it as they grow. Rather than read my Bible in the early morning so I won’t be interrupted by my children, can I study God’s Word when and where my children can see me? Rather than only recite memorized prayers at bedtime, can you model prayer for them and talk openly with God? When appropriate, can we find ways to talk with our kids about the lessons we are learning from God when we study and apply his Word?
More is caught than taught, and as parents or other influential adults, we have a responsibility to live out our faith boldly so the next generation can emulate it as they grow
Connect Your Decisions to the Bible and Show Them How to Do the Same
Ultimately, the main proof of the Bible’s authority in life is not how often we read it but how often we obey it. When you make decisions as a family, big or small, are you able to help your kids see how the Bible’s teaching impacted the decision? This is easier for some choices than for others, but all of our decisions are based on values, and often those values are found spelled out in the Bible. Whether it is the choice to go to church on Sunday, the decision not to spend money frivolously, or the rules regarding what television shows will and won’t be viewed in your home, rather than justify the decision with your authority as the parent, will you take the time to explain how the choice falls in line with biblical teachings?
When Billy Graham committed himself to the inerrancy of Scripture, the impact upon his life and ministry was as profound as his impact upon the world. Arguably, God would not have used Graham as mightily if he had not decided the Bible was true and trustworthy. What we think about the Bible truly is important, and the kingdom impact of future generations will rise or fall on their convictions regarding Scripture. Let’s do our part to ensure any future Billy Grahams can find their footing.
Dr. Jason Barker (MDiv, DMin) has served as a pastor and educator for twenty years. He is the Dean of Academics at Oak Valley College in Rialto, California, and serves as an adjunct faculty member at four other colleges and seminaries. He, his wife, and their four children live in Southern California.