Written by Aaron Helman

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On a non-descript Tuesday about six months ago, my 15-year-old son asked me for help with his Algebra homework.

I attended to him dutifully, stared at the page silently for several long moments, then admitted with a significant amount of self-loathing that I couldn’t help him, that I didn’t remember how to do this stuff.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that single moment of burning frustration set off a journey that’s helping to shape and change the way I share Scripture with my students.

Much of what I’ve learned and experimented with over the past half-year is new and fresh and still under construction, but it’s also too important to delay sharing the concepts and ideas until all of the kinks are ironed out.

Let’s get started.

HOW I PASSED THREE YEARS OF HIGH SCHOOL MATH IN SIX WEEKS

I should probably own that I am an intensely competitive individual. Sometimes it’s a blessing, other times less so. And when I realized with a creeping horror that I had been surpassed academically by my own son, that competitive streak emerged from a decades-long dormancy.

I told other people that I was relearning all of my high school math because I wanted to be able to help my son with his homework, but the truth was something far more sinister. Helping him with his math would be good, of course.

Beating him at math would be better.

I visited edx.com, enrolled in a handful of math classes, and six weeks later I’d passed all of them with A’s. I had once again staked my claim to the mathematics throne of my household. All was set right.

And then I started to wonder some things.

I’d worked harder at these courses than I think I ever had in high school or in college. They were totally free, so they didn’t carry the financial burden that my academic career had held over me. I didn’t receive credit for anything this time around and my grades didn’t matter.

This stuff is never going to make my resume or my permanent record, and if I did poorly, I wasn’t going to have to answer to my parents at Christmas Break. I don’t even particularly love doing math.

So why did I try so hard?

HOW I DISCOVERED PROJECT BASED LEARNING

Shortly after reasserting my mathematic dominance, I met a friend for lunch. My friend is a schoolteacher, and as I learned during that lunch, is also one of the pioneers in the emerging field of Project Based Learning, henceforth referred to as PBL.

PBL is an educational paradigm that encourages students to own and design their own learning, by providing them the opportunity to complete a tangible real-world project at the end of the unit instead of taking a final exam.

For example, my friend’s students were tasked by the city water commission with creating a 60-second video that explained why people need to properly dispose of used motor oil rather than dumping it.

The video was shown in the local movie theater before the trailers. In order to make a compelling video, these students decided for themselves that they were going to need to learn how the water cycle worked, how pollutants could specifically harm local ecosystems and wildlife, and the technical aspects of creating a short video that told a complete and compelling story.

I listened with fascination as he described the process and told me about the results. Students who had failed out of traditional schools were thriving in his program. When I asked why, he explained it simply:

“A traditional school says to a student: Learn this so that you can take a test to prove that you learned it so that your teacher can write a letter on your report card.  It’s learning for the sake of learning, and that’s not bad. In fact, that’s a sufficient carrot for some students. Some students are intrinsically motivated to try for good grades. But there are many students who aren’t. Students still receive grades in PBL programs, but they’re not motivated by those grades. They’re motivated because they believe their project can make a difference.”

He summed up the whole thing in four nifty words that succinctly summarized my sudden prowess in Trigonometry:

“We’re changing the carrot.”

That’s what he said, and it lit up every single youth ministry teaching receptor that lives inside my brain. It was an idea I’d never really thought about before and then began to wonder about obsessively.

I’m teaching Scripture every week twice a week, but am I doing enough to make sure my students have an active desire to learn it?

“We’re changing the carrot.”

It was obvious. That’s why I blazed through hundreds of monotonous exercises in factorial division, graphed dozens of secondary and tertiary quadratic formulas, and learned what the term ‘secant’ meant.

Because my competitive drive turned the thing into a competition, a race. I changed the carrot.

I realized that I’d seen this phenomenon everywhere, just that I’d never taken the time to notice it. How many people try and fail to lose weight until they get dire news from the doctor? Looking good at the beach may not be a sufficient carrot, but staying alive definitely is, and so they get to work.

UNDERSTANDING A STUDENT’S BIBLE-LEARNING MOTIVATION

There is, and always will be, some percentage of your student population who will dive into Scripture because it’s the right thing to do or because faithfulness is its own reward. More often than not, these will be the students in your group with the most mature faith.

In fact, desiring Biblical knowledge for the sake of Biblical knowledge is often the defining mark of a more mature faith.

But what about the students who aren’t there yet? What about the students who come to youth group because their parents make them? Or because they like the games? Or because their friends are there?

What about the students who are on the fence about Jesus? Or who have been raised so thoroughly in the Church that they’ve become comfortable, even inoculated, to the idea of Jesus?

How do you encourage students to dive into the Word of God when they aren’t yet convinced that the word of God is worth diving into? How do you get them to really want to learn?

You change the carrot.

THE BIRTH OF PROJECT BASED YOUTH MINISTRY

My friend and I launched out of that meeting with an excitement, and more importantly, a plan. We were going to beta test a brand new kind of Bible study with a group of students, some super-mature leaders, some not. They ran the gamut from sixth graders to twelfth graders.

We started with fourteen of them. We threw them into a brand new style of learning curriculum and waited to see how it went.

Here’s how it went:

We tasked our students with creating, planning, and delivering a worship service for their peers. The only catch was that their worship service had to be as close to Biblical as was possible. Beyond that, there wasn’t much in the way of suggestion or requirement.

We explained that we weren’t even in the room to be their teachers. We were co-learners. Then we started. Here’s how we set it all up:

We showed students videos from different worship services and denominations around the world. The purpose of this exercise was to help “break” their idea of the way worship was supposed to be.

Then we asked them what they thought they would need to learn to pull off a “Biblical” worship service.

Their responses were brilliant and expansive. What does the Bible say about worship? What’s the difference between Catholic and Protestant worship and where is that rooted in Scripture? Among Protestant denominations, how are those worship services different and where are those differences rooted in Scripture?

Why do we sing in worship? What did Jesus’ sermons look like?

Students were diving into Scripture and religion textbooks. You can imagine my shock when a student literally asked if he could borrow a copy of the United Methodist Book of Discipline for a week so that he could read through it.

I was entirely blown away by these students. Their curiosity was suddenly rapacious and insatiable.

I don’t believe that this measure of success is unique. I think it’s repeatable, and while you might not be ready to launch into a new learning paradigm tomorrow, there are four ways you can appropriate these ideas for your own teaching to help students take more ownership of their own Bible learning.

1. START WITH DIFFICULT QUESTIONS

Trying to figure out specifically how the Bible prescribes worship is a difficult task and it’s one without obvious answers. That can often be enough to whet a student’s appetite. There are plenty of difficult questions to ask:

What’s the best way to actually help a homeless person? What does this Parable mean? How much money does the Bible require us to give to the Church?

Why are some versions of the same story told differently in different Gospels? If fill-in-the-blank is so important, why doesn’t Jesus talk about it more?

Asking difficult questions in a learning environment is massively important because it creates a knowledge gap that students are hungry to fill. Even if you’re a lead teacher, speaking from a stage, it’s important to start with these kinds of questions, because they help to ensure that student’s minds are engaged and that they’re listening to what you have to say.

Why? Because they don’t yet know what the answer is.

Contrast these questions against the endless tyranny of obvious questions: What does the Bible say about premarital sex? What does the Bible say about bullying? What does the Bible say about forgiveness?

It’s not that these are bad things to talk about. In fact, they’re tremendously important. It’s just that they don’t necessarily engage your students. They may not know where you’re going with your message or which Scripture you’ll reference, but the already know the answers: Against it, against it, for it, in that order.

There’s an axiom here that applies to every subject and every level of education. Learners skip the lecture when they’re sure they already know the outcome.

2. MAKE SURE STUDENTS HAVE ACCESS TO LEARNING RESOURCES

During our beta group, students found and referenced different Bible translations and commentaries, the writings of theologians, the Wikipedia article about the Council of Nicaea, and YouTube videos featuring dancing Anglicans, Latin-speaking Catholics, fiery Southern Baptists, and Quakers seated in a circle.

The first thing I did ahead of the launch of our group was to improve access to our building’s wireless network, anticipating that our students might need access to a wider array of learning sources than we could possibly prepare for. A smartphone, when used well, can be an incredible tool.

Obviously, providing students Internet access is the simplest and quickest way to allow students access to the widest possible array of resources. At the very least, your learning space should include access to several different Bible translations and a few trusted commentaries.

Last but not least, provide enough of a budget to purchase a worthwhile book or resource if your students identify a real need for it along the way. In Project Based Youth Ministry, your position as a resource is far more important than your role as a teacher.

3. DON’T JUMP IN WITH ANSWERS

Here’s how a difficult question often goes in a small group. A few students look into their Bibles. Maybe someone Google searches a concordance. A few students tie and retie their shoes. There’s not much in the way of speaking. Two or three minutes of this muted awkwardness hold the air, and then the small group leader does the thing the small group leader knows she shouldn’t do.

She tells everyone the answer.

Or at least what she thinks the answer is.

I’m guilty as charged, by the way. How many times have I asked a really difficult question, the time that learned theologians have debated for generations, then jumped in disappointedly because my students couldn’t generate an answer of their own after three minutes of thinking.

Not only is this unfair to my students, it also serves to stifle their own learning process. After all, what’s the impetus to learn something on your own if the oldest person in the room will just give you the answer.

This is a difficult habit to break for yourself, and it’s an even more difficult expectation to break for your students. It might take a few weeks of unanswered questions before they realize that you’re not going to release them from their own learning responsibility, but once they realize it’s their weight to carry, they’ll be far more likely to carry it.

Now when a student asks a difficult question of me, I’ll hold off answering it, and instead redirect the student to dig into it during the week and to let us know. I’ll take a note of the moment, and usually send off a reminder message or two to the student during the week.

Even better, I’ll offer to take them out to coffee or a milkshake so they can tell me what they learned. That way, being tasked with a question doesn’t feel like the “burden” of homework and is instead a reward to be received later in the form of free food.

Whenever I task a student with a tough question, they understand that I’ll ask them to share their answer in the group the next week. That leads us into the last part.

4, LET STUDENTS DO SOMETHING WITH THEIR KNOWLEDGE

Remember, knowledge for the sake of knowledge fails to motivate a large percentage of students. And in the case of Biblical knowledge, it demands to be acted upon. We don’t just read the Bible so we can know it. We read the Bible so we can live it.

Let students share their learnings with the group. If they’re not comfortable in front of a large group, that’s fine. They can write the words and you can speak them. In this way, you’re tasking students to help you do the research and study part of your message.

Maybe they’d rather make a video and upload it to YouTube or share a picture collage on their Instagram that demonstrates their learning.

Either way, if you’ve provided space for a student to really, actually learn something; also provide space for them to share that knowledge. It might just be the best evangelism tool in your arsenal.

A TOTALLY BIBLICAL WORSHIP SERVICE?

So, how did my group do with their worship service given their guidelines, that they could only include elements that they found in Scripture?

They did awesome. It was fun and featured food and dancing and confession and admonishment, along with a whole host of other guidelines they found in Scripture that they didn’t always also find in our standard order of worship.

But more than that, it was an irreplaceable learning experience, one that we hope, pray, and expect will have a more lasting affect than our regular Bible studies.

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Written by Aaron Helman. Aaron has been in youth ministry for over 15 years and is currently a youth pastor in South Bend, Indiana.

7 Replies to “HOW TO HELP STUDENTS OWN THEIR BIBLE LEARNING”

  1. Heather P
    • April 18, 2017

    Wow dude Aaron, that’s awesome. Thank you for writing this. I am about to start prepping my preteens to run a night church service – and this is fabulous… far better than telling them to do a run of the mill service where they’re just following routine and not knowing why. Do you have any more info on how you introduced it, questions you asked, how long it took, how you prepped your leaders for it, things you learnt in the process, whether you think it would work for year 7 to 9s, …. and any other helpful hints you can think of? It’s a fabulous idea!

    Reply 1 Response
    1. Aaron Helman
      • April 18, 2017

      Hi Heather, the most important thing is allowing for plenty of “culture-building” time as my schoolteacher friend calls it. That means allowing that for 2-3 weeks, the biggest learning will be relearning the style rather than content. Once students by into the idea that you’re there as a resourcer and not as the Giver of All Knowledge, I think they’ll impress you.

      After that, your primary job is whetting their appetites to WANT to learn something new, and then unleashing them to do it. The following link contains a wealth of PBL resources to get your students thinking for themselves: https://www.nsrfharmony.org/free-resources/protocols/a-z

      Leader training is also DIFFICULT, because your leaders literally have to unlearn the idea of leading. Leaders have to be okay sending students home at the end of their allotted time without answering all of their questions. Leaders have to be okay allowing students to struggle with seemingly basic concepts. At one particularly difficult meeting, I was literally biting my own tongue because I so badly wanted to just help them get there. After twenty very long minutes, they finally figured it out for themselves, and it was much more valuable that way.

      Reply
  2. Monica
    • April 18, 2017

    PBL is the way to teach today’s youth! I am a middle school teacher and was s varsity coach for 15 years. In working with youth at church for about 15 years, this method is successful because the youth are responsible for their own learning therefore creating ownership. Another reason this works well in youth groups is that it not like the traditional classroom where they spend much of their time.

    Reply
  3. carin
    • April 28, 2017

    Hi Aaron

    will you be publishing youth curriculum using this new way of discipling?
    Can’t wait to order!

    Reply 1 Response
    1. Nick Diliberto
      • April 28, 2017

      Great question. Right now no. However, it’s something worth considering 🙂

      Reply
  4. Tammy
    • May 16, 2017

    Very good article. I see how this kind of teaching is beneficial. I would LOVE to know more ideas and ways to teach in this way. Thank you for your insightful ideas.

    Reply
  5. Leslea
    • March 9, 2020

    Hi Aaron. I found your article when Googling “Project Based Learning Sunday School Youth.” Based on the other responses, you wrote this almost 3 years ago. Any new insights? I am trying to figure out how to inspire and involve our middle schoolers more in their Sunday school learning and PBL seems the way to go. My kids have been using PBL in school for the last few years and I found it wonderful to see kids more engaged by “real world” problems. Thanks for this article and any further thoughts.

    Reply

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