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Do Your Students Understand When You Talk About Jesus Stuff?

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Last week I had a really interesting conversation with a group of freshmen.  It all started with this question from one girl:

“So in church they’re always talking about asking Jesus into your heart, I’m not even sure I know what that really means.”

The rest of the group nodded in agreement.  These were not “unchurched” students leading the discussion.  Instead, they were youth who go to church regularly and even attend a Christian School.  My first thought was who I could blame for their confusion.  Then I realized the issue was not if they were being told the story  of  Jesus, who He is or what Salvation is all about, they knew the answers to these questions.  It got me thinking about the deeper issue.

Have you ever used any of these words in your talks or Bible Studies:

Temptation.  Flesh.  Righteousness. Justification. Sanctification. Identity. Fellowship. Witness. Testimony. Pride. Lust. Modesty.

The problem of course is that we have an entire language we speak in our Christiandom.  We expect students who have never been to church to struggle to keep up,  however, the ones who have grown up in Sunday School should know this stuff.

I would contend,  we don’t often stop to EXPLAIN what we MEAN when we are building the foundations of the faith.  The same students who didn’t understand really what “Jesus in their heart” meant, could give me all the facts of how to come into a relationship with Christ.  They knew about the crucifixion, resurrection and the implications of it all.  Too often we can set it up so our students can memorize the words, without really knowing the definitions.  We think Bible Stories are merely about the details of who, what, when and how.   Even if we might give a description of the concept, are we pushing to help them know the application?  The older they get the more they think they should “know” and the more embarrassed they become to admit they don’t.  So they keep up appearances until one day the words, crash into their doubts and we wonder why some (not all) are running from God.

This is not the first time I have had a conversation like this with students.  It started years ago when I was passionately preaching about the need to put Jesus first in our lives.  Instead of excitement, I got a bunch of blank stares when I made the statement, “We need to die to self.”  I stopped and asked:

 “Who knows what that means?”

There was a lot of clamoring.  A couple of people made the obligatory statement, “I know I just can’t explain it.”  The reality was they had no clue.   I found they had heard this idea often while no one had stopped to make sure they were “getting it.”   I realized, how often do I take it one step further and ask:

What does that mean to YOU for YOU and in YOUR life?

That was the day I adopted the above questions as a part of everything I do in all of our programming. Blank stares rarely are about boredom.  More often than not they come from confusion.  The issue isn’t in our language, it’s that we aren’t explaining it.  The freshmen I spoke with understood the concept of salvation, but what it meant to belong to Jesus was something they had never taken the time to unpack completely.

I challenge you to dig this week with your own group.  Ask them if there are some words or ideas in the church or in their faith that they are afraid to admit are baffling.

Would you be willing to change the way you teach?

Do you think this is an issue or not?

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6 Responses to Do Your Students Understand When You Talk About Jesus Stuff?

  1. tednorthrop February 13, 2014 at 11:09 am #

    This is a great reminder. It’s so easy for us to slip into “Christianese” and use all the clichés. Unfortunately, this probably happens the most when we prepare the least. We need to over-prepare and plan how we can avoid using these go-to phrases, or build in the time to really dissect them.

    This past Sunday, I was teaching on dating, and of course, you can’t teach on dating and ignore the “unequally yoked” passage. When I asked that question – “Who knows what that means?” – I got a few BS’ed answers about eggs. Thankfully, I was prepared for that! I took the time to show them pictures of a yoke and explain it’s purpose. Once they understood what a yoke is, the analogy made sense. A bunch of seventh graders don’t have their Master’s in Biblical Studies – most of them have probably never even read the passage we’re teaching!

    Leneita, I like your comments on asking “Jesus into your heart.” The truth is, that phrase isn’t even in the Bible. It’s just a summary of a bunch of very Biblical truths. If we don’t stop to decipher the words and phrases we’re using, they just become fillers that prevent us from actually teaching the Word.

    • DrewE February 13, 2014 at 4:39 pm #

      Making sure that students (and adults and, well, anybody we’re trying to communicate with) actually can understand the words we use is vital. Christianity is filled with lots of grand ideas, expressed by words and phrases that are full of meaning but rarely if ever heard elsewhere. (I work in another field with its own vocabulary—computer programming—and explaining things I do to people who aren’t programmers working on the same projects is filled with similar pitfalls!)

      One good way to help make sure that our students actually understand what’s being said is to have them explain it. Often, talking through a concept is far more useful in making it real and concrete than hearing about it again and again.

      I think it’s also helpful to keep in mind, especially for middle schoolers and younger kids, that there’s somewhat of a transition going on developmentally in terms of thinking abstractly. As adults, we often tend to learn things most easily by analogy; we have what we think is a more or less complete understanding of our world, and new things are best added to it by figuring out what it’s similar to and dropping it in there. (I imagine a sort of enormous tinkertoy contraption that represents the view of the world—see, an analogy right there!) With younger kids, learning is more direct and observational; it’s clearer to state and explain things directly than to try to make analogies. Thinking abstractly is still somewhat of a new skill for junior high students, and it’s helpful to be clear with clues when we’re about to embark on it, rather than assuming they’ll figure it out immediately on their own.

      The phrase “asking Jesus into one’s heart” is somewhat of a pet peeve of mine, I must admit. Not only is it not in the Bible, as Ted notes, but it doesn’t seem to me to be particularly accurate in describing salvation anyhow. We aren’t so much inviting Christ as we’re responding to His invitation to us. We aren’t introducing the Son of Man into our blood-pumping muscle, but rather offering our whole beings to God for His use, and the filling by the Holy Spirit. Is it much wonder that children, generally disposed to thinking literally, are anything but befuddled by such a potentially misleading analogy?

      • Leneita Fix February 19, 2014 at 10:06 am #

        Drew,
        So sorry it took me a couple of days to get back to you. I love your response. I agree that we don’t ask “Jesus into our hearts,” it’s more of learning that we belong to Him. I like that you have them explain it back to you. I often give and example and then ask students if they understand my example. I know I have the tendency to speak in just plain slang that students don’t get. I once used the expression, “By the skin of my teeth,” and got blank stares. These are tremendous insights, thanks so much for sharing them!

    • Leneita Fix February 19, 2014 at 9:21 am #

      Ted,
      So sorry it took me a couple of days to get back to you. I love that you showed a picture of an actual yoke and let them know what it meant. The reality is that the examples Jesus gave were for so often culturally relevant for that particular decade. We don’t see animals “yoked” often. I know isn’t it funny how we talk about the passage in Romans as far as a “Jesus in your heart,” example. However, if we are going to say that then why aren’t we talking about what it means to not just “believe in your heart” but also “Confess with your mouth?”

  2. aaronhelman February 13, 2014 at 11:29 am #

    Leneita, this is a GREAT post! I’ll never forget being in the seventh grade the first time a “church guy” invited me to youth group for some “great fellowship with my peers.”

    I’m still not 100% certain what that means.

    • Leneita Fix February 19, 2014 at 9:22 am #

      Aaron-
      Thanks so much for sharing. I don’t really know exactly what fellowshipping is either :)

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