If you've spent any time around me, and really any of us at YM360, you'll hear us say over and over that the foundation of your youth ministry has to be built on God's Word. So many excellent youth workers get this and have solid plans and programs to teach teenagers to engage with God through the pages of the Bible. This is a great thing. But if we step back and ask ourselves if we're teaching students to memorize God's Word, to “hide it in their hearts” to quote Psalm 119, I think many of us find that we're missing out.
I had a personal moment of conviction that made me step back and evaluate my actions with the students I lead and to also consider where I see it in the churches we interact with at YM360. My hunch is that for most churches, we're not challenging students to truly know Scripture, to memorize it. I think this is in part because we're not doing it ourselves.
I think it’s time we reevaluate our relationship with Scripture memory and raise the bar on how we challenge students to engage with God’s Word.
“Why” you may ask? Why is it important to focus on memorizing God's Word?
- First, it’s an obedience issue. There is a consistent and strong call from the Bible to know Scripture by memory. Psalm 119:11 says, “I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” Joshua 1:8 says, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night.” Deuteronomy 11:18 says, “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul.” Colossians 3:16 says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” Psalm 119:16 says “I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.“ There are dozens and dozens of other verses that call us to know God's Word by heart. It's a significant aspect of what it means to be a Christ-follower.
- Second, we see people modeling Scripture memory throughout the Bible, most notably Jesus. When He was tempted in the wilderness, how did He respond? He responded by meeting Satan with Scripture. Jesus didn’t whip out His phone and fumble for that one verse He sort of half-way remembered. He knew Scripture by heart.
- Third, knowing Scripture helps us partner more effectively with the Holy Spirit. John 14:26 says the Holy Spirit will teach us all things and bring to our remembrance all that Jesus has said to us. Now, I would never suggest we can limit the power of the Spirit. But that verse says that we will be REMINDED of God's Word. How can you be reminded of something that you don't know? Again, the Holy Spirit certainly has the power to bring Scripture to mind that we don't know. But I don't want the Holy Spirit to have to work in spite of me. I want to partner with the Spirit and give Him plenty of ammo to work with.
- Fourth, God in His infinite wisdom knows this: when we put in the discipline to learn Scripture by heart, it awakens in us a desire to learn more Scripture. God’s Word is not like any other written word. It’s living and active (Heb 4:12). It calls us unto itself.
So, if we know that we are called to memorize Scripture, and lead our students to do the same, why don’t we do it then?
- First, let's be honest: it's hard. I mean, at least it is for me. Memorizing Scripture is not something that comes easily to many of us. And I don't know if you know this or not, but as humans, we tend to avoid difficult things.
- Second, it's counter-cultural. Nothing about the pace of our lives and culture lends itself to quiet reflection and or memorization. It takes silence and focus to memorize God's Word. How we live works against us.
- Third, and this one may hurt a bit, we don’t value God’s Word. It’s true. Study after study shows that Christians don’t interact with the Bible very much outside of their time in church. If we cared more about God’s Word, our actions would reflect it. We’d spend the time to memorize it. That we don't take time speaks volumes about how unimportant the Bible is to us.
OK, so, know that I’ve made the case, how do you lead students to embrace learning Scripture by heart?
Start small . . . Or start big.
Choose well-known verses and start there. The Internet is full of lists of “best verses for memorizing,” or similar. Identify a handful of verses to learn and learn them one at a time. Or choose a chapter of a Book. That’s right. A whole chapter. There’s actually something pretty cool about setting the bar high. It makes it a challenge that some students will rise to.
Apps are your friend
There are SOOOO many apps out there that help. Scripture Typer is one that has worked for me in the past. But the Verses app has been a game-changer for me. It’s a regular part of my morning time with the Lord. It seems to be the most robust app out there and has truly helped me break through what has been something I am not great at.
Accountability is a MUST
I have found over the years that a framework of accountability is critical. This is true with me. This is ESPECIALLY true with our students. Checking in on each other, and saying Scripture in front of a small group is a simple way to hold each other accountable for knowing the Word.
Don’t be scared of competition
Gamification is a huge part of the lives of teenagers. It’s become prevalent in education. It’s a language they are fluent in. Make it a competition. Give “badges” or rewards. Allow kids to “level up.” Have a leader board. We don’t need to feel like it’s somehow less sacred if we make it a contest. The goal is to get students in the word.
There's a lot we miss out on when we don't make Scripture memory a part of our ministries. My challenge to you is to put it to the test; lean into it and see what happens. My hunch is you'll find students developing a more profound desire for God and His Word. Which is kind of why we do what we do, isn't it?