How do we make theology engaging and interesting for students? While I certainly don’t claim to have it all figured out, and I am always looking for some creative and new ideas, here are four lessons I have learned from roughly two decades of teaching and speaking to students on theological issues:
First, use stories. We all love stories. Students do too. As Jonathan Gottschall wrote in his excellent book The Storytelling Animal, “Human minds yield hopelessly to the suction of story. No matter how hard we concentrate, not matter how deep we dig in our heels, we just can’t resist the gravity of alternate worlds.” Jesus told stories for a few reasons. People remember them. We relate to them. And lessons are best learned through stories. Jesus was asked who qualifies as a neighbor, and he told the story of the Good Samaritan. He was asked how many times we should forgive people and he told the story of the Unmerciful Servant. Teach theological doctrines, but whenever possible, tell a story.
Second, use cultural examples. Students today are engrossed with the prevailing culture. The movies they watch, the music they listen to, and the technology they use are all influenced by our wider culture. Sometimes we need to critique culture and other times we need to show how Christ is within culture. But using cultural examples of theology not only makes theology interesting to students, it also helps them make connections from their theology to the “real” world. For instance, recently I was talking with my students about the biblical view of sex. And so I used an example from the movie Passengers.
Third, ask good questions. In my experience, good questions are far better than answers. As I wrote in a recent post, my teachers who asked me good questions had a far greater impact on my life than those who simply gave me answers. Isn’t that true for you too? Students today have access to endless information. Simply giving kids theological truths has some value, but far more important is helping kids think theologically. We simply can’t cover every conceivable theological issue in our classrooms, ministries, or conversations. But we can give students a template for how to think theologically. And even if we did cover every issue of today, new issues will inevitably arise. Thus, the most important educational task today is teaching students how to think, how to arrive at truth. And one of the best ways to do this is to ask good questions and guide students through how to discover reasonable answers.
Fourth, connect theology to practical life. According to the National Survey of Youth and Religion  students today tend to compartmentalize their spiritual faith. In other words, they tend to believe that science, math and history are matters of objective truth, but spiritual beliefs are merely a matter of preference that helps give their lives meaning. As a result, few students are able (or interested) to translate theology to their practical lives. In other words, few students can show how their beliefs about God practically shape how they live. If we don’t connect theology to how kids actually live, what’s the point? While there are many ways to do this (such as through stories, experiences, and personal examples), one simple step is to always ask, after teaching a theological truth: How should this affect the way we actually live?
Students need to see that believing God created the world should influence how we treat the environment. They need to connect belief in the resurrection to how we handle death. And they need to see how believing we are made in the image of God shapes the way we think about abortion, pornography, bullying, racism, eating disorders and many other issues. Theological teaching is not complete until students connect truth to their daily lives.