Updated: Mar 31, 2021
After a brief hiatus to look at Easter & Passover Adaptations, it’s time to return to exploring Project-Based Learning and the potential that it has to transform youth ministry and shape Gen Z students. A few weeks ago I looked at some of the gaps in the traditional educational models that churches over-rely on, and then two weeks ago I sketched out a basic picture of what Project-Based Learning is and what it aims to do. This week we’ll look at what PBL can do for our youth ministries that these traditional models can't.
1) Empower Everyone
One of the educational challenges posed by youth ministry is the extremely diverse abilities and levels of understanding among Gen Z students. It’s nearly impossible to adequately account for this diversity when teaching a large group from up front, and even finding a curriculum for small groups can be difficult – for some students the curriculum will assume too much and for other students it will boringly rehash what they already know.
Students don’t just learn content; they learn how to learn and how to direct their own course of growth.
Project-Based Learning, by contrast, has the potential to empower students, whatever their level of knowledge and skill may be, and to provide them with an appropriate but engaging challenge. Rather than forcing students to follow a rigid pathway of learning, PBL invites students to become self-reflective learners, identifying gaps in the knowledge that they need to achieve their goals, seeking out the resources that will help them fill those gaps, and vetting the reliability of those resources. Students don’t just learn content; they learn how to learn and how to direct their own course of growth.
In the context of ministering to Gen Z, learning how to learn is an increasingly important skill. In previous eras, the church served as the primary holder and dispenser of Christian content. In the digital era, however, content is everywhere. By helping our youth learn how to self-reflect and find reliable answers to their own questions, we free them to learn what is relevant to their current stage of knowledge and maturity.
To take an example, if there are two students are seeking to address the real world question of how to apply the Bible to daily life, with the first student having grown up reading the Bible with their family and the other being a seeker who is just starting to read the Bible for the first time, each student will approach this challenge with a different amount of background and context. Teacher- or curriculum-centered approaches could deliver discrete content about reading the Bible, but this content might easily be too simple for the experienced Christian or too advanced for the seeker. PBL projects, on the other hand, can be designed to let each of these youth begin where they currently are, reflect on their current obstacles to applying the Bible, and seek or create solutions to these obstacles.
2) Unveil Gifts
Youth groups that rely heavily on talks or upfront instruction are great for students who are gifted listeners and verbal-linguistic or logical learners. Small groups tend to privilege students who are gifted interpersonally or intrapersonal students who can self-reflect and share their deep insights. PBL, by contrast, doesn’t privilege any particular gifting or type of learner. Because students design their own response to their question/problem, each group can come up with a solution that utilizes the unique gifts and strengths of its members. This is not only more enjoyable for students, but also more likely to produce in them long term learning and a way to show (rather than tell) them that all their gifts are useful and have an important role in the church. Some students may not even realize that they have a particular gift, but through the process of tackling a concrete problem (rather than sitting and listening), they can discover the unique talents that God has provided for them, even as they use them in the service of the church.
...students can be incredibly creative in coming up with ideas for projects that will incorporate their learning style and talents, if they are given the chance.
To return to the example of a group of students responding to the challenge of applying the Bible to modern day life, when it comes to learning, visual learners might prefer to utilize helpful explainer videos like the Bible Project, interpersonal learners might prefer to meet with various adults in the church and ask them about their Bible application practices, while linguistic learners might read a book on how to read the Bible. When it comes to creating a product, a group with visually-talented students might create infographics or a graphic companion to applying the Bible, a group with outgoing students might create funny videos or sketches demonstrating how to apply the Bible, while a group with musically-talented students could create a song about reading the Bible. These are just a small sample of potential projects; students can be incredibly creative in coming up with ideas for projects that will incorporate their learning style and talents, if they are given the chance.
3) Elevate the Arts
By giving students concrete opportunities to use their gifts, we can also communicate something significant to them about the importance of the arts to the church. Although there are all kinds of interesting and thoughtful books being written about the importance of artists and culture-care in the church, if artists (or future artists) merely hear or read that messages about how the arts are important to the church but don’t have any practical experiences in which their creative gifts are welcomed into church life, such messages will eventually be dismissed. Truly elevating the value of the arts in the church requires finding practical ways to disciple artists as artists. This is exactly what PBL can do. The creative or artistic projects that students create in response to a Project-Based Learning challenge are fertile territory to disciple them in the use of their gifts and to acknowledge publicly the value that these gifts have.
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Several of the example projects that I suggested above involved some form of creativity or artistry, and many more could be listed. As students utilize various forms of creativity like drawing, videography, graphic design, or acting to create a response to a PBL challenge, churches could seek to connect them with adult members who, whether in a professional or amateur fashion, also engage in such pursuits. These members could provide concrete feedback to the specific projects that the students work on, as well as hopefully having meaningful conversations about what it’s like to be a Christian artist and how the arts can serve as a means of worshiping God. Moreover, once projects are completed, churches can find ways to display them for the whole congregation to see (e.g. a gallery or even in service during the offering time). In doing so, the church can show aspiring creatives that their work is valued and welcome within the church.
4) Activate Mission
We all know that we’re supposed to be doers of the Word and not hearers only, and yet so much of we the discipleship time we have with students ends up getting used only for hearing or talking not in planning or action. As a result, we leave the doing to the students to figure out on their own or we’re forced to create special doing opportunities, which only the really dedicated end up having time to participate in. We can tell students to act on their faith until we’re blue in the face, but if we don’t provide space for them to do it with us, to have our guidance and coaching and support as they’re acting, most of them simply won’t follow through.
Often when we come to the Bible, it’s to answer the questions and challenges that we’re facing as we try to faithfully follow and serve Jesus.
Like James (and Jesus), Project-Based Learning is built on the belief that knowledge isn’t truly complete until the learner is actively applying it in a real world context. Rather than beginning with content and then tacking on points of application at the end, PBL has students begin with a concrete problem out in the world and then proceed to learn whatever content they need as a means of taking action. This doesn’t mean that content isn’t important; only that it doesn’t call the shots. The perspicuity, infallibility, and authority of Scripture are all important topics, but we don’t have to teach a lesson about these ideas in the abstract in order for students to learn about them. Rather, if they are seeking to create a tool to help apply Scripture to today, they may end up asking the exact same kinds of questions that these doctrines were developed to address, and in that context they will be much more interested and likely to remember whatever resources or instruction we provide them.
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Now some may worry that this puts the Bible (content) in the back seat and makes it our tool rather than our direction and our guide. And, certainly, those who design projects for youth ministry should take care to frame the driving questions or problems from within the biblical worldview. Yet we should keep in mind that the way that sophisticated Bible readers come to understand and apply the content of the Bible is rarely a straightforward matter of reading first and then applying. Often when we come to the Bible, it’s to answer the questions and challenges that we’re facing as we try to faithfully follow and serve Jesus. Indeed, as we see in the gospels, much of the instruction that stuck with the disciples is that which Jesus gave to them either during or in response to their own attempts to serve him. We should, of course, encourage students to have a daily practice of engaging the Bible without an agenda, but we should also teach them how to engage the Bible as a resource to answer the questions they encounter while out on mission for Jesus.
5) Deepen Learning
Faith struggles and questions are hitting Gen Z youth far faster than we or their parents could ever hope to address. If we only ever teach students answers to their questions, they’ll never actually have all their questions answered. More importantly, we’ll have only renewed their mind at a shallow level – the level of understanding and beliefs. The problem is, as humans, we constantly revise and update our understanding and beliefs about the world as we are exposed to more experiences and information and as we develop in our reasoning. The level of understanding that we can impart to our students during high school isn’t going to be able to account for all the information and the deeper level of reasoning that our students gain in college. It shouldn’t surprise us then if many Gen Z students, who we’ve taught to rely on the understanding that we’ve delivered, experience frustration and doubt when it becomes inadequate.
The goal of teachers or youth pastors in a youth ministry applying PBL is not to directly answer all the questions of students but rather to model how to find and develop answers and to provide youth with guidance and support as they seek to do so.
This is why it’s so important not only to teach students answers to their questions, but also to teach them how to find and develop their own answers in a biblically-informed way. The goal isn’t just to renew the understanding and beliefs of our students; it’s to renew their whole way of thinking and reasoning and developing thoughts and beliefs. We don’t want them merely to have Christian thoughts; we want them to think Christianly. As the saying says, give a man a fish, you’ll feed him for today; teach him how to fish and you’ll feed him for a lifetime. Our goal in ministering to Gen Z shouldn’t simply be to feed our students on Scripture today; it should be to help them develop the skills that they need to feed themselves with Scripture throughout their lifetime.
PBL can help us achieve this goal because of how it invites learners to think critically and take an active role in their own growth and understanding. As I’ve already mentioned, self-reflection and learning how to learn are important parts of its process, because students, rather than teachers, are the primary thinkers and actors in the learning experience. The goal of teachers or youth pastors in a youth ministry applying PBL is not to directly answer all the questions of students but rather to model how to find and develop answers and to provide youth with guidance and support as they seek to do so.
The in-person time that one might spend giving a talk on the authority of Scripture can instead be spent circulating among students as they research and work, asking them questions, pointing them to resources, challenging their conclusions, and providing them with feedback. Students, rather than passively listening to a talk, are put in the place of having to search the Scriptures and other Christian resources, take notes, formulate ideas, and reflect on their own thinking. In other words, rather than listening to what the youth pastor thinks the Bible says about a topic, they’re challenged to try to figure it out for themselves.
6) Encourage Curiosity
Research has shown how important it is for Gen Z students to feel safe asking questions and expressing doubts during church. Now teacher- and content-centered learning environments certainly can make space to express these doubts and sometimes have them addressed by an authoritative source. Often, however, because the teacher’s role is to answer the doubt or question, it unintentionally creates the impression that doubts are problematic. The student’s curiosity or questioning becomes the enemy that the teacher has to suppress or satisfy by his superior reasoning or knowledge. But what if our students saw their curiosity as a resource and not an obstacle; what if they saw their questions as opportunities to learn and not enemies of faith?
It may seem a bit daunting to have students opening up all these cans of worms, but it doesn’t have to be when you remember that it’s not your role to answer all these questions.
Project-Based Learning has the potential to not just create space to air doubts but to actually use the doubts or questions of Gen Z as an impetus to learn. To continue with our example about applying the Bible, a talk on this topic might give an answer to the doubt that suggests that the Bible is irrelevant because it was written thousands of years. In a PBL project, however, students with this concern would be encouraged to transform it into questions that they could research. This might cause them to ask important questions like “How different is our time from that of the Bible?”, “How can I determine what biblical commands are relevant to today?”, “What use are passages like Leviticus to Christians?” and “How can I answer modern questions that aren’t directly addressed in the Bible?” It may seem a bit daunting to have students opening up all these cans of worms, but it doesn’t have to be when you remember that it’s not your role to answer all these questions. Sure, you could do a mini-lesson to provide a framework for answering some of the ones that multiple students are asking, but your primarily role is teach students how to find and think through these answers – and to trust God and be patient when answers don’t come immediately. In doing so, we also need to learn how to trust God more deeply – to preserve the faith of our students and to lead them to answers.
7) Engage with Technology
Plenty of youth ministry’s are aware of the importance of talking to Gen Z about social media, internet porn, cyber-bullying, and other pressing technological concerns. And many youth leaders also model social media use by maintaining an active presence on Instagram and Twitter. But very few churches spend much time discipling Gen Z in the use of technology for purposes that aren’t social or entertainment-related. At best, we may promote a Bible app or Bible Project videos for students to use for their quiet time. We forget that the Internet isn’t just a tool that students use to have fun or connect; it’s also Gen Z’s primary source of knowledge and information. Whether they need to answer a question on a school assignment or figure out how to make an omelet, the first place that students go is online. And yet, for some reason, we expect that when students have questions related to the Bible or spirituality, suddenly they’re going to break out of this deeply engrained habit and wait for us to give them the answers in one of our talks.
...rather than using technology as a tool for our ministry's self-promotion, we can make it a space for real discipleship, growth, and learning.
Project-Based Learning provides students space to use technology for educational and creative (rather than merely social) reasons during youth ministry. Whether we ask youth to research answers to their apologetics questions on Ligonier, watch the Bible Project’s videos as a resource for navigating a biblical book, or use iMovie to create a video for their final project, PBL allows us to incorporate technology into our ministry in a variety of ways. But the point isn’t to use technology because it’s shiny and cool; the point is that by bringing technology into the context of the church, we have concrete opportunities to model and guide students in how to use it wisely. Rather than expecting students to not use their default habit for gathering information, we can help refine and shape that habit to be more safe and nurturing. Rather than abstractly alluding to the fact that you can’t trust everything that you find on the Internet, we can show students the ways in which we evaluate the reliability of an electronic source of theology and biblical information, and we can observe how well they themselves follow our model. And rather than using technology as a tool for our ministry's self-promotion, we can make it a space for real discipleship, growth, and learning.
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Episode 1 Guide: Mary Magdalene, Lilith, and the Redeemer
Episode 2 Guide: Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus, and Shabbat
Episode 3 Guide: Depicting Jesus in Art, Film, and TV
Episode 4 Guide: When Jesus Met Simon (Peter)
Episode 5 Guide: Mary, Mother of Jesus
Episode 6 Guide: Jesus, Shmuel, & the Pharisees
Episode 7 Guide: Did Nicodemus Follow Jesus?
Episode 8 Guide: The Woman at the Well, Eden, & Zohara