“A life is no more than a biological phenomenon as long as it is not interpreted,” said French philosopher Paul Ricoeur. Indeed, it’s an inescapable human habit to narrate the events and experiences of our lives by giving them meaning. To demonstrate this, I love to have students watch a short animation of two crudely drawn triangles bouncing around the screen. When it’s over I ask them, “What were the triangles doing?” Invariably, they launch into complex and conflicting narratives about how the triangles are fighting, dancing, or showing affection. Sometimes the discussion gets heated, and eventually they want me to give an authoritative answer to the triangles’ behavior. But there is no answer and when I point out that they’re arguing about the random movements of two imaginary triangles, the class usually turns on me because the only explanation less satisfactory than the meaning their peers assign is that there is no meaning at all.
The interpretive approach, the third approach to communicating the gospel we’ll explore in this Course in a Nutshell, takes seriously the meaning-making impulses of youth. It’s during adolescence that our cognitive capacity for meaning making shifts into overdrive and we seek to make meaning of everything from the movements of animated triangles to our own lives. Psychologists tell us that in adolescence we begin crafting robust stories that weave together our past, present, and anticipated future into a narrative identity that makes sense of where we’ve been and where we’re going. With that in view, the interpretive approach is about helping youth tell their stories through God’s story, guiding them to see their lives and meaning in God’s economy.
You’ll remember from our previous sessions that the goal of the instructional approach is to lead youth to understand the scripture and apply it to their lives. The goal of the community of faith approach is for youth to experience and be formed by the gospel in the practices and ways of life of the worshiping community. The goal of the interpretive approach is for the gospel to transform the meaning teenagers make of their lives, and thus the way they live.
While the understanding-application method of an instructional lesson might be effective at modifying a teenager’s discrete behaviors, the interpretive approach aims at changing the totality of the lived experience of the student by changing the student’s story. Put another way, the instructional approach is about transferring principles for living into the teenager’s world, while the interpretive approach is about transferring the teenager into the world of the scriptural narrative. In Many Waters, fantasy author Madeleine L’Engle sends the Murry twins from her bestselling A Wrinkle in Time series on a mind-bending, time-travel adventure in which they end up meeting Noah as he builds the ark. Knowing that only Noah and his family will be saved, the two boys are personally transformed by their encounter with an entire community whom they realize will soon be destroyed by the flood. While L’Engle’s story is fiction, those who take an interpretive approach to communicating the gospel seek to find real ways for youth to enter and experience the story so that their own stories are changed in the process.
After all, the gospel is a story, says theologian Lesslie Newbigin—a story that upends and overthrows all other stories our culture might lead us to tell. Lasting conversion happens when teenagers extract their narrative identities from the reigning stories of the world and come to find themselves to be inhabitants of a completely different story—God’s story. The task for youth ministry thus becomes inviting students into a faith that challenges the reigning stories instead of promoting a faith that is safe, fun, and non-threatening to our usual ways of life and thinking. This is the difference between application and implication, says youth ministry author Michael Novelli. The gospel isn’t something we apply to our lives, rather it implicates us as it “speaks to and informs us in regard to who we are and why we’re here.”
There are a variety of ways to employ an interpretive approach in youth ministry, but there are generally three movements. First, there is the sharing of lived experience as youth are encouraged to discuss the stories and happenings of their lives. Second, there is an invitation for youth to put their story into dialogue with the story of faith. The point here is to allow youth to imaginatively draw from Christian story, symbol, ritual, art, and theology so that they may discover new ways to understand their lives and stories in the light of faith. Finally, there is a time to reflect upon the implications of this bigger story for who youth are and how they’ll live.
If you look carefully, you’ll see each of these movements play out in the curriculum examples below:
Further Reading in the Style of the Interpretive Approach:
Michael Novelli, Enter the Story
Sarah Arthur, The God-Hungry Imagination
 Paul Ricoeur, “Life: A Story in Search of a Narrator,” in A Ricoeur Reader, 432.
 See Lesslie Newbigin, Gospel in a Pluralist Society.
 Michael Novelli, Enter the Story, 12.
 These movements are adapted from Carol Wehrheim’s work in Contemporary Approaches to Christian Education, edited by Jack Seymour and Donald Miller.
Click the links below to read the series in its entirety:
Communicating the Gospel to Youth: A Youth Ministry Course in a Nutshell
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