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9 ways to get students reading

Nicholas T McDonald | June 2nd 2015

I grew up a reading kid.

I was one of those rare dorks who, in my spare time, preferred to read business management books rather than spend a weekend at the lake with friends. And while that may have been just a LITTLE extreme, I’m still glad for my time spent with my nose between the pages in high-school.

Why? Because, unbeknown to me at the time, my reading in high-school deepened my view of the world: it forced me to ask and wrestle with life-changing questions. It gave me mentors who walked alongside me during the most tumultuous years of life. Books gave me stories to live from, patterns to follow, and wisdom to build my life upon, at its most formative stage.

Later, in youth ministry, I’ve encouraged my own students to be readers of good books. Looking back over the past five years, I can honestly say the times I’ve spent leading small groups of students through a good book have shown more evident fruit than anything else I’ve done.

Books – especially books based on Scripture – help us to think. They help us to reason. They help us to experience truth like nothing else. And to that end, I’d like to encourage those of us who work with teens (or live with them!) to get our students reading. How? Here's how:

Books based on Scripture help us to think. They help us to reason. They help us to experience truth like nothing else.

1. Teach the doctrine of God’s word. Most all of your students will already have a reading habit: whether it’s cramming before a big test or spending the summer in the latest apocalyptic thriller. Many students will think “Christian” reading just isn’t for them, because a) they don’t need another homework assignment, or b) it’s not nearly as entertaining as The Hunger Games. This is why I teach, every year, that God’s word is more than just a fun read or a series of rote facts: it is a “living” word, a “powerful” word, and an “active” word (Hebrews 4 v 12). Just as God spoke the world into existence, so God speaks life into our hearts through his words. Christian books (hopefully!) faithfully translate those words into everyday life, meaning: Christian books have the power to change us, forever.

2. Be a reader. It’s not enough to tell our kids to be readers – we need to be readers ourselves. Charles Spurgeon once said of John Bunyan: “Prick him, and he bleeds bibline.” The same ought to be true of us: students can sense if we ourselves love Scripture, and books about it. This is something I’ve been surprised by over the last few years: many of the students and adults I teach will tell me later on they’ve picked up books I’ve mentioned or quoted in sermons. Why? Because they could tell I loved them.

3. Come alongside. Of course, mentioning books isn’t enough. Some students feel too intimidated to read Christian books, and others just need accountability. I highly recommend getting together one-on-one, or with a group of 3-4 students, and reading through a book together. Not only will this encourage your students to read: you’ll also find that, in a small-group setting, books come to life through student’s questions, insights, and personal application.

4. Read what they read. You may not necessarily be into the latest vampire romance (you might even give up on page 45 – but hey, at least I TRIED) but the stories our students read give us a world of insight into what they believe and value in life. Not only that, but reading your student’s favorite books (or even their assigned school books) makes you a credible book commender. If you’ve spent time in their world, students are more willing to spend time in yours (plus, free illustrations).

5. Start small. If a student is struggling with the problem of evil, don’t slap The Brothers Karamazov on their desk. Instead, print out an article; take them through a 4-week Bible study; find a short, easily digestible book on the topic, and help them through. Give them reading that addresses their questions. Teach them to crawl first, and walk second. When students see that Christian reading can be accessible and applicable, they’ll be more likely to tackle heavier reading down the road.

6. Give options. When I first began reading alongside students, I chose the books. Now, instead, I’ve created a reading list with 12 different categories students can choose from. I encourage them to choose from a different category each time, but I always let them choose. This helps students engage in every part of the process (so it feels less like homework), and it’s also a resource they can keep and continue on with for life.

Always communicate to your teenagers that the final word on God is the Bible, especially in the revelation of Christ.

7. Encourage investment. When I first started reading with students, I figured they would never invest their precious spending money on books, so I always put it in the youth budget. But over the years, I’ve changed that policy, because I've found that when students spend their own money on a book, they perceive it’s of higher value than if they get it for free. Translation: they’re more likely to read it. (I don’t ask students to cover the whole cost, but to split 50/50 with the church.)

8. Have a “social-media mindset”. Social media is all about sharing. I’d encourage you to think of your own reading as a social activity. When you read a great article, send it to your students. Print it out. Post on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram Bible verses you’ve been reading, or helpful quotes you find. Whet your students’ appetites: remember – crawl, then walk, then run.

9. Point to Christ. Finally, always communicate to your teenagers that the final word on God is the Bible, especially in the revelation of Christ. If a book mentions Scripture verses, look them up together. Encourage students to think about how what they’re reading ties into the gospel. Never allow reading to slip into the Athenian trap of “talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (Acts 17 v 21). Instead, communicate to students that reading, as all things, is a spiritual act of worship.

Nick’s new book, Faker: How to live for real when you’re tempted to fake it, is available to pre-order in the US. Check back on the blog on Thursday to read an extract.

Now you've read the article, let us know what you think. Comment in the box below. You can also like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and subscribe to our YouTube Channel


7:54 AM EDT on June 3rd
Would love to see your book list!


9:00 AM EDT on June 3rd
Would you share your book lists with categories?


10:00 AM EDT on June 3rd
With High School and Junior High students at our house, #4 has been imperative. Not only do I see what they are being exposed to, but I can help them with their homework, give my thoughts when they ask what I think of a section of the book, and can steer them toward something that will challenge the viewpoint of some of the school's required books.


10:38 AM EDT on June 3rd
Please, I was thinking the same thing. I would love your book list. The teen girls I am teaching on Sundays have decided they want to do a "christian book club" this summer. I am excited that they are excited about doing it.


2:21 PM EDT on June 3rd
Well said! This applies at home as well. I, too, would love to see your book list.


10:05 PM EDT on June 3rd
These are great ideas. Would you mind posting, or e-mailing, that reading list with book choices underneath? Thanks!


12:29 AM EDT on June 4th
Please share the book list; I'd love to see it!


7:57 AM EDT on June 4th
These are great ideas. Would you mind posting, or e-mailing, that reading list with book choices underneath? Thanks!

Alison Mitchell

10:07 AM EDT on June 4th
You can find Nick's list here:
I hope it's helpful.
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Nicholas T McDonald

Nick has worked in youth ministry for 5 years, studied communication and creative writing at Olivet Nazarene and Oxford University, and has traveled and spoken to youth internationally at retreats, graduations, and Christian schools. He is the author and proprietor of the blog, Scribblepreach.com.

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