The Problem with CliffsNotes Christianity

By Angie Franklin February 4, 2015

I am guilty. CliffsNotes were a must-have in my educational experience. Back before you could download any book you wanted onto a Kindle, I would race to Borders just before it closed to grab the CliffsNotes title I needed for a test the next day. In 45 minutes, I could know everything I needed to pass the test.

Yet while these study guides helped me get good grades, they didn’t convey the heart of the author’s message. Everything was reduced to a bullet point: the suspense, humor, romance, drama. I memorized those things but never experienced them—like hearing a friend describe a roller coaster but refusing to ride it for myself. Or like reading someone’s resume instead of reading their journal.

When it comes to growing our youth up in the Bible, we often start with the CliffsNotes version. We lay out the basics in a format that’s easy to relay and remember. We add in a few new basics every year: God is love. We are sinners. Purity is important. Forgiveness is good. Words hurt.

But biblical CliffsNotes aren’t enough to convey the heart of the Author’s message. They aren’t enough to prepare students to withstand life’s storms and doubts, because bullet points won’t help students know Jesus intimately or anchor them in him. Sure, biblical CliffsNotes can give students all the right answers. But can students walk in step with their Savior without encountering him through Scripture itself? The problem with bullet points is that they leave gaps, and students will be filling those gaps with assumptions as they write their own spiritual essays.

Students need to know the God they’ve “prayed the prayer” to. They need to feel the compassion that comes from the bloodied lips of an innocent man hanging on a cross who asked a friend to care for his mother (John 19:25–27). They need to experience the awe of a God who suspended the sun well into the night over Joshua (Josh. 10:13) and fueled Elijah for a world record race (1 Kings 18:46). They also need to know the anger that turned tables in the temple (Matt. 21:12), and the humility of a man who rode a donkey through the streets (John 12:14). The full picture of Jesus is missing from any CliffsNotes version. God’s redemption story is more complex than that. The one who calls our students (and us) to give our lives and carry our crosses needs more of an introduction than that.

This is why discipleship—life-on-life spiritual mentoring—is so important in youth ministry. And while there are many ways to get past the biblical CliffsNotes when it comes to growing our students in Christ, here are a few that I’ve seen youth workers adopt.

1. Use little moments to ask big questions. Students love to talk about themselves—that’s their favorite topic. So when you or your adult volunteers are driving in the van or hanging out after youth group, use the opportunity to ask questions. Start shallow but go deep. Use each question to build on the next until you get to the heart of their relationship with Christ.

For example, ask, “Why do you like _______? Why is that important to you? Do you think that’s important to God? Why or why not?

2. Make a plan. If you aren’t planning at least a semester in advance, you’ll never get past the bullet points. Your themes, topics, and focus will always be reactionary unless you implement a long-term plan. Reactionary teaching and last minute lessons don’t make room for the whole story of Jesus. There are so many great resources and curricula that can help with this. And yes, you can have a plan and still leave room for the Holy Spirit to work.

3. Challenge the spiritual growth of your adult volunteers. You need volunteers who can invest and directing students spiritually. But no one can give what they don’t have. Challenge your adults to grow in their faith. Do Bible studies together. Recommend formative books or devotionals. Ask about their spiritual journeys. Pray fervently together. If your volunteers are growing in Christ, their impact on your students will deepen.

4. Don’t assume. It’s easy to assume that our students know certain things about God and his redemption work. But do they? Do they realize they need a savior? Do you understand why? Do they know how to develop a personal relationship with Christ? Do they know how God’s love and truth fit together? Take a step back and evaluate what your students actually know and plan your teaching around what they don’t.

5. Encourage individual Bible study. What’s the best way to move past CliffsNotes Christianity? By pointing students to the original source. Scripture is an amazing way that God reveals himself to each of us personally. We can meet him in those pages, and we can hear him speak through the Bible’s authors. Give students the tools to dig into the Bible for themselves.

That may sound like a lot, but it’s worth it. CliffsNotes Christianity won’t root faith deep into students’ hearts. It probably won’t multiply or spread the gospel, and it’s flimsy enough to fall apart as students encounter other influencers later in life. The whole redemption story, however, grounds our faith and brings us into an intimate relationship with the Author. Going back to the source—with its difficulties and complexities and profound revelations—inspires us to take great risks for the kingdom in our everyday lives.

Looking for a way to take students deeper than CliffsNotes Christianity? Check out Deep Discipleship, a multi-year curriculum and strategy for growing deep faith in your students. 

About the Author

Angie Franklin

Angie Franklin is the Director of Operations at LeaderTreks and has worked in youth ministry since 2000. She loves serving youth workers who are in the trenches by providing them with practical resources. She is a graduate of Moody Bible Institute and now lives in West Chicago, Illinois with her husband, Doug, and their dog,…  Read More