What is the best Bible translation for teens?

Image: What is the best Bible translation for teens?

Finding the balance between accuracy and read-a-bility.

Best Bible for teens?

A question that many people in youth ministry often ask is, what is the best translation of the Bible for teenagers? If you're a youth minister, there can sometimes be a temptation to pick the translation that fits what you’re trying to say. Before I get too far into this article, let me say this. Whatever you do, resist this temptation! It's imperative that as teachers and leaders who disciple young people, we never use the Bible to try to fit what we are saying.. The Bible should never be used to support any idea, clever thought or wisdom we may think we have. Instead, as those under the authority of scripture, we in youth ministry should do all we can to use the Bible as the foundation for everything we teach, rather than as a tool to build our own arguments.

So back to the main question. Firstly, we need to remember that all scripture is God breathed and is useful for us in all areas of life (2 Timothy 3:16). Still, not all translations of the Bible are equal. The best translation of the bible for teenagers is ultimately any translation of the Bible that can be understood by teens and is true to the original manuscripts. So with this foundation in mind, there are two main criteria we need to use when choosing a translation of the Bible for teens.

1. A translation with language that makes sense

Jesus called us to take the gospel to all nations. The day of pentecost, as recorded in Acts 2, shows that when the Holy Spirit came, believers were supernaturally able to speak in languages other than their own. God is so committed to the gospel spreading throughout the world that he helped his people learn completely foreign languages in a fraction of a second. Take that Rosetta Stone! Ensuring that the gospel can be heard in as many languages as possible is something that greatly matters to God. As such, it should also matter greatly to us.

But language is so much more than just, well … languages. The English spoken today, is worlds apart from the English spoken 500 years ago. French in Quebec is quite different than French in France. To make it even more complicated, the language and tone I am using in this article is vastly different than what it would be if you were reading this article on a piece of paper nailed to the front door of your local church in the 16th Century. As language develops, it changes to suit not just different geographical regions, but also to suit the main mediums (e.g. books, TV, internet) of the culture. If you think what I’m saying here is completely nonsense and I’ve made you LOL and ROFL, then I just proved my point.

Not all translations are equal

When choosing the best translation of the Bible for teens, it’s important we are using a translation written in language they can understand. Some translations with very easily understood language, such as The New Living Translation or The Message, are very popular among those who teach teenagers, but they aren’t without their critics. The Message, in my opinion, is perhaps most useful if thought of as a commentary - helpful for explaining certain parts of scripture, but I don’t use it for teaching or preaching. My concern with using translations that have made such an effort to be "easy to read", is they tend to gloss over some of the more difficult or complex parts of scripture. 

There can be a danger of reacting just as unhelpfully the other way. Those who use only the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible may be guilty of this. In an effort to be so true to the original text, they can insist on an English translation that is difficult to follow by today's teens. It would be easy to pick on the KJV loyalists, but even if I disagree with their version of choice, I admire their determination to stick as close to the original manuscripts as possible. 

So, as great as the KJV is, the English language has come a long way since the KJV came about in the early 17th Century. Not everyone is eager or able to understand the old English found in its pages, and the ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ are an immediate turnoff for many. Still, the loyalty the KJV shows to the original Hebrew and Greek in scripture is astounding. Even if we want a more contemporary translation, we must not use one at the cost of the message being changed.

I know many people like to use the New International Version. I think the NIV is a great translation, but it takes a few liberties that cause some issues. Personally, I think there are translations that are more faithful to the original manuscripts.

2. A translation true to the original

When choosing a translation of the Bible to use with teens, we need to be careful not to belittle scripture to a language so common and accessible that it completely misses the original intention of what was written (under God's revelation) by the authors. Scripture is God’s written word to us. There will always be words, phrases and concepts that are difficult to comprehend because we’re created beings, trying to understand what’s inspired by the creator God. We don’t do ourselves any favours by 'updating' scripture to the point that it misses what was originally said.

As discussed above, the KJV has an incredible legacy. Its translators poured over the original manuscripts to produce as loyal of a translation as possible. It’s language may be outdated today, but it is still a hugely important translation that has been used to advance the gospel in remarkable ways over the last 400 years.

My recommendation for the best Bible for teens

So, is there a translation that uses contemporary english, but shows the same loyalty to the original manuscripts today that the KJV used in the early 17th Century? Thankfully the answer is yes. The English Standard Version (ESV) does exactly this. It builds on the legacy of the KJV but trades the old-fashioned words and phrases for ones that are much more easily understood by readers today. Most importantly, it does this without changing the meaning of what was written in the KJV, which itself made every effort to not change the meaning found in the original manuscripts.

Simply put, the ESV builds on the strength of the KJV that has gone before it. It doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel, but helps give the wheel more strength so it can travel further. Also, the ESV doesn’t change the language for the sake of it, but instead only does so where it is helpful.

Other points to consider

Those responsible for teaching and preaching at the church I attend have chosen to use the ESV. This is a decision that has been made by the leaders of the church. Basically, I trust these guys. If they feel the ESV is the best translation for us to be using as a church, then I believe it is also the best translation of the Bible for teens in our youth ministry.

Those who know me well, know that I tend to go on about how youth ministry needs to be connected with the rest of the church. If young people have an understanding, appreciation and sacrificial love for the church as the bride of Christ, then I’m convinced they’ll be much more likely to stay plugged into a church when they outgrow the youth ministry. 

If the church you’re in tends to use the same translation for all teaching and preaching, then there’s wisdom is using the same translation when choosing the best translation of the Bible for teenagers at your church, even if it means using a translation different than the ESV (which I am clearly endorsing!).  Doing so will help the young people in the youth ministry to become familiar with that translation. It will also mean families that attend church together, will be using the same version of the Bible. 

Do you agree? What Bible translation do you use? Leave your thoughts and comments below.

Comments (7)

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  • user

    Caroline

    Some people have said that the ESV can be a little bit difficult to read out loud, but personally I’ve found that it just takes a little getting used to and before you know it - it’s all sweet! We use the ESV at our youth group and sometimes take a look at the NIV84 as a comparison.

  • user

    Matt

    Can you clarify what you mean by ‘close to the manuscript’? Which manuscripts? It’s well known that the KJV is based on old, outdated manuscripts, and what we’ve discovered since then shows up a fair few inaccuracies in the KJV.

    And can you clarify what you mean by ‘faithful to the original manuscripts’? 

    ESV on Philippians 1:3-4, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy…”

    Totally clear and readable. 

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    Rohan

    I use the Holman translation for my home bible reading, and at youth our church hasn’t taken the leap of faith away from the NIV84 yet. 

    Do you think reading two different translations is unhelpful? I have access to 100’s of translations on an app now, but is it helpful to compare and contrast when I do my devotions? I feel it can take away from the powerfulness of God’s word.

    • user

      Matt

      sometimes what’s ‘accurate’ (word-for-word) gets lost in detail - especially in the poetry and wisdom writings in the Old Testament. Taking an example from Prophecy, Ezekiel (21:7) writes about soldiers being scared using a colloquialism which will become clear in a second.

      ESV translates the colloquialism as ‘their legs will be weak as water.’
      NIV11 translates the colloquialism as ‘their legs will be wet with urine.’
      So which is a more accurate translation of the soldiers being so scared that they wet themselves?

      That’s a long way of saying, we have loads of translations, so lets use them!

      For study, you want to have something available that is ‘accurate’ to check things by. NASB is really good here. Hard to read out loud (like Yoda it is). For daily reading, I like NIV, mainly because it’s what we use in church. The 2011 update is brilliant (I think). Sandy Grant has written a good post on The Briefing website about it. But then occasionally, you want something fresh. A paraphrase (like The Message) can be really helpful to freshen your devotions up. 

      It all boils down to recognising how hard it is to translate from one language to another. Then factoring in things like genre (poetry, historical narrative, wisdom sayings etc), colloquialisms and on and on adds another layer of toughness. No translation is perfect.

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    Jono

    When I was in my late teens I was given a Bible - it was a Contemporary English Version (CEV). I already had a NIV, but the CEV was far more easier to read for me, so I started using that.  The simplicity of it made scripture more accessible. Now that I’m older I look at the CEV and realise that it is not a strong translation at all. In some cases it simplify things so much that the real meaning is skewed slightly (ie Gal 5:22 in the CEV says “God’s Spirit makes us loving, happy, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful…”). Umm.. “happy”?
    So while it isn’t a great translation, it did make scripture accessible for me at the time. I think this is one of the key factors needed for teens.

    So what makes a good translation FOR TEENS? One that they will read!
    Sure we’d prefer them to read ones that are more accurate, but I’d rather teens read a less accurate one than none at all! (Faith come by hearing… or reading)

    I’m now a youth pastor and at our Youth Centre we have several different translations available: ESV, NKJV, NIV84, TNIV, GNB/TEV, NLT, and NCV. Depending on the teen, their reading ability, and where they are at spiritually, I tend to given out the GNB/TEV or the NLT to most teens, and save the ESV for older students with a more “churched” background.
    Our Church doesn’t have a preferred version, although many of the over 40s use either the NKJV, NASB, or NIV84, and the younger people tend have NIV84, TNIV or NLT.
    I mainly use the NLT for reading, and a host of Bibles (including the ESV) for study.
    I hope this is helpful to others.

  • user

    Gabe

    For our youth ministry, I use the NET Bible. I think the NET Bible meets the criteria you set forth in this post: Readable and true to the original. It is very readable in that it uses normal everyday language that our teens can easily understand, but it is an actual translation, as opposed to a paraphrase such as the Message. 

    However, using the KJV as a baseline for what is considered “original” is a bit precarious though. Just as the English language has progressed in the last 400 years, so has our data concerning the manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments. The amount of data we have today versus what the translators of the KJV had in 1600 is astounding. The NET Bible takes all of those manuscripts into consideration and notes why they made the translation decisions they made through literally thousands of translators’ notes found at the bottom of each page. Some of the notes may go over our teens heads, but for the most part they equip and inform the reader as to why the translation says what it does and how the translators decided on it. The notes often suggest other possible translations as well. 

    Another cool thing is that it’s available for free online (with all of those notes) through a web app for Bible study, (http://net.bible.org), so check it out if you get a chance. Our students have responded well to the NET Bible. 

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    Stephan

    The WEB version seems pretty good too.  It seems to strike a good balance between the translation types (dynamic equivalent versus literal).