I was 20 years old with half of a Bible degree, yet I was madly in love with God and believed I was called to minister to students. I took my first youth director position at a small church in my Missouri college town and was ecstatic! I hadn’t had much experience actually teaching, but I knew what I learned in my classes and took a stab at it.
I spent two years at that church, teaching three times a week on topics as they came to me: 16 weeks in the Minor Prophets, six weeks on the Armor of God, eight weeks on the Fruit of the Spirit (including a game of fruit baseball—very messy), a few weeks on abstinence, scattered weeks on James, and much more. I thought I was being a great youth minister because I was covering a wide range of topics—and quite creatively at that. My students certainly were learning a lot, and I had multiple pats on my back from the pastor and the congregation.
However, in time I realized the way I was teaching—with no real plan for our students—was weird. I was hopping around with no true plan of discipleship or intentionality about what we were discussing. A few years later, I was reading Sustainable Youth Ministry and felt Mark Devries summed up well the tension I was feeling:
“Imagine what would happen if schools taught with the same approach to curriculum that most churches use. One year, a teacher stumbles onto an engaging curriculum on verbs, with some really cool videos on gerunds. When the kids and teachers get bored with that curriculum, they cut it short, and the teacher runs to the curriculum store, finds a compelling study on algebraic equations (narrated by Rob Bell-Curve), and starts to teach that the next week. When that study is winding down, the teacher decides it’s time to teach on rocks or medieval knights or Christmas around the world.”1
I believe wholeheartedly that just as an educational system has a well thought-out plan of what to teach students and when, that youth ministries should adopt similar models for Christian education. This isn’t a rigid plan with little wiggle room, but a model that helps youth workers develop faith during a period of time rather than in a four-week teaching series.
There are many approaches to having a curriculum calendar. I have seen semester scopes, one-year scopes, two-year scopes, four-year scopes and eight-year scopes. I believe what we use should depend on our context. Here are some of the steps our student ministry takes as we chart out curriculum for the year.
Understanding the Needs of Students
One exercise I like to do with my junior high team is write down the Know-Be-Dos for the age group that we work with. The idea behind this is that we brainstorm the things we want kids to know, the people they want to be, and the things they want to do before they leave our junior high ministry.
With our small group leaders, we wrote that we want our students to know adults who are invested in their lives, how to be friends, share life/social skills, how to pray, and share their gifts. We want students to be inclusive, Christ-like, confident, and their authentic, created selves. We want students to do faith out loud, to pray for one another, to be a part of the church (and wear deodorant). By writing these down, we can realize that important topics to discuss with junior high school students include identity in Christ, how to treat our neighbors, social skills, and the basics of what it means to follow Jesus. This exercise hangs in my office as a reminder to put the needs of our students first in all things.
It is important to understand the developmental stages that students are going through, and to provide age-appropriate responses to them. There are two general ways we accomplish this. The first is to put in specific units of curriculum for each age group that are appropriate. For example, with 11th and 12th graders, we plan to talk about faith in college. The second way we try to be age-appropriate with curriculum is by taking the same topic and tweaking it for each age group. For example, if February is our month to talk about relationships, this looks completely different in our fifth and sixth grade program than it does with upperclassmen.
Creating a Flow Throughout the Life of a Child
I’m fortunate to be at a church where our children’s and youth departments meet regularly as a Family Ministry Team. Currently, our Family Ministry Team is working together to create a plan for milestones from birth through emerging adults.
For example, from birth through age 3, we want kids to know they belong to the church and are God’s children. In third grade, each student receives a Bible and a highlighter and commemorative markers throughout the year as they learn. In fifth and sixth grade, we hope to teach students the Bible in two years. In seventh grade, we have a confirmation program that teaches our students what the church is about and helps them become members. In eighth grade, we teach spiritual gifts. In high school, we plan to teach spiritual practices, utilizing Sticky Faith. With this plan, we are working together to take what we want students to Know-Be-Do and put it into a map for intentional faith development.
Our prayer is that these milestones will show an intentional map of what we hope to accomplish in each life stage. This will show families that we are intentional not only about what their children are learning in a year, but throughout their entire childhood. We also plug in ways for families to celebrate as their children complete each milestone so that what a student is learning at church goes home with them.
Supporting the Pre-Existing Calendar
The third major step we take is to look at our church calendar and find natural times to plug in curriculum. There are generally three tiers to the calendar: Holidays, Sermon Series and Church Culture. This is the first thing we do before plugging in any other curriculum.
Holidays: Every year, there are two series already laid out for us: Advent and Lent. The amount of time we spend in these series depends on how a church celebrates them. My church follows the basic liturgical calendar; therefore, we know that about 10 weeks already are scheduled for these two. Other series or one-offs may revolve around other holidays, depending on which ones the church culture values. We may do a one-off for anything, including Mother’s Day, Graduation Service, New Years’ or perhaps Earth Day.
Sermon Series: There may be other series the church does aside from the typical calendar by which we want to match. We have Stewardship Sunday in November; in January, our church does a Hot Topics Series during our main services; so our high school ministry matches up and talks about similar things. Our church culture is passionate about families going home with the ability to talk about the same topic. So, one of our goals is to find better ways to match our curriculum to the sermons in church.
Church Culture: The last thing on the calendar is important dates in a specific church culture. One rookie mistake in my church is if I schedule an important topic or lesson during a spring break—I know half my students may be missing—so that’s not the ideal week to talk about something very important. I also know that on days with large programs or events, I may cancel our regular Sunday morning class in order to support the program within the church. Knowing things such as this well in advance helps make a curriculum calendar that is better balanced.
When we’re all done mapping, we choose the actual curriculum. There’s a huge reason I didn’t put choosing curriculum first on the list. So many times I’ve chosen curriculum I loved but that didn’t fit my needs. I have assumed denominational curriculum is best, or a curriculum that another church used was great, or that a specific organization in which I trust would have the best curriculum.
The best curriculum is the curriculum for your context. No one truly understands your culture the way you do.
We use curriculum from a variety of sources: I have a long-term scope of curriculum for preteens that I rearranged to fit our calendar year. I supplement it with Lent and Advent curriculum that our ministry staff creates together and that I write for the group. Then, in the summer, we use a packaged series or let our interns write their own curriculum. For us, we don’t think one curriculum meets all needs.
Using different approaches to curriculum at different times helps keep us sharp. I feel that I have a pretty good grasp on what’s out there because I’m constantly investigating options. It also helps during busy times of the year to be able to use prepackaged curriculum, while I may write curriculum in less busy seasons.
Placing It Together
While the steps may seem complicated, the end result is very flexible. When we adhere to one model for doing something, when a snow day or a last-minute change comes our way, we tend to feel the need to play catch-up and rush ministry.
At the end of the day, creating a plan for curriculum is all about what your culture needs. In my small-town Missouri church, I would not have had the resources or the understanding of what my teens needed to build a scope as big as what we have built in my current church.
For us, the biggest reason for having a curriculum calendar is to be able to show parents that we are intentional about what their children are learning. With a calendar, we’re able to provide them with resources so they can take what we are teaching their children at church and continue it in their homes.
It takes baby steps. The best place to begin is by asking, “What do our students need, and how can we be part of their spiritual formation?”
1 DeVries, M. (2008). Sustainable Youth Ministry: Why Most Youth Ministry Doesn’t Last and What Your Church Can Do About It (p. 63). Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books.