Should I Use Curriculum?

One of the questions I am most often asked is: do you use a curriculum when you craft your messages? This questions and others like it constantly pop up in forums, Facebook groups, and in youth worker gatherings as people try to navigate whether using someone else’s material is appropriate, and if they do, how to incorporate it well.

To answer the above question, sometimes I use curriculum and other times I craft my own messages, it just depends. Honestly, choosing to use a curriculum is a choice each person will need to make on their own, but I can say that it is okay to use it. You shouldn’t feel bad for using a pre-made lesson or series. These are resources to utilize that will help you grow, mature, and be a better youth leader. But in saying that, there are a few guidelines and principles that I think should be followed when using a curriculum in order for it to have the best affect on your students.

Plan ahead.

Work ahead on your schedule as much as you can so you aren’t trying to get curriculum for this week, or tomorrow night. By doing this you remove the pressure of finding the best curriculum for your program in a short amount of time, and you give yourself breathing room to pick something that is best for your students and what you are looking to create. Don’t pick a curriculum to just fill the space, but be intentional in what you choose and why you choose it. Build it into the mission and vision of your program so that it all flows together well.

Vet the curriculum.

Make sure the curriculum is solid before choosing to use it. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard people say that they purchased a curriculum site-unseen in hopes of using it that week and it turned out to not be worth what they paid. Look for reviews or previews of the curriculum. See if other people have used it before. Purchase or gather your curriculum from trusted sources. Some great online sources for curriculum include Leader Treks, Download Youth Ministry, The Source 4 YM, Orange, YM360, YouthMin.org, and Group Ministries.

Read through your curriculum.

Once you have the material you are using, take time to read through the entire curriculum. Look at the resources they give you, see how many lessons they provide, look into how they utilize Scripture, and make notes and tweaks to the material as you read through. Often when I am reading through curriculum I look for where there are personal stories or phrases that only relate to the author’s audience and note them so when I am preparing my lesson I know to change them.

Know your audience.

When using a curriculum, remember who you are using it for. I have heard people use a curriculum and reuse someone else’s stories or examples word-for-word. Typically what happens is the stories fall flat, students disengage, and you can instantly tell that the message is not having the desired effect. What I suggest is knowing your students and shaping the curriculum around them. Take the material and make sure it is relatable and translatable to your audience.

Use the curriculum as a springboard.

Whenever I use a curriculum I never use it verbatim. I look for the big ideas, the translatable concepts, Scripture passages, and key points. Then I look to shape those areas around a lesson I craft; I take the meat of the curriculum and shape it for my context. This does take a little more time, but I would never advocate for simply reading from a pre-crafted message because it feels disconnected. Crafting a lesson from a curriculum saves you time while also allowing you to put your own heart and passion into the message.

Crafting Messages with Meaning

“Oh, you teach students? So what do you talk about? Video games, sports, relationships, respect? Or is it more like just babysitting them for a few moments when you can make them sit still?”

We have all heard, or will hear, these or other comments surrounding the messages we give to students. These comments aren’t all out of ignorance or immaturity, but some can be rooted in missteps of those who went before us. We as youth leaders have an uphill climb when it comes to showcasing the legitimacy of student ministry, and we should own it when it comes to our teaching and leading.

Teaching students has to be one of our priorities (I will speak to other priorities in later posts), and one that cannot be treated as a second tier thought. I have witnessed many youth leaders casually offer up a five to ten minute message with little prep, less effort, and almost no comprehension of their audience. But to do that to our students, especially within this generation that is hyper-aware of our world, is a disservice and will ultimately leave students frustrated, disappointed, and wanting more. We must teach our students well, be informed on important topics, and help to train them as mature Christ-followers.

So how do we do that? Here are some tips I have learned throughout my time in ministry and I hope they afford you some insight on how to offer messages that help to push students to grow, take action, and reach their world.

Spend time preparing. 

We would think this is a no-brainer, but let’s be honest shall we? We have all had a week where we “haven’t had the time” and have thrown together a message or simply defaulted to a “game night” for our youth group gathering. I am not saying we cannot have those days or moments, that’s life, but that cannot be common place. We must spend time studying, researching, applying, and helping God’s Word relate to our students. The bulk of my time (outside of meetings of course) is spent studying and preparing for my messages. I want to have a thorough grasp of God’s Word and treat it with the respect it deserves. Putting the time in allows me to shape the message to my students and help them understand it.

Know your audience.

One of my biggest pet peeves of speakers is when they try to relate to the audience but it is clear they have no idea who the audience is or what they value. In order for you to produce messages that matter, you must know your students. Then as you are crafting your message and listening to the Holy Spirit, God will direct you in ways to speak specifically to them. So hang out with your students, learn what they enjoy, know their values, understand their dislikes, find out their favorite places to hang out, and uncover what is happening in their lives.

Use personal stories.

Don’t settle for someone else’s story or narrative. Use personal examples, tell stories from your childhood, be authentic about when you messed up. The more students can tell you are a real person, the more inclined they will be to hear you and listen to what you are saying.

Be a student of culture.

In order to craft messages that relate to students, you must understand who they are, what they value, what is important in their lives, and what is happening that shapes who they are. This means you should have a grasp of the music they listen to; the way social media is utilized in their lives; the topics and issues they are passionate about; and their view of life, church, and culture. In doing so, you will be better suited to speak to them and to how their lives are being informed and shaped.

Use humor.

Growing up I was not naturally funny. I mean I was a goofball but humor wasn’t something that I used in my talks or speeches. When I first started in ministry, I knew I had no humor so I would literally open every message with a joke from a 90s joke book that had nothing to do with my message, its points, or anything to do with that day. I just knew humor was a good thing, but I had no idea how to incorporate it. Let me say this: you do not have to be a comedian to relate to students, but being able to have fun and laugh will make you a better communicator. Use stories from your past, poke fun at yourself, laugh about a story you were reading in the news, find humor in Scripture. Humor will not only help you break down walls but it will also make your students see you in a transparent way. You have become authentic and real.

A quick side note: never, ever poke fun at a student from the stage. Doing so will alienate your audience, cause you to lose rapport, and your students will cease to trust you. Even if you have their permission, don’t do it because the rest of the audience may not know that the student gave permission.

Be passionate.

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard students say, “The speaker was good, but they just weren’t into it.” As communicators of God’s Word, we need to get excited about it. Show students the power of the Gospel. Let them see how you are working it out. Cast vision and excitement for what the Gospel can and will do. Students and adults alike should see our passion for the kingdom of heaven, and it should affect our teaching.

Pray.

I cannot tell you how many times I have gotten ready to teach and I felt so ill-equipped and unprepared. It was terrifying. Each of those times I would pray earnestly seeking God’s direction and asking Him to speak through me, and He did. We serve a great and powerful God who doesn’t need us to communicate His Word, but chooses to use us as a tool to advance His Kingdom. Cover your message in prepare before, during, and after you speak. And understand that you will still be scared, but as a professor of mine once said, “If you ever take the pulpit without some sense of fear because you are communicating the holy Word of God, you need to not be behind that pulpit.”

Know who you are, who God has empowered you to be, speak boldly and passionately, and showcase the Word of God to your students and you will see students grab on and never let go.