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Keys to Choosing Youth Curriculum

by Jen Bradbury

As a young youth worker, once I figured out that I shouldn’t be writing my own curriculum, I’d spend hours pouring over the existing curriculum, trying to figure out what to teach the teens entrusted to my care.

I had no idea what I was looking for in a curriculum. There was so much I wanted to teach teens that I couldn’t figure out where to begin. As I sifted through the curriculum options, the question I constantly asked myself was, “What should I teach?”

As soon as I found something that looked interesting, that I thought might engage teens, I latched onto it and began planning that week’s gathering. As a result, I was always planning week-to-week. Because I was planning week-to-week, I’d get to the end of a semester and think, “Where did the time go?” I’d feel regret over everything I’d meant to explore but somehow never got around too. By focusing on, “What should I teach?”, the urgent always seemed to drown out the important.

In reality, the question, “What should I teach?” was simply too broad to be helpful in my search for curriculum. Instead of asking it, I wish I would have been asking these nine guiding questions to help me choose my curriculum:

Who is it for? Curriculums are written for specific people. Tweens. Middle schoolers. High schoolers. Some are even written for specific denominations. Before you choose your curriculum, you need to know your audience. Narrowing your audience as much as possible enables you to narrow your curriculum choices. The narrower your audience is, the less tweaking you’ll have to do to make a curriculum work in your context.

How would your senior pastor react to it? Every curriculum has a theological bent. While I don’t think you need to (actually, I don’t think you should) exclusively use curriculum written by and for your denomination, I also wouldn’t recommend choosing a curriculum that’d freak your pastor out. Choosing something they’d support will save you (and them) a whole lot of frustration.

How much preparation does it require? I know, I know. It’s not cool to admit to asking this question, but it’s an important one. Since one of the reasons you shouldn’t write your own curriculum is so you can spend more time with your students, don’t choose a curriculum that’s going to take you hours to prepare. That defeats the purpose of using a curriculum, to begin with!

How engaging is it? The curriculum should engage your specific students. Of course, what engages students is different in every context. If your teens need an interactive element, look for curriculums that utilize experiential activities. If your teens prefer discussions, then don’t choose a talk-based curriculum.

How long do you want to use a curriculum and does the curriculum you’re looking at fit that time period? A short curriculum series gives you more control over what you teach, allowing you to decide what you’ll address and when. In contrast, longer series gives you less control but are often planned with a long-term arc already in mind that you may find helpful, especially if you’re new to ministry.

How much Scripture does a curriculum utilize? Not every gathering needs to be a Bible study per se. At the same time, since Scripture is the “cradle of Christ”, engaging students in Scripture is critically important to their faith formation. Choose curriculums that help students engage to do this well in your setting.

How does a curriculum connect with or build off the last curriculum you used? Since your time with teens is limited, be intentional about choosing a variety of curriculums. Set broad goals about things you want to address every year. For example, in my ministry, we always do one series on the Old Testament, one on Jesus, and one on the New Testament (not a Gospel). We also always talk about the church. So, when I’m looking for a curriculum, I search for things that fit into each of these broad buckets.

Is it relevant? In other words, does a curriculum address a felt need? A curriculum might be great but if it’s not addressing a felt need, teens won’t pay much attention to it. So, even if you have broad buckets that you want to address each year, find ways to connect them with felt needs or questions your teens are actually asking. For example, my teens are concerned with the escalating violence in our country. So, our most recent Old Testament series explored the question, “Is God violent?” by examining some of the most violent passages in the Old Testament and wrestling with what they show about God’s character and why they’re included in the Bible in the first place.

Who do I want my students to become and does this curriculum help them get there? While everyone’s answer to this question is different, knowing your answer to it helps you think big picture. It also helps you think about your end goal. When you start with a goal in mind, you have a much higher probability of actually reaching it.

These nine questions have radically shifted how I choose curriculum. No longer do I spend hours aimlessly sifting through the curriculum options, hoping to receive a divine word from God regarding which one to choose. Instead, I intentionally use my answers to these questions to narrow my search and then choose a curriculum that will engage my teens and in so doing, help them actually transform into the people I pray they will become.