Beyond Curriculum: Being a Listening Presence

When I was first learning how to ditch curriculum and practice emerging teaching, it was a complete and total disaster. I highly recommend it.

My volunteers and I would stumble out of the youth room, bleary eyed and blinking up at the bright light of day, nursing our bruised egos and limping expectations, and simply sigh to each other: “Well…they won today.” We took great solace in the fact that they wouldn’t remember those particular gatherings in the years to come, and leaned into the belief that our sustained efforts of love and listening would have a cumulative formational effect over the gentleness of time.

You might be wondering, as I was: why keep trying if it doesn’t work?

Because, my friend, it is glorious when it does. This isn’t just about curriculum – the fact of the matter is that what and how we teach gets at the theological heart of who we are and who we are becoming. You can’t separate curriculum from theology or ministry – as practitioners we know it all gets wrapped up into this wonderful mess. I’m suggesting we obsess less about curriculum-as-religious-agenda and focus more on ministry-as-faithful-presence, rooted in generous and spacious theology.

This posture of faithful presence, over months and years, led to the kind of profound encounters with each other that I couldn’t have planned if I’d tried. I spoke about it at greater length in a previous post: The Perfect Curriculum.

This isn’t just about curriculum – the fact of the matter is that what and how we teach gets at the theological heart of who we are and who we are becoming… I’m suggesting we obsess less about curriculum-as-religious-agenda and focus more on ministry-as-faithful-presence, rooted in generous and spacious theology.

I wish desperately that there was some clean, formulaic way to teach this kind of teaching, which is really more of a way of being. Unfortunately, it’s kind of the nature of faithful presence to be messy and nonlinear and a process of trying. But perhaps we can learn from each other about some best practices that would lead to this kind of learning environment, where students’ perspectives are valued above our particular religious agendas and we pay more attention to the movement of the Spirit than the anxiety of getting it right.

Here’s how I’d start, as I look back on this beautiful disaster. Please lend your voice to the comments and perhaps we can create a sort of canon for faithful presence postures.

Pay attention to the teenage humans. Remembering they’re human is really helpful; they have real desires, actual agency, and original thoughts to share. Treat them with dignity and curiosity, not as if you’re already an expert on them because you took an adolescent development class in college or read a book about the teenage brain. They can teach you things you will never learn from a class or a book. Pay attention to when their eyes light up and when they glaze over. Attend to them as if they have something to teach you, because they do.

Ask questions and actually be curious about their answers. One of the biggest condemnations of the church from young people is that we outlaw questions or allow questions only if they’re followed with the right answer. I’m not talking about just theological questions, but a posture of faithful presence asks intentional questions about who they are, what they love, and how they want to live in the world. Keep track of questions you love to ask, ones that open up dialogue with teenagers and really invite them to be themselves. Don’t over think it. Some of my favorite right now are:

  • What do you care about right now? What do you love about that?
  • What would be most life-giving to you this week? What would be actual good news in your life?
  • Tell me more about…(insert anything you know about their life)

Invite youth to create their own curriculum. You don’t have to invent everything good and then be an expert at talking about it. At least once a year, I bust out a ton of post-its and invite students to anonymously submit things they would really love to talk about at youth group. What are they curious about? What are questions do they have? What do they actually care about? Poof! You have all these colorful squares that serve as windows into their souls, into who they are, into what they long to experience and discover. The same thing works great for youth group event ideas: What would be most life-giving to you and your friends? What would be most fun?

Anticipate where they’re at. Because you’re paying such close attention, and asking such great questions, and inviting students to co-create content with you, you will have a much better idea of where they’re coming from. Try to think ahead to how they’ll hear you, what questions they will have, and what connections they’ll be making. There’s a bit of an art to this, because teenagers will either find it really connecting (“can s/he see my soul?”) or creepy (“I posted that to Instagram two years ago”).

Come with a plan, and be ready to play. There is a dog park near our house with about three football fields worth of fenced in, perfectly level, gorgeous grass. Besides being Buddy’s favorite thing ever, I love that I don’t have to worry about him. Parks and Rec has created a space that is safe for him to romp around and play as much as he wants without getting lost or hurt. This is how I look at whatever content I bring to my youth each week: it’s there to create safe space for us to play. Figure out what your boundaries are, and invite students to explore with you. Our boundaries right now are whatever is true, good, kind, loving, or alive because we believe that those things automatically bring us into proximity with the living God.

Check your literal, physical posture. Remember it’s not about you, it’s about presence and mutual participation. Is your physical presence inviting? Are you looming over everyone? Is everyone looking only at you? Is your tone conversational or are you lecturing?

Lead with your team. I know you don’t view your leaders as just warm bodies, but they can also be your biggest strength as you learn to practice emergent teaching together. Invite them to jump in with their own anecdotes, observations, questions. They see things that we can’t always see, and connect with students that we might miss. A conversation is typically much more interesting to our students than a lecture – how much more so if there are many voices contributing!

Let go of your need for immediate gratification. Formation is slow, it takes time. There will be moments of measurable growth and long stalls where you want to pull your hair out. Be patient with all that is unsettled in your own spirit, and let God be with your teenagers.

And I’m still learning. There are still weeks where I’m hard on myself and I just want some concrete, measurable results. But my team leaves the building and giggles together because practicing a posture of faithful presence with our youth and letting all of our lives teach each other is a win for all of us.

What other practices and postures would you add to this list? How are you experimenting with emergent teaching and faithful presence?



Morgan Schmidt is the Co-Director of the Bend Youth Collective and Director of Teens & 20-Somethings at First Presbyterian Church in Bend, Oregon. She holds an M.Div from the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology and is the author of Woo: Awakening Teenagers’ Desire to Follow in the Way of Jesus. She has served as a youth pastor for more than a decade and is passionate about encouraging young people to become more and more whole as they explore what it means to follow in the way of Jesus and participate in the restoration of all things.


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1 reply
  1. Leena Prindle says:

    Hey Morgan, I love this! I’m curious how you would suggest congregation practice emergent teaching in Comfirmation class context – where there is often a set curriculum or there are set goals? This is not my setting currently, but I’m guessing some folks reading this might wonder how this could work.

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