I have a confession to make: I don’t have any curriculum planned for this fall. Yes, I know it’s September. No reason to panic.
Most folks have curriculum figured out by now. Maybe you’re buying something shnazzy from Sparkhouse, the Youth Cartel, YS, Sticky Faith, or Simply. There are approximately forty two billion options out there, many of them with worthwhile and thoughtful content. Or maybe you’re going it alone and creating something from scratch, or making a soulcollage of a bunch of different curricula. We spend a lot of energy trying to come up with the perfect content.
This makes sense to me. If we have a plan, then we have something to hold onto, something to accomplish, something that tells us we’ve done our job. I don’t know about you, but there are many days where I dream of being a baker or working at a bookstore – jobs where there is a finite task that is generally pleasant and I know when I’ve won and can finally be at rest.
Youth ministry would be just like that… if it wasn’t such a wonderful terrible mess of never-quite-knowing, fake-it-til-you-make-it, shoot-from-the-hip, swing-away trial and error.
So in the midst of abstract social, spiritual, and institutional chaos where we grasp desperately for something concrete and achievable, may we hear a still, small voice: the perfect curriculum is not curriculum.
Once upon a time on Pentecost I was trying to teach middle schoolers about the Holy Spirit. I had a bunch of really important connections with scripture and illustrations and object lessons to convey the information I thought they needed to understand. I was SO prepared.
In the middle of teaching, this seventh grade boy turned aside and made a giggling comment to a friend, so I asked him if he had something to share in my most I’m-annoyed-but-still-love-you tone.
He said it was about Kirby. (Kirby? The pink balloon guy that floats around in the video game? Are you kidding me? What in the world made you think of Kirby and why are you doing this to me?)
It was only by the power of the Holy Spirit that I said, “What about Kirby? How does Kirby connect with the Holy Spirit and Pentecost?”
Seventh Grade Boy replied: “Well…Kirby’s power is that he goes around and inhales different skills and powers, so he can do stuff he couldn’t do before. Maybe the Holy Spirit is like that, and helps us learn new things so we can do cool stuff we couldn’t do before.”
All the kids tuned in, and this video game revelation led to a compelling discussion about other ways the group saw the Holy Spirit show up in their everyday lives. The best part? It was so good and so real that I didn’t even consider going back to my pre-planned curriculum.
The perfect curriculum? Paying attention.
Curriculum is indifferent. Love pays attention.
All of us would probably say that our ministry is relational. It’s one of youth ministry’s favorite buzzwords. But I’m not convinced our relationality has seeped into the way we teach just yet. If our content and plans can’t bend and move and respond to the young people we’re caring for, if we’re not able to pay attention and go to where they are, then we aren’t respecting their personhood and their own agency over how they see God and who they want to become.
One of the things I say to my youth each week is, “If this doesn’t make sense, or doesn’t matter to you, stop me and let’s talk about something that does.”
This is a terrible idea for running a smooth, shiny youth group gathering. It means we don’t have as much control, and sometimes things get rowdy and messy. Certainly teens don’t always leave with the one big idea or take away they’re supposed to remember. It takes bravery on our part. Going off script, straying from our notes, or scrapping our big idea can be terrifying.
Yet if I believe the Spirit of God is living and active, always with us and breathing life into our community, then I get to trust that as long as we’re engaging together with things that are good, true, beautiful, loving, or life-giving, then we are in the presence of God.
Our role is to be faithfully present as we follow our students and keep helping them make connections between life and God. This means giving up our anxiety around getting results and reaching a premeditated conclusion in order to focus on what is in front of us – our youth.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach, and come prepared, and be thoughtful about content. There are definitely ways I hope to form young people; learning and teaching are part of that formation. But it’s more of a cumulative effect, like knowing how to read even though you don’t remember the specific voices, books, or lessons that taught you how.
Human beings are formed slowly, over time, through relational connection and experience. The deep truths of what it means to be a person who is inherently good because we are created in the image of God isn’t usually revealed in sermons or lectures or curriculum. We become who we are by interacting with people in normal conversation and everyday experience, and the most powerful thing we have to offer students is the quality of our presence as we figure out what it means to follow Jesus together.
As I’ve practiced this emergent teaching method, paying attention and following my students’ lead, amazing things have happened for us. Young people come alive when they realize their voice can actually shape the course of our conversation, and that their questions, ideas, and creativity matter. There’s no need to invent object lessons and anecdotes if we’re paying attention to the myriad ways God shows up in our lives and the world around us. We get to tell stories about our lives and show our love by paying attention to one another. And we find ourselves on holy ground.
I recently watched the Lego Movie with a bunch of my middle schoolers. The tension in the story is between those who feel like they need to rigorously follow the instructions so they build a predictable, consistent product and those “master builders” who are able to look at the blocks they have, imagine something new, and create it in community. What if we allowed ourselves to hold our content and instructions loosely so our youth groups could exercise our kingdom imaginations to build something that looks like good news?
The perfect curriculum isn’t curriculum. It’s us, paying attention to each other and the beautiful, good, loving, true, and life-giving ways God shows up. May we always surrender our plans to the work of faithful presence. May we learn to see the kingdom all around us, and find ways to participate with our students in the restoration of all things, even if it takes us off script.
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.