by Taylor Young
Editor’s Note: This post is a product of the Communicating the Gospel to Youth class, taught by Dr. Andrew Zirschky as part of CYMT’s Master of Arts in Youth Ministry degree program through Memphis Theological Seminary.
When I began the journey of youth ministry, one of the first things I recall being told was that youth will more likely remember the times I (as a youth minister) was there for them rather than remember the lessons that I taught. I find it disheartening to validate this statement because it makes the effort of theological education, curriculum choosing, building, and teaching feel absolutely useless.

Don’t Blame the Curriculum

I am no stranger to having students complain to the “higher ups” that a lesson I taught was ineffective, or to having one just tell me, point blank, that he hated the current lesson that we were covering. In a previous church, a few of my most dedicated youth stared at me for quite a long time during a Sunday School lesson, and I noticed the atmosphere ran dry as we were going over the activities that the curriculum had planned for us. The morning went so slowly that I decided to wrap up the session early and send the kids on their way.
That instance turned out to be bigger than I thought. The next day brought an extensive meeting with a supervising minister to discuss how some of those most loyal youth members had come to him with disheartened complaints that they were not getting what they wanted from Sunday School. They were disappointed to the point that they felt disenfranchised enough to make the statement that would not be coming back to Sunday School any longer.
My first reaction to this criticism was to blame all printed Sunday School curricula. I’m not too far off but I also can’t say the answer is that easy. There is no great or even good curriculum that you can use straight out of the box to engage your youth. I have even written curriculum for my denomination and that holds true for the lessons I wrote. All of it is bad because it is typically written out of generalized assumptions about a wide variety of youth, and the people who wrote it do not know your students.
The fact is that Sunday School material elicits Sunday School answers. Even the life application parts of the lesson are intended to fit the curriculum flow, not actually speak to the lives of your students. A curriculum does not care about your kids. It’s your job to care about your kids. According to Pat Wolfe, “Two factors strongly influence whether the brain pays attention to a piece of information: 1. If the information has meaning. 2. If the information causes an emotional response” (7). It is nearly impossible to elicit meaning and emotions to a piece of curriculum that has asked questions with an assumed set of answers in response to what it is asking. Youth find no meaning when they are forced to regurgitate that Jesus loves them and not explore the intimate “whys” and “hows” of the fact that Jesus loves them.

Engaging in Meaningful Discussion

When youth find those examples of the way that Jesus’ love has darted into their lives is where it becomes meaningful. According to Judy Willis, “When students are experiencing a lot of stress, often from a lesson that is overly abstract or not understood by students as relevant to their lives, teachers need to find ways to make the lesson more personally interesting, relevant, and motivating” (61). It is the art of finding the moments where those hypothetical scenarios on the page become tangible to the youth who are listening. It is hard to break youth in to the habit of really finding meaning in the discussion or activities that you may have programmed for them. That’s why it is important to get the youth thinking about the ways in which they might personally be invested and engaged before the lesson has begun.
There might be an experiential or visual way to get youth initiated in to what is going on in the youth time together. Find out what works and what doesn’t work for your group. I have learned that sometimes pictures or anecdotes can stimulate interest in a lesson to my high schoolers, whereas story writing, skits, and physical activities can seem completely elementary to my group in particular. According to Willis, a teacher should “use multisensory avenues of exposure to the information that result in multiple connections and relational memory links to existing memory circuits to increase recall and memory storage” (30). There needs to be a way to engage the senses but bring a true sense of meaning with the introduction because it will set the tone and atmosphere for the rest of the time. Some ways of engagement just don’t work for your kids. Figure those out so you cant stop trying to use them.
Even though some curriculum makes the best attempt it can for a multisensory way to engage the participants of a youth lesson, and the curriculum may very well claim it is intended for high schoolers, the reality is that it may be far beneath the spiritual and mental levels of the youth. Willis also says, “Patterning is the process whereby the brain perceives and generates patterns by relating new with previously learned material or chunking material into pattern systems it has used before. . .Whenever new material is presented in such a way that students see relationships, they generate greater brain cell activity” (15). Think through every portion of the pieces of your lesson because they can each be used as tool of patterning when they feed in to each other. This can happen from one part of a lesson to the next and even from one lesson to the next but it is all a loss if the youth do not understand why they participated in each part.

Check for Understanding

The ability to check for understanding is needed to improve the transition of your lesson, because frustration may develop if there are chunks of information missing about why youth participated in a conversation or activity. According to Wolfe, “Understanding must be checked frequently to ensure that the rehearsal is correct” (8). Ask questions to clarify that people understand the meaning of something that is being explored. It is impossible to make sure that youth apply a biblical concept in a certain way but there is room to check and make sure that they understand what the concept initially is.
Finally, take time to evaluate the effectiveness of each lesson with the youth and provide space to enhance and build on the next thing that comes around. Youth do not fit a mold of one-size fits all teaching styles. Youth must be understood as individuals with unique capacities for learning and applying. Invite them in to the process of teaching and learning with their perspective as the person being engaged.
Willis, Judy. Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning: Insights from a Neurologist and Classroom Teacher. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. 2007. Print.
Wolfe, Pat. “The Adolescent Brain –Learning Strategies & Teaching Tips.” Brain Matters: Translating the Research to Classroom Practice. Alexandria, VA: ASCD. 2001.
Taylor Young is a third year graduate resident with the Center for Youth Ministry Training, and is the Youth and Young Adult Director at Clarksville Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Clarksville, Tenn.