Editor’s Note: The following article is a summary of material presented at the Center for Youth Ministry Training’s conference From Txt2Speech: Proclaiming scripture to youth in a digital age, held Nov. 30 – Dec. 2, 2012 in Nashville, Tenn.
by Travis Garner
“It’s 4 p.m. on Sunday afternoon. The youth will be at the church in 90 minutes or less for our Sunday night programming, and I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M GOING TO TEACH THEM TONIGHT!”
During my first few years in youth ministry, this was the reality of my Sunday afternoon almost every week. I had a software program that came with a “panic” button which, when clicked, would give you an entire youth group session, complete with games, Scripture passages, talking points, and discussion questions. Unfortunately, the program only had 50 pre-loaded panic lessons, which meant I either had to repeat all of the lessons each year and hope no one noticed or I had do come up with a different plan.
Fortunately, after more than a decade in full-time youth ministry, I’ve developed a comprehensive process of preparation for teaching and preaching to youth that is much more thoughtful and organized and MUCH less stressful than the panic button approach of my first few years in youth ministry. Following this process has made me a better preacher and teacher, has allowed me to better equip volunteer leaders who are in ministry with me, and has forced me to think more holistically about what I want the students in our ministry to learn during their time with us. Here are the three steps that have made a huge difference for me when it comes to preparing to teach or preach to youth.
Many of us, in the busy-ness of ministry, neglect our spiritual lives first. Jesus isn’t blowing up our phone with texts asking us to hang out, he isn’t emailing us reminders of looming deadlines, he isn’t calling us into his office to ask about the stain we left on the carpet Sunday night. So, because there are plenty of other people who ARE doing those things, Jesus is usually the first one to get pushed to the margins. The busier I am, the more tempted I am to cut out my time for prayer and Bible study.
The truth, though, is that the single most important thing I do to prepare myself to teach and preach to youth is to cultivate my own relationship with God. When my spiritual gas tank is running on empty, it is noticeable. I lack passion, I lack conviction, and it shows. There’s nothing worse than listening to someone ramble on saying things they clearly don’t believe. My own connection with Christ is the starting point for all I teach and preach. Without it, I have nothing to say.
If you don’t currently have a regularly scheduled time to connect with God, I encourage you to reevaluate your schedule. There is nothing more important! Read the Bible, listen to podcasts in the car, read books, watch videos; do all the things you tell your students to do! (They really DO work!) I keep a journal of all of my thoughts from when I encounter something that I find significant in scripture, of things that stick out to me from books or podcasts, and then I return to those things as I’m planning for upcoming topics or series’ for our youth ministry.
I used to think that pre-planning was what happened in my brain the 90 minutes before youth group started. At this point in my ministry, I prefer to have the topics and series for our youth ministry mapped out for the school year before the year begins, anywhere from six to 12 months in advance. That may sound absolutely ridiculous, but by working in advance, I can assemble a team of people to work with me to brainstorm and produce ideas, we can be much more creative and multi-sensory in how we help students interact with God’s word, and we can more effectively equip our volunteer leaders to be in ministry with our students. This is an extensive process that takes some hard work, but it pays off in the end!
The first piece of this pre-planning process is the development of a teaching/preaching template. I worked with a team of adults in my church to develop a comprehensive plan for what we want our students to learn and know over the course of their six years in our ministry. We teach in series, and we rotate through five different types of series throughout the year:
- Beginning Points (basic questions of faith, hot topics, etc.)
- Next Steps (basic theology, spiritual disciplines, books of the Bible)
- Real-Life Issues (Christian ethics, relationships and dating, issues such as drinking, drugs, alcohol, etc.)
- Using Your Gifts (serving God in the world, discovering your spiritual gifts, purpose, calling, etc.)
- Vision and Mission (focused on the mission of the church and our student ministry)
If you don’t have a teaching/preaching template for your youth ministry, pull together a team of your most invested volunteer leaders and some of your most trusted parents, and wrestle with this question: what do we really want our students to know and what tools of faith do we really want them to have when they graduate from our ministry?
After mapping out the types of series for the year on a calendar, I collect input from students, parents, volunteer leaders, and other staff members on the types of issues around which they’re struggling, questions they’re asking about God, and things they want to know or learn. I then take all of that information as well as my journal from the past year, including any ideas for series that have come to mind, books that have been meaningful to me, and scripture passages that have resonated with me significantly, and I go away for a couple days to re-read, think, and pray. (There are usually massive amounts of coffee involved in this process!) During those few days, I take all of those ideas, I look at several curriculum websites for other ideas, and I write paragraph summaries of series ideas that fit into the categories of our curriculum template.
Once I’ve completed the summaries for all of the series ideas (which is usually a four to five page document), I show it to student leaders, volunteer leaders, staff members, and anyone else who’s willing to read and I ask for feedback: Which of these really resonates with you? Which of these do you think your non-Christian friends would find interesting? Which of these sounds horribly boring and uninteresting? After receiving this feedback, I select all of our series for the year and plug them into the calendar for our Sunday night programming. Then the fun really begins!
After mapping out the series for the year and the topics and scripture passages for each Sunday night, we hone in on one “big idea” that we want our students to go home with when they leave our program that night: what’s the one thing we want to make sure they know or hear or think about on that night? Once I know the “big idea” for each night, I pull together a team of people to brainstorm how we can communicate that idea through different media. (My team meets every week, but that’s not necessary for every team. Some teams may want to meet once a month and look at a whole series at a time. The important part is that this is an opportunity to engage more people in leadership and to use their gifts in brainstorming.) When we meet, we ask questions such as: What songs can we play that reinforce that idea? What pictures or objects can we put up in our youth room to communicate that idea? What skits or videos or dramas will help students think about that idea in a different or fresh way? What games can we play that will introduce that idea? What small group questions can we ask that will really help them wrestle with how they can apply that idea in their lives? The goal is that everything we do on any given Sunday night in some way introduces, teaches, or reinforces the big idea for the night.
On a related note, the benefit of having a team of other leaders is one of the best parts of this process. Working with a team like this equips other people for ministry and it shares the load of leadership in a positive way as other people are able to use their gifts in ministry. I am the primary teacher in our youth ministry, but I really don’t enjoy leading games. Rather than forcing myself to think about games each week, I have people on my team who love games, so having them on the team is a win/win: I don’t have to think about games, and people who love games are able to lead them. Maybe you love games, but you’re not the most gifted teacher. If that’s the case, you could find someone who loves to teach and equip them to do that as part of this process.
Because I’ve planned in advance, I am much more able to effectively prepare my youth and myself for upcoming Sunday nights. Because we know well in advance what we’ll be teaching and what big idea we’ll be communicating in our Sunday night program, we can do things to get our students thinking about the topic before they get to church on Sunday night. We’re able to send out promotional cards, encourage students to invite their friends for specific nights that might have a special appeal to youth without a church home, we can text or tweet or post videos or questions for interaction about the week before our program. We can also communicate more effectively to parents about what we’re going to be teaching their youth.
I’m also much more able to prepare myself to teach with depth and substance on a particular Scripture or topic. I’m able to really pray over a scripture or topic, to study it, and to teach from a place of depth rather than a place of last-minute panic.
This may seem like an overwhelming process, especially if you’re a last-minute planner. It’s taken a lot of work and a lot of time for me to arrive at this particular way of preparing for Sunday nights, but it has been well worth it. What is your current process? If you’re a “panic button” kind of youth minister but want to change, it will take work and you won’t get there overnight. The question is, where can you start? What steps might you take from here to move toward a more comprehensive process?
Travis Garner is a Probationary Elder in the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church. He currently serves as the Associate Pastor of Student Ministries at Brentwood UMC and as a coach for CYMT. Travis and his wife, Amanda, have two sons, Paxon and Asher.