Deciding what to teach (and what not to)

By Duffy Robbins

The marquee sign out in front of the Unitarian Church made me smile. It read, “Bible Study tonight. Bring scissors.” I envisioned a group of earnest Unitarians sitting around a comfortable room discussing which passages of the Bible should be cut out of the holy text so that God’s words might be a little easier to digest.

Of course, most of us would never presume to put scissors to page in an effort to whittle the Bible down to a more manageable message. But, in truth, we may be more guilty than we realize.

Somewhere around my tenth year in youth ministry, I came to the troubling realization that I was giving my youth group a Bible that was missing whole sections of divine revelation. It was an accidental discovery that happened when I went back over three years of my teaching in youth group. I discovered (a) that we devoted almost six times as much study to the New Testament as we did to the Old Testament; (b) that we spent more time studying topics than we spent studying texts; (c) that I was teaching on some of the same topics over and over again; and (d) that our teaching curriculum was more a reflection of my training and biases than it was a reflection of the whole counsel of God.

The vast majority of youth ministers are convinced that Bible study should be a main component of their youth program. But the confusion often voiced by both youth ministry volunteers and professionals revolves around two questions: “What do I teach?” and “How do I teach it?” We will continue over the next several months in this column to address question number two. But for the next few issues of Good News, let’s focus primarily on question number one.

Developing a Curriculum: First Steps. It’s not that most of us as youthworkers ever intentionally decide to cut away vast portions of God’s Word. We believe in the Word. We want our students to embrace the Word. But, what we don’t do is give enough thought to how we will intentionally work to make sure our students are systematically exposed to the Word.

When I became aware that our youth group was missing out on whole food groups of God’s feast, I decided to get together with my volunteers and student leaders to talk with them about the situation. We invited our pastor and members of the youth committee to join us in the discussion. We came away with a list of topics and texts that we felt students should be exposed to prior to their high school graduation. We decided to teach on these topics and texts over a three-year Sunday school cycle. Obviously, each local youth ministry is going to have different topics they want to emphasize, and different needs they feel they want to address. But this may be a good model to start with.

We also made up a similar plan with some of the same topics for Wednesday night Bible study. That meant that students who came to our Wednesday night Bible study might hear some topics more than once, but we didn’t see much danger with that. We intentionally covered some topics (sex and dating) more than once in a three year period, using different curricula, and perhaps, coming at it from a different angle. We felt some topics needed to be repeated.

You will want to develop your own plan, of course. We broke the topics into three broad categories, just for the sake of balancing our own thinking: Bible – book studies, biographical studies of key biblical characters, these studies tended to focus on biblical texts; Life – these were more lifestyle issues, a more topical way of addressing how to apply what we had heard and studied in the Word; Body – the core issues here were related to “being the Body of Christ,” living out Kingdom values as a Christian community, locally and globally.
Obviously, kingdom truth is not so neatly separated into these three boxes. But, again, it helped us think strategically about what we wanted to address. Were you to develop a curriculum like this, you would probably want to get input from a wide range of sources: the students, parents, co-workers (paid or volunteer), and a sampling of church leaders. It wouldn’t be necessary to cover every topic suggested from these input groups, but it would certainly be wise to let people know they’re being heard.

The advantage of this kind of long-range approach to topic planning is that it helps us to avoid two common mistakes in teaching: (1) teaching on our pet topics over and over again, or (2) teaching on some topic just because we have some cool new media resource or curriculum. But, more than that, it opens up enough teaching territory that students can explore a wider, vaster landscape of God’s truth.

Duffy Robbins is Chairman of the Department of Youth Ministry at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, and a long-time columnist for Good News.

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