When to teach what, where and to whom

By Duffy Robbins

One of the questions I’m often asked with regards to youth Bible studies or Sunday night youth group messages is: “How should we decide what to teach?” We talked in the last issue of Good News about how to develop a youth ministry teaching curriculum. The key emphasis there was balance: we want to make sure that we’re not teaching repeatedly on the same pet topics over and over again, reproducing our own personal blindspots, and leaving our youth group kids undernourished because they’ve been exposed to only a few of Scripture’s many food groups.

Clearly a balanced diet of biblical truth is important for growing Christians.

But still, it’s often confusing when we try to sort out when to teach what, where, and to whom.

Mosaic Teaching. The best way to approach a question like that is to recognize that no one youth meeting stands alone. Every meeting we plan, every lesson we teach, every activity we do is a part of the larger mosaic of our youth ministry program. What that means, in one sense, is that every tile of the mosaic has to fit in with the overall big picture. A lot of us just piece together all these neat little tiles of “youth stuff” without really considering how it all goes together. What we end up with looks like a mosaic piece that was dropped on the ground, and then was hurriedly put back together. There’s no coherent picture. To maximize the impact of each individual lesson or study, we’ll want to give some thought to how a given study on a given night ties in with a devotional on another night, and how those two lessons tie in with other elements of your program.

There are lots of different ways of doing this, and the best one is the one that works best for your ministry. But, if this is a new concept for you, here’s a simple way to think “big picture” about your ministry. Let’s say, for the sake of simplicity, that there are three broad pieces to a balanced youth ministry environment: outreach, nurture, and leadership development, and your speaking at various times will reflect each of these three emphases.

• Outreach: speaking targeted to unchurched students;
• Nurture: speaking targeted to students who have made an initial commitment to Christ, and now need motivation and training for growth;
• Leadership Development: speaking aimed at students (and adults) who are willing to own some leadership vision for the ministry.

Thinking in terms of these three broad pieces can help you maintain balance and purpose as you plan Bible studies and talks for a given three to six month period. One way to conceptualize it is to think of the year in terms of youth ministry “seasons”—to recognize that certain times of the year lend themselves better to certain types of ministry emphases, and therefore to certain types of topics and themes when you teach.

This could vary by region of the country and even by community, but just as an example, Fall seems like a natural time to do outreach. In the Fall, you have a lot of kids who have never come to youth group or club before. They’ve just moved up to a new grade, they’ve just moved into the area, they’re joining new organizations, new groups—they’re just open to a change. And this emphasis on outreach would be translated into every facet of your ministry—the topics you do in small groups, the thrust of your leadership training, the way you shape a Fall retreat, your ministry to parents—everything. And, it’s reflected in the topics you teach on. Each piece of the mosaic is part of a larger picture.

And then, let’s say, by mid-October, when the main thrust of any beginning-of-the-school-year emphasis on outreach begins to level off, that would be a reasonable time to then shift gears and speak on topics and themes that are more related to nurture. It’s not that a ministry from that point on would ignore outreach. If a student comes and says, “Can I accept Christ?” you’re not going to say, “uh…well, that was last month.” But there is a shift in emphasis, and that’s reflected in the way you plan your teaching topics. And again, this shift in emphasis is woven through every facet of the program so that in some ways what is happening in small groups, or in Sunday school, or in mid-week club is setting the table for the talk or study you’re doing in a given week.

The concept is more important than any actual calendar dates. The idea is to use the natural tides of your ministry to help you plan your topics.