Characteristics of an Effective Youth Ministry: 26. Curriculum

There is an intentional long and short-term approach to planning a curriculum.

You shall teach [these commands] diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. (Deuteronomy 6:7)    

If you were to ask your child’s schoolteacher what they intended to teach in the coming year and they replied, “I’m not sure. We’ll just take it week by week”, you would rightly have some concerns. An effective school teacher will have an annual curriculum they are following, and while they may not commence the year with lesson plans for every class on every day, they are working to a clear strategy that will see your child well-educated and capable of taking a more advanced class next year.

Similarly, (but not identically) an effective youth ministry will give thought to what they will teach young people as they progress through the youth ministry. In doing this they will keep two important points in mind.

Firstly, they will be aware that discipleship is more than teaching content. It’s a trap we with a Western mindset can easily fall into. In Eastern culture, the culture in which Jesus lived, discipleship was more about imitating the teacher rather than learning a curriculum. Therefore, a curriculum is a tool to use in discipleship and is supplemented by role modelling and opportunities for conversation that arise as leaders and young people spend time together.

Knowing this means that we need not be as rigorous as teachers are in setting a curriculum. Yet if we have no regard for a systematic curriculum we risk ending up with teaching that is patchy and has gaps that perhaps reflect the leader’s own bias.

The second point, therefore, is to not necessarily have five years of topics planned out and certainly not to have planned every week over those five years. Curriculum planning needs some flexibility to allow for relevant tops that crop up or specific questions a number in the groups are grappling with.

Just how much flexibility will be dependent on how we view “wants” versus “needs”. Do we teach those topics the young people want to cover? Or do we teach what we believe they need to learn?

As is often the case with such choices, the best answer lies somewhere between the two extremes. While we have a better idea than they do of what needs to be taught, sometimes God can guide us in what to cover as we listen to the questions they are struggling with.

Therefore an effective youth ministry will develop a curriculum that consists of a list of important topics and will regularly return to these as young people cycle through the youth ministry.

Following a curriculum is more like driving on a highway than travelling on train tracks.

Such an approach sees curriculum as a highway, not as train tracks. On a highway there is the freedom to change lanes, to briefly take an off-ramp, or to slow down and look at something of interest before resuming the journey. In contrast, train tracks are inflexible and allow no opportunity for detours, even if they would be helpful. There is a timetable to keep to and the preferences of individuals or the needs of the hour cannot be catered to.

Once you have determined the wants versus needs balance, you will need to think about the actual content. A way to do this would be to meet with your leadership team and on a whiteboard or newsprint write down three headings: to know, to do and to be. In the first column, you will list what you want young people to know about the Christian faith and in particular, what we believe and why we believe. For help with topics, you may want to take a look at a systematic theology book (it’s worth buying one if you don’t have one), or look at what resources such as Youth Alpha cover.

In the second column make a list of what you want young people to be able to do. For example, you will want them to know how to study the Bible for themselves, different ways of praying, memorising Scripture, sharing their faith or sharing with others how they cam to follow Jesus.

In the final column, list what you want young people to be. Here you will look at the conduct of a Christian covering good character and the fruit of the Spirit.

Once you have your list of topics, decide what approach you will use to teach and discuss them. Some of them may require a purely topical approach while others will be covered by working through books of the Bible. For example, if you work through John’s Gospel (and I would strongly recommend working through at least one gospel), your young people will have a very good understanding of what they need to know. If you work through the book of James they will find many examples of what to “be”.

Of course, as indicated earlier, a youth group is not quite like school. A significant difference is that young people come and go at various times and so if we plan a five-year programming cycle not everyone will cover everything. Some groups work to a three-year cycle realising that if a young person looks at a topic in their first year of high school and return to it again three years later, they will interact with it differently and in more depth.

Once you have decided on content, approach and cycle, you are ready to start compiling a broad curriculum of what you plan to cover each year. You can then choose from this list before the start of each term or you can be more structured and plan the whole year.

To illustrate how this might work, I once led a youth group in which we ran a discipleship training course (and yes we did call it that!) for sixteen to eighteen-year-olds using a three-year curriculum we developed which was divided into six modules. Each module covered ten weeks of set content, and a further three to four weeks for leaders to cover whatever topic they or their small group chose.

The young people worked through booklets on basic theology (to know), spent time working on an important “skill” (to do) as well as discussing life-related issues of relevance to them that challenged them to grow in character and faith (to be).  All this was done in small groups with leaders who modelled faith and cared for each individual and the young people themselves learned to love one another and pray for each other’s needs.

The programme wasn’t always popular with everyone and I faced some criticism from parents whose teenagers were more interested in just having fun on a Friday night, yet looking back years later, I’m able to see the fruit this approach brought in the numbers of those young people I know who are still following Jesus with several serving or having served as pastors or missionaries.


  • A long term approach to curriculum planning exists.
  • Curriculum planning and oversight are undertaken by a team of people – not one individual.
  • Included within the curriculum is teaching on what young people need to know about what Christians believe and why.
  • Included within the curriculum is teaching on what young people need to be able to do to grow in their faith.
  • Included within the curriculum is teaching on what young people need to “be” as followers of Jesus.
  • The curriculum has an agreed-upon balance between topical teaching and studying books of the Bible
  • The curriculum has an agreed-upon balance between what young people need to cover and what they may want to cover.
  • Leaders adopt a flexible approach and alter plans and curriculum as circumstances and needs change.
  • A short-term week by week curriculum plan for the term is made at least before the start of each term.
  • Through the curriculum reference is regularly made to Jesus and passages from the Gospels are systematically studied.

CCCNZ Youth offers a coaching programme for key youth leaders and youth pastors who would like help in implementing these principles as well as learning leadership skills. Contact us if you are interested.