Seven Year Teaching Plan

In the most recent episode of my podcast, “Kinda Interesting: Thoughts on Youth Ministry,” I talk about our seven year teaching plan. Essentially, I wanted to tackle three things with our Sunday morning teaching time over the seven years we have a student in our youth ministry (6th-12th grade); core truths that we really want to drive home, topical issues relevant to the group’s needs, and biblical literacy. You can check it out here.

Having stayed committed to this plan for more than a decade now, I’m increasingly happy with it. It’s flexible enough that we really are able to roll with what’s happening in culture, needs of the group, and strengths of the teachers. At the same time, it gives enough structure that we have to give our topic selections a lot of thought and care so that we can meet our big picture goals. Finally, I love the thought that for several years now, any graduate that has been at our church for middle school and high school will have graduated with teaching from every book of the Bible.

Where do I get the materials? Primarily through a handful of companies I’ve come to trust over the years; Youth SpecialtiesThe Live CurriculumThe Youth Cartel, and Download Youth Ministry. In addition, we’ve created some studies for books of the Bible that I couldn’t find materials elsewhere for.

Here’s the overview:

  • Core Truths (yearly, 11 weeks). These are the teachings we land on every year – if teens don’t remember anything else when they graduate, at least they’ll know these eleven lessons. Within this broader category, there are two main themes; our church values and purpose (Know, Grow, Go) inform us of why we gather, while the HABITS series gives the spiritual disciplines that tell us how to follow God.
    • Our Purpose
      • Fellowship (‘we are real people’)
      • Worship (‘in love with a real God’)
      • Discipleship (‘in love with a real God’)
      • Evangelism (‘making a real difference in the world’)
      • Service (‘making a real difference in the world’)
    • HABITS
      • Hang time with God (quiet time)
      • Accountability
      • Bible study and memorization
      • Involvement in church
      • Tithing
      • Sacraments (communion, baptism)
  • Topical (yearly, 17 weeks). This is the category that gets the most flexibility year by year. Basically, it’s age specific, felt need topics (e.g., the place our group is in right now leads us to talk about this). Some topics will probably be repeated every year (dating, sex, peer pressure).
  • Biblical Literacy (23 weeks). This is the bigger picture piece of the puzzle. One of our church values as a whole is Biblical literacy, and our concern that as a culture we are becoming less and less familiar with the scriptures. Towards that end, over the course of seven years we will give students an overview of the whole Bible, working our way through every book (in varying degrees of depth). If you look at the plan, you’ll see that we’re working our way systematically through the Old Testament while bouncing around the New Testament.

Youth Ministry Longevity


I’m going to try this again; yesterday I wrote a blog post, used some undependable stats, and ultimately, distracted readers from the point I was actually trying to make, which is that longevity brings deeper perspective and awareness of the long term impact of student ministry programs.

There are tremendous benefits to longevity in youth ministry; both in regards to total ministry experience, as well as long tenures in one church. It brings stability, deeper roots in the church, greater depth of relationships, and a host of other benefits. For me, somewhere around my sixth year at my current church, and going forward, I have really begun to see a lot of changes in my perspective and attitudes about student ministry.

In 2016, Barna and Youth Specialties teamed up to release The State of Youth Ministry, a fascinating look into the world of American student ministries. Based on their research, they found that the average youth pastor is at his or her church for just over five years (p.55). The graph below reflects youth pastor tenures currently throughout the US (p.56):

years in youth ministry

They did note that 39% were in their first three years at a church, reflecting a “plurality [that] moves on within three years” (p.56). There are a lot of variables that can factor into that percentage, and it is only a portion of the broader youth ministry field. What I find myself wrestling with is the challenge for myself, and youth pastors in general, to plant deep roots into my/their churches and congregations long enough to really see the rewards in longevity, as well as some of the deeper perspectives that help youth ministry as a whole that come with being in a place long enough to see multiple groups of students move through the entire program, into college, adulthood and beyond. On the flip side, the challenge is also for churches to have the long term vision to keep staff in place long enough to see these benefits.

I was at my first church for two years. I saw the program double in attendance in my time there. It was exciting and validating. I was at my second church for just over five years. I started with less than five middle school students; five years later I had seen almost every teen in our region come through our doors at some point and felt my influence was rooted both in the church and the community. These are meant as boasts, rather, to contrast my changing opinions on what success looks like.

Honestly, I’ve heard the statistics over the incredibly large drop off in faith from students graduating from church, heading off to college, and essentially graduating from the faith. And for the most part, I assumed that was a problem with other churches.

I’ve been at my current church for nine years this month. That’s long enough for many teens to have not only graduated from our program, but to have also graduated from college, start careers, marriages and families. I actually do believe that we have seen a higher percentage of graduates maintain faith after graduation, but I’ve seen a lot of students disappear. Too many. And on the one hand I’ve read the articles pointing out that many do ultimately return to faith in their 30’s, I would still prefer to see them not wander to begin with.

Nine years of watching students fade away begins to add up. It is a sobering thing to see. It has made me question a lot of things I used to assume were effective. What good does it do if we can pack out an all-nighter if we’ve lost the connection a few years later?

Research by people like Christian Smith, Kenda Creasy Dean, Kara Powell, Chap Clark, and others, all point to the same thing; one of the most critical ingredients in long term faith is being plugged into the larger church. It’s why in recent years we have shifted so much of our focus at Brandywine Valley Baptist Church to make it easier for families to attend worship services together, to serve together, to grow in faith together. I’m hopeful to see the payoff to these changes in the years to come.

Which brings me back to my point; to me, one of the critical benefits of youth ministry longevity is seeing and feeling first hand the weight of this need. With each year it brings a deeper sense of priority to the big picture of ministry. A youth leader needs to be in one place long enough to see the long term results of the approach their church is taking with adolescents if there is going to be any kind of change in this trend of losing young people after graduation. I think that 9% of youth pastors who have been in the same place for twelve years or more represent volumes of experience and insight all of us could benefit from.

Unintentional Arrogance

unintentional arrogance

I was listening to Mark Matlock’s “Transforming Conversations: Using Research from Barna’s State of Youth Ministry Report” session from the National Youth Worker’s Convention the other day and wanted to respond to part of it. Essentially, Barna and Youth Specialties did a massive survey on youth ministry in America, producing a lot of valuable data for youth workers and churches to process and discuss; you can find the research here. In his session at the convention, Matlock highlighted some of the data, including the topic of what obstacles youth workers face in youth ministry.

To reveal my own bias, before hearing the results, my immediate response to the question of my greatest obstacle in youth ministry is my own busyness.

According to the survey, the top two obstacles reported by youth workers were (1) the busyness of youth (74% said this) and (2) 34% reported lack of parent interest (respondents could put more than one obstacle). It is significant that student busyness was far and away the highest reported obstacle.

Further complicating the conversation was the survey responses from parents regarding the busyness of their children: 11% felt their teens are way too busy, 58% feel the balance is good, and 31% believe their children need more to do.

At this point Matlock opened up the conversation to the youth workers in the room to comment on the disparity between 74% of youth workers believing students are too busy, and 89% of parents feeling kids are at the right balance or actually need more to do. There were a number of different thoughts; some felt parents needed to be educated on the busyness of their kids, perhaps parents are not in healthy balance so cannot see that their kids are not either, etc. One person suggested that youth ministries are running too many programs so kids are picking and choosing, as opposed to them actually being too busy. Matlock suggested that perhaps some youth workers blame busyness because it puts the fault of lack of involvement outside their control; it’s the fault of families and other circumstances, rather than the youth worker not giving them something they value enough to participate in.

For me, it was frustrating to hear some of the responses. Sometimes I feel like we as youth workers can be unintentionally arrogant, genuinely believing we know more about what’s best for someone else’s child(ren). Yes, there are things students talk to us about that they don’t tell their parents; while it may make me uncomfortable at times to know that my fifteen year old may go to someone else about something instead of me, I remember my own discomfort with bringing up some topics with my parents as a teenager and so I try to surround him with Christian adults I respect and trust to be positive influences and role models for him. In the same way, some of their teens come to me; but it would be incredibly arrogant of me to believe that my limited interactions with their child compared to their lifetime of daily involvement would leave me knowing more than them, only that I may have a different perspective with limited insights.

Kids make time for things they value and are excited about. Parents prioritize that involvement when they know the important enough details far enough in advance to plan for it. Rather than looking to things outside of our control to blame poor response on (busyness of teens, lack of parent interest), we should be constantly evaluating and changing our approaches and programming in response to the rapidly changing youth culture. Further, this type of blame only builds invisible walls of disconnect instead of bridges with parents. One of the values I have constantly told my team is that we should never have to guilt or manipulate kids into coming to something, and we definitely should not have to be spending excessive amounts of time trying to talk them into participating – if they’re not excited about it, than we’re doing something wrong, not them. Maybe our schedule is overcrowded, maybe we’ve picked the wrong hook, the wrong date (yeah, the time I inadvertently scheduled a retreat on homecoming weekend – that’s not them loving school more than Jesus, that’s me creating an unnecessary conflict of interest), or the wrong content.


Planet Wisdom recap

pw blog 1

pw blog 3

This past weekend a couple van loads of us went down to Washington DC to the Planet Wisdom conference … and it was amazing. If I’m honest, I went into it with a lot of high expectations; a lot of my personal philosophy of youth ministry has been heavily influenced by the team behind the event, I love their books, their training, and the goals of the event itself. And the reality is, part of me thought it probably wasn’t possible for it to live up to what I thought it would be. I was absolutely wrong. It was an amazing balance of teaching (our teens experienced six plus hours of preaching … and ate every minute of it up), worship (HOURS of worship with The Digital Age), comedy (the Skit Guys – do I need to say more?).

There is something truly, truly moving to stand in a room with thousands of teens worshiping God at the top of their lungs. The messages were great; while designed to be heard by middle school and high school students, as an adult I thought there was tremendous content. I loved that the theme for the weekend moved through all the sessions, with a larger picture being painted and completed (as opposed to other conferences where the sessions are generally stand alone one shots).

On Sunday I spent some time debriefing with a bunch of the students who went; they loved it, they want to do it again, and their only wish is that we would have had more time on the weekend to debrief and process together all that we heard!

All that to say, if you’re a youth worker … check out Planet Wisdom. They host the conference in eight cities each year. It is an amazing value, miles ahead of anything else I’ve experienced for teens, and a great, great catalyst for discipleship in teens. And if you’er wondering, that’s our group below with The Digital Age. That poor, poor band ended the weekend with us attacking them …

pw blog 2

I wrote a (FREE) Halloween Devo

I love the music video for King & Country created for their song, ‘Proof of Your Love.’ It’s a lot of fun, great story, had my group completely enthralled, and packs a powerful message that can go several different ways. Plus, it has Zombies. And with Halloween around the corner, and everyone freaking out over The Walking Dead’s third season (it shattered tv premiere records a couple weeks ago), it seemed like a great time to come up with something based on the video! When I was hanging out with the band before their concert at my church, they were excited by the idea as well. In all honesty, the discussion guide could be used year around, but it felt timely for Halloween.

Anyway, click through and grab the devo and discussion guide from Youth Specialties!

Student Leadership Conference 2012 thoughts

I spent the last couple days checking out and leading a workshop at the Student Leadership Conference that Doug Fields (I stole the photos from his blog recap) and his team have been doing for years and brought to the east coast for the first time.

I loved it.

It was incredibly well put together – which shouldn’t be a surprise since it’s the same team behind YSpalooza, NYWC, Planet Wisdom and more. I was really impressed with the speaker lineup – for the ticket price I wasn’t expecting half a dozen of the top names in youth ministry!

I thought it was a great balance of deep learning, workshops, and fun outlets. And I had a blast leading my workshop!

I loved how the conference was saturated with examples of students being leaders, whether it was all the worship music being student led, the 17 year old author who spoke, giving opportunities for kids to get involved, be up front and more. The message came through loud and clear that students ARE the church and are capable of a LOT. It was exciting seeing the bar set high and teens being excited to rise to it.

All that to say, next year I’m making it a priority. It’s exactly the kind of training opportunity our student leaders need to experience.

Free Kindle youth ministry books!

Stumbled across a couple cool free books for Kindle today; not sure how long the special will last so grab ’em quick.

Living with Questions, by Dale Fincher. It’s actually part of Youth Specialties Invert line of books, written for Christian teens on apologetics. It’s a great book and helps equip teens with answers and how to wrestle with questions. GET IT.

Commentary on Mark, by Robert Gundry. It’s a great resource; a verse by verse commentary on the gospel of Mark. Definitely worth grabbing.

Never too old for youth ministry

One of the many highlights at the National Youth Workers Convention this past November in Atlanta was when they brough Verna Kline up on to the stage. She is an 81 year old lady who has been volunteering in student ministry for 68 years. It was so much fun to listen to her share and to see the whole room give her a massive standing ovation. She had no idea they were going to bring her up – it was a total and beautiful surprise.

One of my ongoing irritations as a youth pastor has been the opinion by some that there is such a thing as being too old for youth ministry. That it’s something people outgrow. As though it’s something for young people to be leaders in before they grow up and get into real ministry. It’s bizarre, because in any other role working with teens, we respect people who give their life to it. When was the last time we said to a high school teacher when they hit their forties that they were getting too old to teach teens history? Or thought a seasoned coach was no longer able to lead kids to victory? On the contrary, we think it’s an honorable thing for someone to teach or coach for 40 years and then retire. We respect that!

It’s no different with youth ministry. There isn’t a time when someone becomes too old to love and care for teens, to build into their lives, to invest in them. Spending a lifetime teaching young people the Word of God is an awesome thing. I love that Verna Kline isn’t one of a kind; for years I’ve listened to long time youth workers share about their 80+ year old volunteers and the critical role they play.

HT to Youth Specialties.