How to adapt youth ministry curriculum for your youth group

Laura Atwater Holliday Image Laura Atwater Holliday | Jan 3, 2024

Have you ever purchased youth ministry curriculum and then thought, “Wow, I need to do some work on this to make it relevant for my students”? As youth leaders, we’ve all learned (sometimes the hard way) that curriculum can’t always be simply copied and pasted into our youth ministry plan. Every church, youth leader, and student is different—which means most resources will need adjusting to reflect your ministry’s unique needs.

So how does one even start when it comes to adapting curriculum? I asked FYI team members to tell us how they optimize the curriculum they purchase to meet the needs of their unique ministries. Chuck Hunt has served small and large Presbyterian and non-denominational churches, Jen Bradbury is currently volunteer youth pastor at a small Episcopal church in Chicago, Gio Panginda is youth pastor to three small LA-based Indonesian-American churches, Andy Jung serves young adults at a Baptist church in North Carolina, and Zach Ellis is youth leader in a small Nazarene church in Southern California.

Adapting youth ministry curriculum to maximize discipleship impact for your unique youth group

When you buy curriculum, how do you usually adapt it for your group?

Jen: Several things! It feels like curriculum tends to be written for large groups, which means if you work in a smaller context like mine, you're going to have to make changes. And many are geared toward high school students—my group is mixed, junior high and high school. There's a big difference between what a 6th-grade boy can handle and what a 12th-grade girl can.

In Faith Beyond Youth Group we talk about how important it is for teaching to be interactive in order to teach for transformation. More often than not, I’ll take a teaching script and turn it into discussion questions and activities that will engage young people and make them active participants in their faith journey.

Chuck: I tend to use the outlines to write my own talks. Then there’s always a need to review and edit theological statements. I’ve also always needed to contextualize discussion questions to create experience, depth, and acknowledgment of cultural, racial, and socio-economic differences.

What do you do when your theology doesn’t align with the curriculum’s teaching?

Zach: At my church, we’re constantly adapting resources to align with our distinct theological emphases. Because much of our teaching time is based around discussion and spiritual practices like prayer, there are countless opportunities to shape the theology in a curriculum to fit our theological tradition. For example, we’re currently in a series on Christian practices where I recently taught on gratitude and generosity based upon the feeding of the five thousand. Because hospitality is a stated value of our church, I was easily able to tie gratitude and generosity to acts of hospitality by families within our congregation.

Gio: I make it a point to communicate with my students about the beliefs or affiliations our church holds. For example, I had to do this on the topic of immersion baptism and baby baptism. I want to be intentional about introducing them to various theological perspectives so that they can encounter diverse viewpoints without feeling caught off guard. I also take the responsibility to provide reasons and explanations for why our church adheres to the particular beliefs we uphold. So it'll sound something like: "Some Christians interpret ________ as __________. They believe this because _________. But our church/denomination believes __________. Here's how we can look at it: _________."

Andy: There are two approaches I take, depending on who’s in the group at that time. If it’s mainly middle school students, I’ll change the message content to align with my tradition’s theology. However, if my group is primarily made up of spiritually growing high school students, I’ll present the theology in the curriculum along with differing viewpoints, and help students wrestle with the concepts. Ultimately, I want the students to own their own faith. So I help them learn how to listen to different points of view while developing their own understanding with our community’s support and the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

Youth ministry attendance can fluctuate a lot. How do you quickly adapt when a larger or smaller group than expected shows up?

Zach: Much of my group’s teaching time is discussion-based. So we can easily adapt the number of discussion groups based upon how many are in the room. If we have an exceptionally large number of teenagers, or not enough adults, we'll do pair-shares and then debrief in a large group.

Chuck: This happens so often in ministry, it’s become a regular practice for me to create a Plan B (and C!). Making sure that we’re ready to shift and maintain the purpose of the event has been a high priority.

We’ve all had days where what we’ve planned just isn’t hitting like we expected. How do you invite students to engage spiritually when the curriculum’s activities aren’t inspiring them?

Gio: When I bring a new or unfamiliar spiritual practice to my teenagers, I give a heads-up that it might feel a bit strange or uncomfortable at first. I tell them not to worry, because feeling that way is totally normal, and even expected—especially when trying something for the first time. Next, I remind them that as we get more used to the practice, that initial discomfort will fade because we’ll grow more and more familiar with the practice. Finally, I encourage them to keep an open mind as we explore these new practices together.

Andy: When the curriculum activities are not working with the group, that is when you have to make a shift. Most of the time, I've abandoned the activity and closed out the teaching time with a final thought that reiterated the main idea of the lesson. Then, I've shifted to asking them what's on their minds so we can talk about the things they want to talk about.

Chuck: I’ve always tried to practice asking God to allow the curriculum, teaching, and experiential lesson to have access to me. If I haven’t allowed God to work with me on the concept or topic I’m teaching, it feels disingenuous to tell students to work through it. When I do that, shifting activities becomes much more accessible to me because I’m invested and already being moved, discipled, or challenged by what I’m teaching.

Sometimes a curriculum can feel a little out of touch with today’s teenagers. How do you help students connect a curriculum’s teaching with their lived experience?

Andy: Christ’s teachings are timeless but our culture shifts every day. It’s important to help make meaning of what they experience and how that connects with God’s word. This is where the youth leader’s understanding of today’s young people and empathy toward their lived experience is invaluable. When the adult leader can relationally connect with the students, it can bridge the gap between the curriculum and the biblical truths young people need to hear at that moment.

Gio: I tackle this in various ways. One is reaching out to one of my young people, often a student leader, to look at ideas and concepts and ask how those might resonate with their friends. Another involves dividing my youth group into smaller groups where they can discuss with a leader. Or I ask teenagers to reflect on their own experiences and how the topic relates to them. Another way is to replace an example they don’t relate to with an example from a tv show, movie, music, or current event that I do, and then connect that with their own experiences.

Chuck: I know that this will seem counterintuitive, because we generally buy curriculum so that we can be guided in a particular direction or we need to save some time and energy. My solution to this issue doesn't address either of those problems, but here it is: we have to spend enough time with the curriculum to connect the dots that will allow the curriculum to speak to our teenagers' lived experience.

What adaptations would you make for a combined middle and high school youth group?

Jen: No doubt about it, this is hard. There are big differences in just about every way between a 6th grader and 12th grader. Use small groups—or if your group is already small (like mine is), ask people to pair up with someone around their age and ask a question from the front of the room that they can discuss.

Also, utilize keychain leadership. Equip older teenagers to lead discussions, or intentionally ask them to share their responses so that younger teenagers have someone to look up to. Invite them to influence (or even choose) the topics you're discussing. When older teenagers feel like they're shaping your ministry, they'll be more inclined to participate—even if you're intentionally inclusive of the needs of middle schoolers.

Zach: If your group has enough of each age, I'd recommend discussion groups that allow each to contextualize based on their own life stage. But sometimes there are too few of one age group for that to be possible. I like to include high school students in leading and facilitating discussion groups so that they’re not just receivers but see themselves as active disciple-makers. For topics where age and maturity are needed, we'll make plans ahead of time to split the groups, even if we only have a small number of high school or middle schoolers.

Tweet this: When you buy curriculum, how do you usually adapt it for your group? One way is to take a teaching script and turn it into discussion questions and activities that will engage young people. Here are others:

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Laura Atwater Holliday Image
Laura Atwater Holliday

Laura Atwater Holliday is currently serving as FYI’s apprentice while she pursues her MDiv at Fuller Theological Seminary. Originally from Bakersfield, Laura moved to Southern California to attend Azusa Pacific University, where she completed BAs in Biblical Studies and Youth Ministry. Laura is passionate about equipping teenagers and young adults in the journey of faith and caring for youth workers. She currently lives with her husband and their dog, Charlie, in Orange County.

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