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Set the right course this year!

Set the right course this year!

How did we get here?

In my early twenties I got introduced to caving or for those of you reading in Central Pa, “spelunking”. After the first trip, I was hooked.  Not long after catching the fever a friend and I traveled to State College, PA to take on a partially mapped cave known as J4.  It was a spontaneous trip, so with very little planning we grabbed our climbing ropes, gear, wrinkled map and headed off.

The opening to the cave was an old twelve foot drain pipe which was approximately 24 inches in diameter.  Can I say claustrophobia?  With hands over our heads we crawled through the old drain pipe and emerged on the other side in an amazing complex of caverns.  For two hours we climbed, crawled and shimmied throughout the cave.  Deep into the cave system, we arrived at the end of our map and faced the dilemma to either press on into the great unknown or return back the way we came.

Well, I don’t have to tell you what we chose.

After tying our repelling ropes off we descended into the uncharted sections of J4.  We were like adventurers of old, pushing headlong into the darkness.  For a few hours we climbed and crawled “where no man or woman had gone before.”  Knowing that our headlamp batteries were about half depleted we decided to turn back.  We retraced our route back to where we thought our repelling ropes were waiting. An hour later, however, we found ourselves standing in the same spot.  We had just made a large circle!  Our hearts sank as it became obvious that we were lost.

We were boneheads.  You heard me right.  We had no plan. We didn’t tell people where we were going. We had no way of communicating with those outside and no backup plans in case of emergency.  We were bound to get lost.

Our situation and choices in J4 remind me of how those of us in youth ministry sometimes approach our weekly teaching in the same way. Rushing excitedly into the unknown with no overarching plan, no communication given as to where we’re heading and no back-up plan for the weeks when things don’t go the way we expect.

If I had a quarter for every time I heard a youth pastor say, “I need to figure out what I am going to speak on tonight” I would be a rich man!

5 tips to setting a clear course for your teaching

1. Ask a few questions.

What do we want to accomplish through our teaching?  At the end of the year, what character traits would we want to see developed in our students?  What formative practices or skill sets would we want our students to experience?  What cultural and family heritage barriers will we face throughout the year?

2. Create a yearlong teaching plan.

Take a calendar and begin to map out the year.  Mark down every day you will need to speak for the next year.  A well thought through teaching plan provides the opportunity to align guest speakers well in advance.  This can play to other communicator’s strengths as well as give you needed downtime from having to speak every week.  This plan can also be given to parents in late August or early September setting a course for their teenager’s development through the school year.

3. Think critically about the rhythms of the year.

I once was at a church for a five week series during the Easter season.  Not once in those five weeks did I hear mention of Lent or Easter.  The liturgical calendar, school calendars, cultural happenings and seasons should not be overlooked in our planning for the year.  Each plays directly into what is important and on the minds of students.

4. Have flexibility within your overall plan.

Don’t miss formative moments.  I had a close friend of one of our students die in our student ministry.  At the time I was doing a message series in the Old Testament.  Good series, but had no connection to what our students were processing.  We decided to not plow ahead, but rather pause and switch what we were doing.  We took the next four weeks to speak about grief and loss, while at the same time providing space for our students to process and be present.  We re-engaged the series in the Old Testament once our students were cared for sufficiently.

5. Plan four to six week-long series into your calendar.

During my college years I attended a church where the pastor decided to do a series on Nehemiah.  Three and a half years later when I was graduating from college, he was still in Nehemiah.  I remember joking with a friend of mine at the time saying, “We’re still building the wall.”  The point being every week should not be an individual stand-alone message, however an over extended series may also begin to diminish interest among your students.  Rotating series from books of the Bible to topical studies is often helpful as well.

Back on Course

Back to the cave and J4.  After twelve hours of chalking walls, marking routes, using candles and conserving batteries we managed to find our way out. Exhausted and worn out, we crawled back through the drain pipe and emerged into the fresh air of the surface. It’s humbling to see how much the spiritual formation of our students is linked to the content and direction of our messages. When we neglect the planning and preparation work, too often, our students wind up being the ones left in the dark.

How about you? What tips have you found helpful as you plan out your ministry year?
Rick Rhoads
Professor of Student Min at Lancaster Bible College
Rick is the Director of the Student Ministry Majors at Lancaster Bible College. He has served as an Assistant Professor in Student Ministry at LBC for the past 7 years. Over the past 18 years, he has served in various Student Ministry roles at Lebanon Valley YFC, LCBC, Calvary Bible Church, and Riverbend Community Church. Rick, his wife Naomi, and their two children Grace and Eli live East Petersburg, PA.