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The Leader’s Guide to Choosing Curriculum That Actually Engages Students

This blog is about the importance of choosing a youth ministry curriculum that effectively engages middle school and high school students who have numerous distractions and demands on their attention. It stresses the significance of theological soundness and developmental appropriateness in curriculum selection. The curriculum discussed, XP3 Middle and High School Ministry Curriculum, is presented as a comprehensive solution that not only aligns with theological principles but also caters to the unique developmental needs of students while offering support for leaders and parents to foster a holistic learning experience.

It’s no secret that middle school and high school students have a million different things vying for their attention–extra-curriculars, grades, friends, frenemies, and social media, to name a few. 

Not only does this affect how often students come to our programming, but it also means that they probably won’t keep coming back if our programming isn’t engaging. 

Now, this doesn’t mean that we are advocating for finding the next ‘flash in the pan’ trend to grab their attention, but it does mean that if students don’t feel like coming to church is positively impacting their lives and answering the questions they are asking, they will most likely find somewhere else to be. 

That’s why when it comes to choosing a curriculum for youth ministry, one of the most important questions you can ask is, 

“Will this actually engage the students in your ministry?” 

Obviously, there are other things to think about, like theology, price, assets, customizability, integration with technology, and ease of use, but if our students aren’t engaged, most likely, their faith will not be transformed. 

If you are reading this, you’ve probably already arrived at two big ideas. 

  • You know that when it comes to what you teach teenagers every week, you need a strategy. 

That’s one reason you need curriculum for your youth ministry. You know you have a limited amount of time every year to influence a student’s faith, so you have to be intentional about WHAT you teach. If you’re not thoughtful about your yearly strategy, you could end up missing the most important things. 

To say it another way, you are intentional about making sure your messaging strategy is theologically sound. The choices about what you teach, and don’t teach in a year is a theological decision. Winging it every week, or piecing together a strategy can lead to an incomplete theological foundation if not evaluated through the lens of your annual messaging strategy.

Then, there’s the second big idea.

  1. You know that it matters not just what content you teach, but how you teach it. 

You could have the best scope and sequence (or as we call it, scope & cycle), but if your weekly content fails to communicate in a way a student can understand and apply, it won’t be an effective strategy or curriculum. 

You understand that your message doesn’t just need to be theologically sound but also engaging. Students can’t learn from a message they aren’t paying attention to or don’t understand.

To say it another way, in order for your messaging strategy to be effective, it needs to be developmentally appropriate. 

So, how do you choose a curriculum that is both theologically sound and developmentally appropriate

Well, we think it’s possible to have both. It’s the reason we created XP3 Middle and High School Ministry Curriculum. Curriculum can help you not just create a better strategy for your entire ministry, but give you the tools you need to engage more parents, students, and families in your community. You can even try it for free to see if it works for you! 

Choosing A Theologically Sound Curriculum

Let’s talk theology for a second. We know what you teach a kid about God will impact the rest of their lives, their future families, and the future of the Church. So, we take what they believe and why they believe it very seriously.

But the Bible is a big book, and they won’t remember (or understand) all of it.

So, it’s important to prioritize and repeat what matters most so that the truth of WHO God is and WHAT God has done for them will be cemented in their hearts long after they leave our programs. 

If you’re like us — you want your students to leave your ministry knowing everything. But, very quickly, you’ve come to realize how impossible that is — and why it’s so important to refine the message

So how do we decide what’s most important? Thankfully Jesus told us. 

Jesus said “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:34-40 NIV). 

Simply put, Orange’s middle school and high school ministry curriculum is centered around making what Jesus said matters most, matter most. This curriculum begins with the great commandment which can be broken down into three primary relationships. 

Love God
Love Others
Love Life

The truth is, a student’s relationship with God, others, and themselves is life-changing—but only if they understand those relationships in a biblical context. So, in addition to the big three relationships, there are some core theological insights we want to make sure a student doesn’t miss. We call these the three basic truths, and every lesson, story, and topic re-enforces one of these truths. 

We want middle schoolers to believe:

I will follow Jesus because he knows me better than I know myself.
I will love God because God never stops loving me.
I will live my faith so others can know who Jesus is.

We want high schoolers to believe:

I’m created to pursue relationship with my creator.
I trust what Jesus did the transform the person I need to become.
I live to demonstrate God’s love to those around me.

We want to make sure teenagers don’t just believe the right things, but these truths begin to transform their lives and become the foundation of an everyday faith. That’s why these teachings are at the center of our curriculum. Not only that, but our curriculum goes through many theological edit rounds by leaders from different seminaries and denominations to make sure we are explaining these truths and everything we teach in a theologically appropriate way. 

So, as you evaluate your curriculum choices — ask how it prioritizes what’s most important

https://orangeleaders.com/2022/03/09/how-to-prioritize-what-to-teach-kids-and-teenagers-at-your-church/

Choosing A Developmentally Appropriate Curriculum

You know this. 

A sixth grader is not the same as a twelfth grader. A sixth grader is not even the same as an eighth grader, and a ninth-grade student is vastly different from a senior. 

There’s a reason the three basic truths we just presented look different for middle school students and high school students. 

On the other hand, while many of the topics we teach middle school students and high school students may be the same, how we talk about them will be vastly different. For instance, what a middle schooler needs to know about making wise decisions when it comes to dating will be different than what a high schooler needs to know. What we teach and how we teach middle schoolers and high schoolers has to be different. 

That’s why it’s so important to find a curriculum that isn’t just theologically sound but is also developmentally appropriate.

So, when it comes to developmentally appropriate curriculum, there are a few things important to remember:

There is a BIG difference between a middle schooler and a high schooler. 

Okay, this is obvious, but sometimes it’s easy to forget this when it comes to programming. It can be easy to expect the sixth grader to laugh at the sarcastic joke that upperclassmen love. We are surprised when middle schoolers don’t understand or engage in the abstract angsty worship music that the high schoolers think is great or we struggle to get the too cool senior guys to jump around. We forget that the seventh graders are self-conscious and don’t want to be volunteers for up-front games and get annoyed when seniors are again too cool to engage with the group. 

While, of course, all of these examples matter, it is even more important to understand how middle school and high school students think, learn, and process their world if we want them to not just be engaged but actually understand the content we teach. 

Middle schoolers think like engineers. They solve problems by connecting concepts, so they work together. They also personalize abstract concepts by connecting ideas. That’s why puzzles, patterns, and codes can be helpful for learning in this stage. When it comes to big ideas, we should try to break them down instead of watering them down. 

High schoolers think like philosophers and seek to understand what is unseen and cannot be measured. They want to discover meaning and learn best through processing out loud. That’s why we should encourage open debate, multiple perspectives and applied reasoning in our activities and discussions. 

So — how can your curriculum and what you teach leverage these insights so that each age can understand and retain the timeless truth you unpack each week? 

Students change each year. 

As part of the Phase Research Project, Orange underscores how kids and teenagers change each year. Every year,  there are some unique developmental opportunities that you’ve never had before, and you may never get again. And your content should reflect that. 

Everything should be connected to where a student is developmentally. 

Finally, being developmentally sound means everything that happens in our programming—not just the teaching—is connected to where a student is developmentally. It impacts how we . . .

  • play games
  • worship
  • engage and plan small group conversations
  • design the look and feel of the room
  • the music playing in the background.

 

The curriculum and strategy you choose should bring a holistic understanding of each age group, not just sprinkle in ideas. 

At Orange, our developmental science is in our DNA. With our understanding of Phase, everything Orange provides sets the message up to be heard loud and clear in the life of a preschooler and kid. 

Since the beginning, we’ve partnered not only with biblical scholars but also with teachers, counselors and psychologists, parents, and other youth workers to understand how to communicate God’s truth in a way that reaches them exactly where they are developmentally. And, in 2014 we launched the Phase Research Project to dive deeper into how adolescent brains work and how we can help them understand God’s truth. 

So, how does Phase show up in XP3 Middle School Curriculum and XP3 High School Curriculum? Everything is created with Phase in mind, but it all comes down to our teaching strategy and curriculum structure. 

Choosing A Teaching Strategy (Scope & Cycle) 

When it comes to designing a teaching strategy for students—the cornerstone of your strategy comes down to a scope and cycle. 

As you evaluate, compare the plan (scope & cycle) that each curriculum presents. 

This goes back to the big idea of choosing what you will and won’t teach and choosing it a year (or “years” with Orange) ahead of the week you are teaching. When you plan ahead, not only does your life and workload transform, but you’ll get more strategic with how you engage the students in your ministry. 

So what’s a scope and cycle? Here’s our quick description. 

Scope: A comprehensive plan that prioritizes what you teach.

Cycle: Your plan to recycle and reinforce what you teach so it’s effective. 

You may have instead heard the phrase “scope and sequence.” Some educators use the term sequence instead of cycle, but sequential learning is more effective when teaching concepts that build on each other in a linear fashion

For instance, when learning math, you learn to count, then you learn addition, then multiplication, pre-algebra, then quantum physics. But thinking in terms of sequential learning can be misleading when it comes to faith development. That’s because we don’t learn everything we need to know the first time. At the same time, we often discover something new in a passage of scripture we’ve heard or read a hundred times before.

When you think in terms of cyclical learning, you recognize core truths will have a fresh meaning with every new phase of a kid’s and teenager’s life. 

So your scope prioritizes what you will teach, and your cycle strategically reinforces those principles again and again in a variety of creative ways. The cycle in your scope and cycle is really important because you can’t make teenagers show up more consistently, and you can’t make more hours in the week, but you can make the time you have matter more by recycling and reinforcing the things that matter most in each phase. 

Both XP3 High School, and XP3 Middle School work on a 3-year Scope & Cycle so you can plan for the year ahead and understand (and communicate to leaders and parents) how what you teach this year connects with what you are teaching in the years ahead.  

For a practical example, download Orange’s scope and cycle here

Choosing The Right Curriculum Structure 

Finally, we arrive to how the curriculum is structured. Will it fit your unique context? Is it thoughtfully organized, missing the essentials of what you need? 

Every youth ministry looks different, but nearly all successful youth programs have seven key segments to their weekly ministry. 

For some, this might seem like overkill and way too much. To be fair, you may not leverage every segment every week, and you should contextualize each segment for your unique context. But when you shift how you think about curriculum from just messages and content to a complete strategy for your ministry—you’ll see why. A good curriculum and strategy can help you not just be intentional about what happens on stages and in circles, but actually help you create environments teenagers love to be in, partner with parents, and engage students every day of the week.

As you evaluate, determine how a curriculum can help you in each of these seven areas. 

The Seven Segments of a Weekly Experience

Prelude – setting the tone for the experience

There are two things middle school and high school students have in common: They have a million different things and activities vying for their attention. They also care a lot about being liked and being in spaces where they are liked. That means that if students don’t like being in our environment, they will often find somewhere else to be, and the way we create an environment they enjoy being in is by creating welcoming spaces that communicate that we like them. 

That’s why in both XP3 Middle School and XP3 High School Ministry Curriculum you will find ideas for decorations and set design in your Ministry Leader Guide, plus a background music playlist available on Spotify for your environment.  

Social – providing time for fun interaction

Fun breaks down walls and makes relationships go deeper. Fun over time creates connection. So, we take fun really seriously. That’s why we provide game ideas in both student curriculums. However, the types of games we provide will look different. Since middle schoolers often feel awkward and insecure, we tend to provide more group games in XP3 Middle School Curriculum. In XP3 High School Curriculum, we tend to provide more up-front games. 

Worship – inviting people to respond to God.

In student ministry environments, this often looks like worship through music. Because abstract songs can be difficult for middle schoolers and high schoolers to understand, we provide developmentally appropriate song suggestions in the premium package for both XP3 MS and XP3 HS. We also provide a script because nothing can cause students to disengage like a worship leader who decides to give an unrelated sermon. 

Transition – the art of moving smoothly from one segment to another. 

Transitions are a big deal when it comes to engaging students. That’s because if a transition is awkward and lose a student’s attention, it can be hard to get it back. 

That’s why in the XP3 Middle School and XP3 High School Premiun Packages, we provide a bumper video that acts like a movie trailer for what’s coming up in the series. These videos not only capture the attention of students while the communicator is transitioning to the front, but also sets up the concept of the series and causes them to lean into the topic. 

Story – communicating God’s truth in engaging ways.

This is your teaching time, and every week of teaching is built from the very beginning with middle school and high school students in mind. Each curriculum is created by a team of people who like students and know what questions they are asking, how their brains works, and what they need to know right now for their everyday faith. 

XP3 Middle School and XP3 High School provide:  

  • A Communicator Guide with both a script and outline so you can prep with whichever way is most helpful. 
  • A clear, memorable bottom-line statement
  • Interactives
  • Teaching slides (Premium Package)

Plus, you can purchase a media package to get access to:

  • Teaching videos 
  • Interactive videos
  • Additional media

Groups – creating a safe place to connect.

We think that one of the best things we can do for teenagers is give them a consistent adult who believes in God and cares about them. In the middle school phase, everything is changing so they need a consistent adult because nothing else is consistent. In the high school phase, they need a consistent adult because they only trust people who show up consistently.  Groups are a safe place where students can process the message, ask questions, and discover how the message is applied to their everyday faith. 

Both XP3 Middle School and XP3 High School provide:  

  • A small group guide with leader training each week
  • A Small Group Leader email to prep them for the week
  • An app for volunteers to make connecting even easier

How XP3 Middle School and XP3 High School are different: 

  • Both curriculums provide a variety of questions, but in XP3 HS there will be more questions geared towards sparking debate because that’s how high schoolers learn best. On the other hand, XP3 MS won’t include stacked questions, so questions are easier for students to understand. 
  • XP3 HS includes one Experience Piece (XP) per series while XP3 MS includes at least one per week because middle school students learn best through hands-on experiences. 

If you have more than one group experience a week such as Sunday School or a student leadership team, we also provide Faith Skills Experience Kits that align with what you are teaching in programming and guide students to practice the faith skills–hear, pray, talk, and live.

To learn more about what small group leaders are and how Orange Curriculum empowers you to train small group leaders check out:

Home – prompting action beyond the experience

 We believe what happens at home is more important than what happens at church. In fact, partnering with parents is actually core to Orange Curriculum and strategy. That’s why XP3 Middle School and XP3 High School provide you with resources to empower parents to continue faith conversations at home. We want to make engaging parents easier, because it’s one of the most important things you can do!

We provide: 

  • Parent Cues that help parents continue the faith conversations at home

 

  • Parent Cue App that provides resources for parent

 

  • Parent Cue App that provides resources for parent

 

To learn more about partnering with parents, check out: 

For middle school and high school students, the home segment is unique because at this phase students can begin to own their own faith and we have the opportunity to connect with them throughout the week by leveraging technology. 

That’s why XP3 Middle School and XP3 High School provide: 

  • Social media images to engage students throughout the week.
  • Social media guides (premium package) to make managing social media accounts even easier.
  • Daily devotionals available on the YouVersion Bible app that go with each series

To learn more about how to learn more about how to help students grow in their faith outside of programming check out: 

 

Finding Support Every Step of The Way

No matter what curriculum you choose, you will have to contextualize it for your context if you want to engage students. What works in one environment may not work in another. That’s why we provide you with an Orange Specialist that can help you innovate your student ministry strategy and implement Orange Curriculum in a way that works best for you. 

An Orange Specialist is a youth ministry veteran who works with student pastors around the country (and world) to discover best practices. The Orange Specialist isn’t there to sell or do account management (they have a partner support team for that!), but they are there specifically to help you think through your church context and create a strategic plan for ministry this year. 

Best of all . . . there is no additional cost. The Orange Specialist is part of our curriculum.

So, what’s the best curriculum for engaging students? 

How do you choose a curriculum that actually engages students? 

We think you choose a curriculum that is both developmentally sound and theologically appropriate because what you teach matters, and how you teach it matters. 

We design our middle school and high school curriculum to empower you with everything you need to create an engaging environment where students can grow in their faith. To discover how, try it completely free. You’ll get instant access, and access to a curriculum guide to help you understand how it fits into your ministry.

But, there are a lot of amazing curriculums out there. And we believe so much in the big ideas presented here, that we

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