How do you decide what to teach in your youth group setting? The task of teaching can be intimidating because the options are limitless. Teen issues? Contemporary concerns? "Justice" causes? Random book or topical studies from the Bible? How do you bring continuity and coherence to a year of youth group?
I've found my way into a life-giving and anxiety-eliminating approach. Do what the Church has done for centuries: walk through the year in the seasons of the Church calendar.
If you're not familiar with the Church's seasons, here is a quick introduction:
The 24 days leading up to Christmas Day.
Advent is a time of reflection and preparation. It's a time when we listen to the voice of John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord!" We spend these weeks getting ready for the fulfillment of the promises God made in the Old Testament in the coming of Jesus as Messiah. During Advent it is healthy to reflect on the state of our lives, the clutter we let in, and the noise that could be keeping out the voice in the wilderness calling us to repent. Deep blue and purple are used to speak of the darkness before the dawn. We lay in wait of the Sun, aching to see it rise, all the while readying ourselves to celebrate when it breaks in to light up the world.
Twelve days beginning on December 25 and ending on January 6.
After our long journey through Advent, it's time to celebrate. Christ is born! Emmanuel is here! God's promise of hope and joy to the world has come! Brilliant white chases away the darkness of Advent's blue and purple, and turns our penitence into joy. It's the great exhale of a heavy-laden world, now set into song because God has heard our cry and has rushed in to save us.
Epiphany (and "Ordinary Time" after Epiphany)
January 6 comes after the 12 days of Christmas, and "Ordinary Time" (or the numbered weeks following Epiphany) continues until the start of Lent. (Since Lent preceeds Easter, and Easter moves around each year because of its lunar schedule, Epiphany varies in length from year to year.)
Epiphany celebrates the revelation of Jesus in and to the world. This is the season of the Magi, of miracle stories, of transfiguration, of coming to know Jesus as Son of God and Saviour of the world. In our celebration of the life of Jesus in the gospels, this is the upswing —Jesus is stirring the water with his radical message about the Kingdom, and doing and saying the things that will lead him to the cross. He is in the world, and confronting the world.
The 50 days leading up to Easter Sunday.
Jesus' mission inevitably leads him to the cross. Having revealed himself to the world, Jesus turns his face to Jerusalem. Lent is our journey with Jesus as he takes on the mantle of the Suffering Servant, and gives his life as a ransom for many. This season plunges us into a time of deep penitence in the face of the sacrifice Jesus makes. Echoing John's call to prepare the way of the Lord, we now follow Jesus' call to "take up your cross and follow me." Lent's crescendo is the Holy Week that sorrowfully marches toward the blackness of Good Friday, while quietly anticipating the celebratory explosion of Easter morning.
Seven weeks beginning on Easter Sunday, ending on the day of Pentecost.
Χριστός ἀνέστη! Αληθῶς ἀνέστη! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! The universe has cracked open! The tomb is empty! Life himself has resurrected and the reign of death is ended! Easter is a time for victorious shouts and joyful cries and the great relief that comes at the end of a dark night. Salvation is won. Christ is alive. God has done what no one else could.
Pentecost (and "Ordinary Time" after Pentecost)
The Day of Pentecost comes 50 days after Easter Sunday. "Ordinary Time" (or the numbered weeks following the Day of Pentecost) continues for a long period until the the following Advent season (which is the beginning of the next Christian Year).
With the color red and images of the dove and fire, the Day of Pentecost celebrates the coming of the Spirit on the apostles. The long period after Pentecost is the "in the trenches" season, which explores Christ's continued work in the world through his Church.
The seasons of the Church calendar offer natural teaching boundaries, allowing you to say a hearty "yes" or "no" to this or that idea.
For example, in Advent you might focus on Old Testament stories that look forward for fulfillment — such as the Exodus, or stories of Israel in exile, looking always toward the coming of Jesus as the ultimate deliverance God sends.
Last year, in the first three weeks of Epiphany, our group studied stories from the gospels in which Jesus (or something about Jesus) was 'revealed' in some way. In the final three weeks of Epiphany, I invited three people from our parish to come and share how Jesus has been revealed in their lives. We ended our celebration of Epiphany with the young people themselves sharing their own stories.
In this way, teaching within the Church seasons has allowed us to coherently devote periods of time to specific things, and to invite young people to meet with Christ in a specific way.
Balance and rhythm
The strength of living and teaching within the Church seasons is that what you teach or do ultimately isn't up to you. The seasons themselves provide balance and rhythm throughout the year. If you work your way through the year of youth group topically, it's possible to spend too much time on one thing while neglecting something else. Following the Church seasons ensures that your year will wind through times of anticipatory reflection, penitence, celebration, and thanksgiving, without getting "stuck" anywhere. And what better way can there be to shape your year with your young people than to pattern your life together after Jesus' life?