Who determines what you teach?

Jen Bradbury
Sep 19 · 5 min read

A few weeks ago, in his blog, "Who Determines What Your Ministry Looks Like?", Kurt Johnston posted this quote by Steve Jobs, the recently retired CEO of Apple:

“It isn’t the job of the consumer to determine what they want.”

That quote was still rattling around my brain when I found myself in an interesting conversation with another youth worker a few days later. This youth worker expressed her frustration over the fact that when she allows her students to choose what topics her youth ministry explores, inevitably, they talk about only three things: Sex, Drugs, and Alcohol. As a result, she's concluded that she can't entrust her students with this responsibility.

No doubt, this youth worker would agree with Jobs: “It isn’t the job of the consumer (in this case, our students) to determine what they want.”

Instead, I think this youth worker would argue that it's our job, as youth workers, to determine what students want and need to know (and when the appropriate time to teach it is.)

That is, after all, why they pay us the big bucks in church work. Right?

I think not.

Jobs' mantra may work just fine for businesses, but I'm unconvinced it's transferable to churches. After all, shouldn't we, as churches, be cultivating something other than consumerism in our students? And if so, then as youth workers, don't we need to do something other than just teach youth to come to our ministries and consume whatever it is we're feeding them? 

Wrestling with these questions over the past several years has led to a radical shift in how I do ministry. It wasn't that long ago when I, too, wouldn't allow my students to choose what we talked about because I believed that they didn't know enough to know what they didn't know, let alone what we should be talking about. Instead, I developed a comprehensive teaching calendar filled with key Bible stories and theological ideas that I believed were critical to my student's faith formation. The result? A teaching schedule that I cared deeply about, but that my kids cared nothing about.

Oh sure. They sometimes found what we were talking about interesting. On rare occasions, they even learned something that did, in fact, help them grow in their faith. But my students weren't invested in our teaching calendar and they certainly didn't own it because unfortunately, it rarely connected with the things that were truly impacting them.

This changed for me about three years ago, when conflict with some of the oldest students in what was then, a new youth ministry position for me, caused me to step back and reevaluate what I was doing. Before long, I realized that what I had mistaken for spiritual apathy in my kids was, in actuality, a disconnect between what I was teaching and what they were interested in. This caused me to actually ask my kids, "What do you want to talk about?"

And indeed, their first response was sex, drugs, alcohol, and world religions.

So I braced myself, and one by one, we started tackling those topics.

But I did so in a way that intentionally created additional questions. We looked at Scripture passages that were confusing and hard to understand. We explored seemingly contradictory teachings in the Bible. We read things by people with whom we disagreed.

The result? My students learned about the topics they cared about... But as they did, they started to realize how much they didn't know. This realization left them wanting to learn more - not just about sex, drugs, alcohol, and world religions, but about a whole bunch of other topics, too.  Those topics showed up on our list the second time I asked my students, "What do you want to talk about?", something that resulted in a much different list of topics, and I would argue, a much more theologically important list than the first one we produced when I asked students this same question. Slowly but surely, we got to the topics that would have made my teaching calendar anyway. Only now, when we did, students owned those topics and were interested in them. They wanted and needed to talk about them. As a result, they listened and participated in those conversations in a way they wouldn't have before; In a way that's impacted their faith much more profoundly than had I explored these same topics before my students were ready to engage with them.

Since then, asking students "What do you want to talk about?" has evolved into an elaborate brainstorming session that I do each fall with my student leaders. The results always surprise me, as they include random topics like faith and Facebook, faith and Harry Potter, refugees, world issues, and sex. But surprisingly, my students also always include Bible stories on this list that they want to learn more about, as well as theological concepts that they don't understand - things like the Holy Spirit, hearing God, and discerning God's will.

What I've found is that the topic list that results from this yearly brainstorming session is thorough; Engaging - for both my students and I; And far more diverse than any teaching calendar I've ever created sitting in my office, alone.

So while Jobs may have had it right for Apple, he doesn't have it right for the church.

In the church, it is most certainly the job of the consumer (in the case of youth ministry, our students) to tell us what they want. It's our job, as youth workers, to listen and respond in order to meet their real needs. But it's also our job to do so in a way that creates a knowledge gap that helps ensure that students don't just get stuck wanting to learn about one thing.

Some may say the difference between what I just said and Jobs' “It isn’t the job of the consumer to determine what they want” is only semantics.

But let me assure you, it's not. It's a profound difference that influences not just what we teach, but how we teach.