You're breathing fast as you speed-walk down the hallway, papers in one hand, and a can of soda in the other. The copies are still warm as you enter a room full of people. You offer superficial greetings and head nods as you head to the front of the room, but your in your mind, you're wishing you were more prepared. "It'll be fine," you reassure yourself. "This isn't the first time you're wingin' it." As you take your usual place, the room settles down and a dozen set of eyes turn to you expectantly. "Good evening," you address the crowd. "Welcome to youth group."

Perhaps you've been on the receiving end of a poorly planned lesson. It's always obvious. The presenter has a panicked look in their eye as they try to cover up the fact that the first time they looked at the lesson was five minutes ago. They speak with a slight hesitancy because they're not sure what they're supposed to say next. Around the halfway point, they finally get a grasp of the lesson they're supposed to be teaching, and if you're really lucky, you might actually learn something.

I know all of this because on a handful of occasions I've been that teacher. Never intentionally, of course. In fact, lesson planning was always on the top of my list at the beginning of the week. But Monday was my day off. And Tuesday was the church staff meeting. And Wednesday was free, but I still had that stack of receipts from the retreat to write invoices for. Thursday was Taco day. Friday would have been perfect, but I just forgot. Suddenly, as I'm sitting in the pew on Sunday morning, I realize that I didn't prepare for youth group that night. "It's okay," I tell myself. "I've got a curriculum in my office that's super easy. Just print and read. I won't even have to skip my Sunday afternoon nap."

I know I'm not the only youth worker who's been in that scenario, and when it happens, we're tempted to tell ourselves a sneaky little lie. "It's not me doing the teaching; the Holy Spirit does that. I'm simply the messenger, so it doesn't matter if I'm prepared or not." It's sneaky because it's partially true. God is intensely invested in the work of youth leaders and teachers and the Holy Spirit is involved in our preparation and presentation (as long as we're inviting him!).

But -- and this is a big but -- "The Holy Spirit does not exist to save the butts of lazy youth workers" (Thanks to Dan Lambert for this huge kick in the pants from his book Teaching That Makes a Difference). Our poorly planned lesson will not have the same impact as one that we put our thought and effort and prayer into.

Unfortunately, a lot of curriculum being produced these days seems to be geared towards our grab-and-go mentality. I doubt this is the publisher's intent, but when a lesson tells me exactly what to say, I'm much less likely to prepare well.

We shouldn't feel hopeless, however. I believe there are a few options that can help youth leaders improve their experience using curriculum.

Find a new curriculum. There's nothing wrong with shopping around. I've dealt with a fair share of curriculums and some are definitely way better than others. Many curriculum websites offer free sample lessons so you can see what you're getting before you shell out a ton of your most likely limited youth budget. Make sure you're investing in a curriculum that offers a solid framework, but gives you plenty of freedom to adapt. I've always enjoyed teaching lessons that are nothing more than a one page outline because it forces you to add your own thoughts before being taught.

Use our existing curriculum better. Perhaps you're in a situation where you're not able to choose your own curriculum. A lot of denominations have a prescribed curriculum for students of all ages and you might not be allowed to shop around. This can be particularly difficult if you get stuck with a bad curriculum, but it is not without a solution. We are meant to take the material and read over it and prepare it and adapt it to our specific setting long before we actually teach it to teens. This means occasionally straying from the script. With proper preparation, you can discover the main point of a curriculum (even a bad one) and insert your own illustrations and activities if the included ones don't seem to fit. I've often encountered curriculums that include good basic ideas but I immediately knew that they wouldn't fit the group I was teaching too.  Feel free to adapt activities and illustrations to your group's make-up. A little bit of effort will exponentially improve your students learning experience.

Write our own curriculum. This is obviously the hardest option, but it does have a lot of benefits as well. It's cheaper. It's fully customizable to your context, because you know the issues your youth are facing better than anybody. You can even collect student input to guide what topics you will teach. Some of my favorite teaching moments have occurred when a question is posed that is outside the realm of the curriculum being used. Those Spirit-led moments often lead to a much greater impact. Writing your own curriculum allows and anticipates those moments. Additionally, you the teacher will feel more passionate about your subject because you will be personally invested in the material. It's hard work, but it will pay off in the end.

All three of those options include a lot of hard work. They involve getting rid of our "grab-and-go" mentality.  They involve improving our time management skills. But the end result will be a more passionate and personal teaching and learning experience, which is something our students deserve.