Every year in late summer, the Center for the Ministry of Teaching (CMT) gets phone calls and emails from alumni, clergy, and lay formation leaders who are looking for the perfect curriculum for their children, youth, and adults. We welcome their questions, which give us a chance to make suggestions that are more informed than a Google search.
There is a common misconception, however, about the power of curriculum to solve problems and increase attendance. Many who are seeking our advice believe that there is a resource that is a perfect fit for their setting—if they can just get it ordered and put into place before the programming year begins in September.
Too often church leaders look at formation piece-meal, focusing on one age group at a time. They may have good reasons to target a specific group, but the lack of vision for making disciples through lifelong, life-wide, life-deep formation results in an erratic process that often leads to uncertainty and a lack of clarity.
Before we recommend curricula for specific age groups, we ask formation leaders to take a step back to look at the church as a whole, its strengths and weaknesses, its character or ethos, its beliefs and faith identity, among other factors. We ask those seeking advice to work with a group of people from their church to wrestle with questions like those found on the facing page.
People enter the church through baptism as an infant, young person, or adult. During a baptism the congregation agrees “to support these persons in their life in Christ.” (Book of Common Prayer, 303) Christian formation is how we make disciples and fulfill our covenant with those we baptized.
Formation needs to occur for all ages and stages of life. The basic messages we give to young children should follow them in deeper and more meaningful ways as they grow physically and spiritually. Adult formation is no less important as people experience different stages and phases of their lives.
The materials and resources we use in the formation process should be theologically consistent throughout their lives. They should engage both the hearts and minds of participants.
Knowing Who We Are
How would people in your community who do not go to your church describe it? I’ve gotten different answers to this over the years, from “the place on the hill at the end of Main Street” to “the place with the annual craft fair.” How would you answer this question about your church?
Most churches have a mission statement that has been approved by the vestry and may be printed in weekly bulletins. People in the congregation may know about it, but few can describe its content or how it guides decision making. It is, however, the best place to begin when defining the unique characteristics of a congregation.
These characteristics combine to form an ethos or general atmosphere in a church. Outreach and mission might be the identity of one congregation while hospitality to the immediate community might define another. What draws people to the church and keeps them coming?
Describing the theology of a church might be more challenging, but is central to finding resources that work for different age groups. Begin with a clear understanding of the congregation’s belief about the Bible. For example, is it without error? Does it reflect the culture of those who wrote it? Next look at the three persons of the Trinity and describe the beliefs of how each interacts with individuals and the world.
The United Church of Christ created an instrument called What Do You Believe? to help churches wrestle with basic issues about the Christian faith, formation in the context of faith, and the primary tasks of the church. Download Here.
The physical space available for formation and internet accessibility will also inform decisions about resources. Practical considerations about attendance patterns and accessibility for those with disabilities also come into play.
Leaders, Mentors and Teachers
Before selecting curricula for any age, take an inventory of the gifts of parishioners who will be teaching and leading different age groups. Resources should complement the gifts people offer, from music and art, to humor and spirituality.
If teachers have limited time for preparation, find a resource that will fit their schedule. Films, created for all age groups for storytelling, discussion starters, or basic information, help busy teachers in planning and executing weekly sessions. Those who have more time may prefer other formats.
Teacher training builds confidence of teachers and helps them understand their role in the overall formation paradigm. Training is essential for some curricula, especially those calling for mentorship, while other materials are more self-contained. Consider offering training online or as a hybrid program with both online and in-person options.
In defining curriculum on page 5, Elliott Eisner’s three kinds of curricula are described. Most of the questions in the sidebar list are part of the implicit curricula of our faith. The actual content of a resource and how it is presented are part of the explicit curricula.
We agree with Eisner that when we get caught up in the content of what we are teaching, we lose sight of the power of our implicit messages. The empathy of a caring teacher might send a stronger message about the Christian faith than even the most creative content. At the same time, the passing on of traditions and the scriptural foundation of our faith often come from explicit curricula.
Finding the Right Resource
After all the prep work is done, curriculum decisions are much easier. Begin by downloading lists of curricula by age group compiled by Sharon Ely Pearson and located on the Building Faith website under the curriculum button.
Then make a call or send an email to Lifelong Learning, which has curated a variety of curricula for all ages. Lifelong Learning is in the midst of compiling its findings in a spreadsheet that will be available on the Lifelong Learning: Christian Formation and Discipleship.
Now go make disciples!
Who Are We?
Before looking at curriculum, explore answers to these questions:
- Does your church have a mission statement? What is it? Is it relevant to formation?
- What characteristics describe the ethos or character of your church? What spiritual and sacramental aspects are important to your identity?
- Describe the theology of the congregation: How do people view the Bible? How do they see the person of Jesus Christ?
- Is formation important for all ages? For which age groups do you currently provide programming?
- What percent of the budget is allocated to formation? What priority do formation programs have in your church?
- Are the clergy and vestry familiar with curricula that are being used on Sunday mornings and other times for all ages?
- Does your church select curriculum for different age groups by looking at formation as a whole, or are these decisions made for only one age group at a time?
- What does your congregation look like in terms of:
- What are attendance patterns? Do parishioners come on Sunday mornings once or twice a month? Are they likely to come at other times?
- What are your technology capabilities: wi-fi internet, DVD players, projectors, etc.?
- What are the unique gifts offered by teachers and other volunteers, such as musical and artistic talents?
- Are volunteers willing to attend training?
- How much time are volunteers willing to spend each week in preparing lessons and activities?
- What overall time commitment is asked of teachers?
- How important is passing on Episcopal traditions through structured formation?
- Do you offer intergenerational formation each Sunday or at special times during the year?
- Would hybrid programming that combines in-person and online options work in your congregation?
- Do you prefer curriculum that is lectionary-based (tied to scripture lessons each Sunday) or one with a broader, thematic approach?
This article first appeared in Episcopal Teacher:
Fall 2016, Vol. 29, No. 1, page 6-7