“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.”
Matching Resources to Church Identity
Every year the Department of Lifelong Learning 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.
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 at the bottom of this page.
Knowing Who You 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 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. This mission statement, however, is the best place to begin when defining the unique characteristics of a congregation. For example, 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 this is central to finding resources that work for different age groups. Begin with a clear understanding of the congregation’s beliefs about the Bible. 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.
Practical Issues: Space, People, and more
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.
What about 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 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.
Don’t Forget the Implicit Curriculum
Most of the questions in the list below 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. 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 exploring the lists of curricula by age group located on Building Faith’s Choosing Curriculum page. Then, consider contacting the Department of Lifelong Learning. Now go make disciples!
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Worksheet: Questions to Ask Before Choosing a Curriculum
The text below addresses the issues described in the article above. You can use these questions as a worksheet for planning, workshopping, or sharing with other church staff and clergy.
- 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 leaders 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: • Size, • Ages
- 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 denominational 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?
A version of this article was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Episcopal Teacher.