This article by Jack Cunningham was published in the June, 1997 edition of The Sunday School Leader magazine. Copyright 1997 by the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Principles of Effective Church Curriculum
Curriculum is often discussed but seldom understood. Each semester I ask students to define curriculum. The normal response is "Life and Work" or another line of materials published to help accomplish Christian education or ministry.
Defining support materials as curriculum can lead a church into two errors. The first is believing that curriculum is bought, not designed. The second results in believing that high-quality materials naturally lead to effective learning.
Curriculum can be defined as "the course of learning activities designed to accomplish well-defined goals." Efficient Christian curriculum requires intentional purpose, specific tasks, workable strategies, valid content, and honest assessment.
Effective curriculum begins with purpose. Using Gene Mims' kingdom principles as a model, the purpose is to be a Great Commission church. The next step toward a functioning curriculum is to identify the tasks which define such a church. Mims defines five tasks of a Great Commission church-evangelism, discipleship, ministry, fellowship, and worship. A Great Commission church will successfully engage in all five.
Most congregations will agree with Mims about the purpose and tasks of their church. But the number of plateaued or declining churches in our Convention is evidence of a missing link. We must keep our vision and mission vibrant. Understanding the purpose and tasks of our church becomes moot if we are not passionate about pursuing that purpose.
Strategies must be designed to enable the church to complete the tasks. Southern Baptists have assigned program organizations the responsibility of completing educational and ministry tasks.
This approach works well when organizations are given equal attention, If balance is not maintained, certain tasks are accomplished to the detriment or even exclusion of others. Good curriculum strategy is evident when all tasks are being considered, coordinated, and accomplished evenly. For example, a church that makes Sunday School its primary educational organization must ensure that all tasks describing the church's purpose are adequately represented.
Curriculum content consists of three elements--explicit content, implicit content, and null content. Explicit content is intentional. Educational materials, stated programs of study, structured worship, or publicly announced ministries are examples of explicit content.
Implicit (or hidden) content, although not obvious, also affects the outcome of the experience. Examples are individual teaching and learning styles, learning contexts, program or classroom management/administration, and times and places of scheduled events.
Null content is that which should be included in the curriculum design but is not. Offering opportunities for members to engage in corporate worship while ignoring the need to equip families for home worship is an example of null content.
No curriculum is complete without an aggressive plan for assessing results. Returning to Mims' model, we note that the intended outcomes are numerical growth, spiritual growth, ministries expansion, and missions advance.
At this point many churches fail in their pursuit of good curriculum. Assessment must be objective (based on defined goals and outcomes), critical (the tough why and why not questions), and routine (not just during long-range planning).
Attaining good curriculum for your church is not easy. It is not available from a publishing house or a seminary. Good curriculum is the product of a local congregation's fervor to meet the spiritual needs of its community and of the skilled leadership of staff in designing the course.
Jack Cunningham is Frost Professor of Christian education, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Louisville, Kentucky