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Spring 1993 · Vol. 22 No. 1 · pp. 3–9 

The Curriculum of the Congregation

Bob Rempel

Christian education is a vital component of local church ministry. Doubters should examine the evidence:

  • church budget lines for youth ministry
  • stacks of curriculum materials
  • a hefty staff of teachers, superintendents, and volunteers
  • Christian education committees and programs

Why this devotion to Christian education? What are the intended results? Recent interviews conducted as part of dissertation research ask church members to describe what they understood the results of adult education in the church to be. The research was conducted in an effort to describe effective adult education in the church (Rempel, 1992). Educational leaders and other participants indicated that education should result in actions which reflect Christian growth and maturity. While increased knowledge was considered important, actions were described as the true indicator of whether education had occurred. Respondents understood worship, relationships, conversation, and service as well as Sunday school and Bible study groups to provide educational experiences. Much of congregational life was described as containing an educational component. {4}

Church leaders are guides, shapers of curriculum.

If much of congregational life has an educational component, what should be the curriculum of the congregation? Curriculum is often narrowly understood as printed materials of various kinds. Defined more broadly, curriculum refers to a plan whereby individual experiences are directed in order to meet certain objectives. The curriculum of the congregation then moves beyond the print form to include intentions, plans, and strategies of church leaders. In her book Fashion Me a People, Maria Harris divides the curriculum of the congregation into five categories which are described in New Testament Greek terms: didache (instruction), koinonia (socialization), leiturgia (worship), kerygma (proclamation), and diakonia (service) (Harris, 1989). Harris makes the case that church leaders must pay attention to all aspects of the “curriculum” in order to maximize individual educational experiences. The following sections will briefly examine each of Harris’ curricular components and suggest strategies for practice.


Through instruction the teacher attempts to transmit knowledge and understanding. Instruction should not be confused with schooling. Instruction refers to deliberate means whereby the faith community teaches the truth as contained in Scripture, and the skills necessary to translate that truth into daily living. The objective should be to create inner transformation which results in a changing lifestyle (Pazmino, 1988).

The guiding force of instruction must be doctrine. Doctrine need not be exclusively defined as the systematic presentation of cognitive content. Rather, doctrine is the broad Biblical teaching which provides the foundation upon which lifestyle patterns are built. Doctrinal principles should be connected to lifestyle outcomes.

Research interviews with church educational leaders revealed that few doctrinal guidelines shaped the adult teaching agenda. Each class or teacher was free to choose the material felt to be appropriate. Classes seemed particularly concerned with relevance, application, and the practical results of learning. Emphasizing the doctrinal provides the substance from which application arises. What does the church believe to be essential to the Christian life? What is it about God that is foundational to life? To assume that every believer is familiar with the foundational essentials may be to assume too much. Church leaders must identify and articulate the foundation of Christian understanding and lifestyle.

Instruction should allow learners the freedom to interact with doctrinal content in a way that is principle-oriented rather merely data-oriented. The intent of instruction should be to facilitate connections and interaction. {5} Instruction can be a dynamic, interactive process rather than a prescribed and rigid system of study. Person-centeredness is the key to developing a dynamic process.

How often has it been said, “As a teacher, I get more out of the lesson than do the students.” Having explored the Scriptures and made relevant discoveries, the teacher often enters the class and proclaims the results of her/his efforts. Students are then denied the processes of exploration and discovery. Instruction can, however, be the catalyst for such a process in several ways.

  • Raise questions. In a sermon or lecture, questions can be posed which encourage personal discovery. Listeners can be prompted to explore beyond the parameters of the sermon or lecture.
  • Explore together. Sermons and lectures can be structured so that listeners can participate at least in terms of mental activity. Familiarize individuals with the inductive method in order that they too might explore the richness of the text. Encourage listeners to raise the personal question, “What does this mean?”


Larry Richards has been the leading evangelical voice in arguing for an understanding of education as socialization. He states that “Christian education has to concern itself with the processes within the body which nurture corporate and individual growth” (Richards 1975: 16). With that statement, Richards establishes relationships as the context for education. Mutual relationships are seen as the key to teaching and learning. Truth is communicated most effectively in warm, loving relationships. Individuals are both teachers and learners, depending on the need and situation.

Modern ministry is concerned with target audiences. Young families are attracted by children’s programming that is stimulating and entertaining. Non-churched individuals are provided their own style of service. Single parents are encouraged to join a support group. Often the church family is sliced up into many individual units. For the church to function as a social unit, target ministries must be balanced by strategies which combine the rich diversity that exists among all its members.

Some churches have adopted a summer Sunday school curriculum which combines learners of all ages. Stories and testimonies can be regular components of the worship service. Evening services might be structured social evenings where young and old participate together. One church sponsors “Look Who’s Coming to Dinner,” where hosts and guests often socialize for the first time. Another church structures care groups which include all family members. Sunday school teachers might invite a guest {6} to share an experience, interest, or story. Church foyers can be designed to encourage gathering and conversation.

The church family will, by its very nature, socialize. Church structure may at times, though it should not, limit that natural activity. Strategies can be developed which maximize the mutual contribution individuals provide toward the growth of others.

Modeling is a primary method used to educate in the context of relationships. Richards contends that truth concepts are expressed in words and actions by many teachers. Therefore, all interactions of individuals are part and parcel of the church’s educational ministry. Further, Richards suggests that learning happens most effectively as life is lived, and is not necessarily determined by an agenda or printed curriculum. Learning together is a matter of making the necessary connections between truth and life.

When asked how the church communicated what it believed to be important, research respondents indicated that actions verified pronouncements. The credibility of the message was in the messenger. “It doesn’t help at all if the teacher doesn’t apply it.” Sermon and lesson preparation are simple when compared with the preparation of a life which embodies the message. The vision of the church, often articulated in a mission statement, must be reflected and modeled in the life of the church.


Worship is the service the church renders to God. It is not only the central event of gathering but also a pervasive posture of life that is generated by that gathering. Worship is at the center of a church’s life, and education can be understood to be one of its essential elements. The rituals of worship communicate the faith story so that it is owned and internalized. Education is concerned that the truths expressed and symbolized in the worship service be understood and applied.

Many come through the church door only at holiday time. Christmas affirms that God’s plans continue to unfold, especially in an unstable world. Easter confirms that God is not powerless in the face of attacks by evil and Satan. None of these truths are radically new. They may, however, be unknown to many who attend only at these times. What marvelous opportunities to educate!

In worship the entire congregation should experience the joy of participation. The family of God is truly intergenerational. Children can appreciate the event even when they do not fully understand it. Often children are considered the learners, while adults are treated as worshippers, but education begins and culminates in the experience of worshipping {7} together. “The Christian community has been given a unique learning environment, one created new every day, with forgiveness, with new life, with new possibilities for living together and serving Christ in the world” (Everist, 1983: 68).

Worship serves as a reminder that there is no hierarchy in the kingdom of God. Each person stands equally worthy in the presence of God. Church hierarchy and practice may negate the truth of worship. Should certain functions of worship be limited to staff? Are certain elected positions inadvertently, or otherwise, given greater importance? Do individuals feel confident that the service they render in their world is valuable and worthwhile? Answers to these and similar questions may help focus the meaning and practice of worship.


Proclamation includes both content and process. For Christians, proclamation is centered in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and a saving God whose word is for his people (Harris, 1989). Scripture proclaims God as Creator and Redeemer and provides the way for the adoption of individuals into the family of God.

Proclamation is often understood as a preacher or a teacher speaking words about the Word. The Word, however, can also speak for itself. How much of Scripture do individuals hear on a Sunday morning? To be sure, the Word is read as the basis for sermon or lesson, but often briefly or in snippets in order to get to important matters. How often is Scripture read as God’s Word to his people? God’s Word can stand on its own without being examined or explained. Furthermore, Scripture can speak in ways other than as the foundation for sermons. Preachers and teachers may at times inadvertently communicate that God’s Word is not capable of speaking for itself.

Pressed for time on Sunday morning, preachers often relegate Scripture reading to the sermon text. The practice of denominations which regularly include Old Testament, New Testament, and Gospel readings is to be emulated. If proclamation is God’s Word to his people, then we must make time for that Word. Beginning a series on the book of Ephesians, one pastor devoted an entire sermon to the reading of that book. Because it was presented in a creative and dynamic manner, worshippers were encouraged to listen to the word of God without explanation or interruption.

Hearing God’s Word as it is read may involve different expectations. Individuals may need to be encouraged and led into a posture that welcomes the surprising and unexpected. “What will God say to us this morning? We’re not sure, but we’re waiting, ready and eager.” God {8} continues to proclaim his Word clearly and relevantly. Proclamation involves removing the clutter in order that his Word might be heard. Once or twice a year the sermon could consist of the reading of Scripture.

The curriculum, or plan, of proclamation often begins with sketching out a sermon series and continues with the development of a specific outline. When we believe that God’s Word is capable of speaking for itself, the plan should also include ways in which Scripture will be read. The “church calendar” is one plan. Another might be to choose texts which parallel the sermon. One might also ask, “What do we as God’s people need to hear?” and develop a Scripture series. Such hearing is often aided by outlines or other materials.

Scripture reading need not be exclusively monologue. Its presentation can mirror the richness and diversity of the Word itself. Responsive reading, dialogue, readers’ theater, and choral reading are some possibilities. Gifted people in the congregation can shape the proclamation of God’s Word.


Service is not the responsibility of a select few who may have been chosen to serve as deacons. It is rather the work of compassionate ministry, motivated by love in joyful appreciation of the grace of God received. Service assumes that the knowledge one receives from God must be lived (Wilhoit, 1986). Most adults share a common desire to make knowledge of God real in action and relationships.

Church leaders would do well to encourage a life of service in one or more of the following ways. First, the Bible and life must be brought together. The Bible may at times serve as the reference point with connections made to life. At other times, life may be the starting point with connections made to Scripture. The starting point may be less important than the fact that connections between the Bible and life must be made.

Second, leaders must see themselves more as guides than as authority figures. Resisting the impulse to tell, leaders must encourage adults to explore and make discoveries, since circumstances and service vary from person to person. Ultimately a life of service is the means whereby individuals are encouraged to think and act in a Christian manner.

Third, service must be a shared approach. The curriculum of the congregation must be structured for conversation and relationships. Interpretations of both knowledge and practice can be limited by subjective understanding. A shared approach keeps individual perspectives and experiences from becoming too narrow. Individuals must also be trained for meaningful conversation and relationships. {9}

Fourth, service is to be rendered outside the church. Given responsibilities and concerns for church effectiveness, leaders may begin to feel that reality is the church. The purpose of the church is not institutional self-preservation, but rather the living of a life of service in the “real” world. Certain strategies suggest that the task of church leaders should be to bridge the gap between church and world. Perhaps a more effective image is the bringing of the two together. The personal world of individuals must be brought into the church, and the church must be viewed as an integral part of the personal world.

Fifth, adults should be trusted to define their “educational” experience. Must adults be told in specific terms what to think and do? Adults do understand their world and desire to more effectively integrate knowledge and practice. Effective leaders must provide opportunities for individuals to shape and mold their life of service.


The suggestions in the preceding sections are not particularly new or revolutionary. Who doesn’t believe that instruction, socialization, worship, proclamation, and service are important educational tasks of the church? One has only to observe to see that in many churches those tasks are being accomplished, though to varying degrees. What may be revolutionary is the notion that church leaders must develop a plan or curriculum to maximize these educational components of congregational life.


  • Everist, N. “Community of faith as curriculum,” Education for Christian Living: Strategies for Nurture Based on Biblical and Theological Foundations, ed. M. Roloff, Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1987, pp 73-88.
  • Harris, M. Fashion Me a People. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989.
  • Pazmino, R. Foundational Issues in Christian Education. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988.
  • Rempel, R. Adult Education in the Church: A Study of the Congruence between Structure and Assumptions. Ed. 1). diss., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 1992.
  • Richards, L. A Theology of Christian Education. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975.
  • Wilhoit, J. Christian Education and the Search for Meaning. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986.
Dr. Bob Rempel recently completed doctoral studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois. He is pastor of the College Drive Community Church, Lethbridge, Alberta.

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