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Based on the biblical record, teaching/learning activities have always been an influential part of the fabric of God’s people and the church. Acts 2:42-47 describes the early church and includes “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” as an obvious part of their life together. Earlier in the New Testament, the Gospels tell us that Jesus taught wherever he was, by the lake, in the temple, and as he traveled through the countryside.

Teaching/learning opportunities abound in the church today, and it is essential to plan carefully. We need to define their intended outcomes and create appropriate environments to help actualize those outcomes and implement the vision/mission/purpose of the church.

Teaching/Learning Planning Guide

We encourage you to download and print this discussion guide to better facilitate discussions about the structure of small groups with decision makers at your church.


Overview

Overview

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. (Acts 2:42-43)

Sample goal Christian Formation goal statement – Teaching/Learning ministries: Our church considers the purpose of our church, the needs of our people, and an ongoing plan when we define the teaching/learning activities that include regular classes, topical seminars/workshops, and retreats for the year.

Missional Marker Connection(1)

Your Church Vision, Mission, and Purpose

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:19-20).

Throughout this planning tool, we say that all ministries of the church should help the church achieve its vision/mission/purpose. As you consider these statements for your church, do certain topics and concerns arise that can be addressed in a teaching/learning environment? Thom Rainer and Eric Geiger in their book, Simple Church, explain that the church needs to be exceedingly clear about its purpose but also create a clear process for bringing the purpose to reality. From their research, they discovered that “church leaders must define more than the purpose (the what); they must also define the process (the how)(2).”

One of Mission and Ministry Priorities for the Evangelical Covenant Church is Making and Deepening Disciples, and the primary responsibility for this dimension lies in the local church. One approach to this area encourages churches to identify the characteristics of the disciple that they want to make and deepen within their church and then intentionally create opportunities and experiences that encourage these characteristics to develop.

Each activity or ministry in the church contributes to this disciple forming process, and each activity’s role in the process must be easily understood. The teaching/learning ministry can fill a significant role in helping a person mature if the contents of the curriculum are intentionally selected for that purpose. Stated again, churches must define the characteristics of the disciple and the elements and experiences needed to encourage those characteristics to develop.

Many churches provide teaching/learning opportunities because they have always provided teaching/learning opportunities. It might be helpful at an adult ministry planning session to discuss the following question: “In light of our church’s vision/mission/purpose, what is the purpose of our teaching/learning ministry, and how does it help us achieve our church’s vision/mission/purpose?”

The purpose of the teaching/learning ministry

Teaching/learning in the church helps the learner gain knowledge, increase attentiveness to God, and build relationships within the community of faith. By including these three outcomes in the teaching/learning ministries of the church, we help people grow as disciples.

The first purpose of teaching/learning ministries is learning. We want our people to learn about God, the Bible, the faith, etc. The following brief definition of learning highlights that learning is more than just attending a class, it involves a change in knowledge, memory, experience, and awareness.

Learning

  1. To gain knowledge, comprehension, or mastery through experience or study.
  2. To fix in the mind or memory; memorize books of the Bible and key scripture passages.
  3. To acquire experience of, or ability or a skill in: parenting, working with homeless, being an usher.
  4. To become aware: needs in the community and Third World, feelings of visitors.
  5. To become informed of; find out: coming events, opportunities to address spiritual needs. Adapted from http://www.answers.com/topic/learn

A second teaching/learning purpose is spiritual formation. This expands our faith and understanding while increasing our attentiveness to God. Teaching in the church is both educational and formational. Educational classes focus primarily on the head or knowledge, the more facts, the better. Formational classes intentionally address the head, as well as the heart and hand. Simply stated, addressing the head increases knowledge (cognitive), the heart expands faith (affective), and the hand leads to action (behavioral). The following chart from Companions in Christ highlights some of the differences between teaching a class and leading a formation group. Incorporating characteristics of both models in your teaching/learning ministries can be helpful.

(To read more about this topic, go to http://www.companionsinchrist.org/formational.html)
Finally, teaching/learning ministries provide a setting for people to get better acquainted and build community. Win Arn, a church growth leader, often said that if a person can make five friends in a church, he or she is less likely to drop out of that church. Teaching/learning opportunities provide a doorway into the life of the church. People choose to attend to meet their spiritual and life needs in a relationally friendly setting.

(See the article, “Why do people leave churches?”)

Considerations for designing your curriculum

The following criteria can be helpful creating your curriculum design.

What is the desired outcome for your teaching/learning ministry? As stated earlier, the desired outcome for your teaching/learning ministry is making and deepening disciples. When we apply this idea to the teaching/learning ministry, we define the characteristics of a disciple and then intentionally select our curriculum resources to encourage these characteristics to develop.

The topics that can be included in your curriculum plan are endless, and selecting the “right ones” can be overwhelming. In order to provide a comprehensive and yet clear curriculum plan, you need to determine a structure that makes sense for your church. Often churches provide classes on Sunday morning that change seasonally. Some of these churches plan classes randomly and provide topics designed to attract interest. Other churches, who plan seasonally, organize their classes based on an ongoing structure so that their classes include a balance of biblical studies, formational Christian living topics, and faith related issues and subjects. A few churches create a multi-year discipleship curriculum plan that encourages the development of disciples as described in number 1.

The book, Teaching the Faith, Forming the Faithful, affirms the need to ask hard questions when it comes to teaching/learning in the church. “It is critical that church leaders consider the matter of what they would deem essential content for the Christian education of church members, regular attenders, and inquirers. The question might be framed thus: ‘If someone were regularly attending our church for a three-year span, what content would we want to be sure was presented (in some significant way) to him or her?’ In our experiences of consulting with congregations about such matters, we have found that it is the rare pastor who has even considered such a critical question, let alone attempted to answer it.(4)” (Note: For churches that desire a more in depth treatment of the contents for the church’s teaching/learning ministry, this book by Gary A. Parrett and S. Steve Kang provides an excellent guide. They state that churches must take the contents of their teaching/learning ministry seriously or risk imperiling the future health of the church.)

The Adult Ministry Survey conducted by the Department of Christian Formation found that only 11% of Covenant churches use a long-term curriculum plan for their pre/post worship learning events and only 20% link this teaching/learning venue to the church vision or mission. In addition, they report that only 5% base their curriculum selection on a multi-year plan. Would some intentionality related to curriculum design help these ministries become more effective and comprehensive tools for spiritual growth?
Questions for your church to consider

  1. What is the vision/mission/purpose for your church?
  2. How do teaching/learning ministries help you implement this vision/mission/purpose?
  3. How can you enhance your teaching/learning ministries to be more effective?
  4. How do you structure and communicate that the teaching/learning ministry includes increasing knowledge, attending to the presence of God, and building relationships within the Body of Christ?

For additional insights related to selecting curriculum see the ID article, “Guiding Principles for Developing or Selecting Formational Curriculum

Teaching/Learning Settings

Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew, and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.” Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear” (Mark 4:1-9).

The following list describes teaching/learning settings that churches find helpful. By considering these options you may gain new insight and ideas for your church’s teaching/learning ministries.

  1. Classes before or after worship – Traditionally called Sunday school, this setting has provided the primary Christian education for all ages in the church. Because it is scheduled adjacent to the worship time, and often a children’s ministry takes place concurrently, it is particularly convenient. The Sunday school class has often been a main entry point into the life of a congregation. As visitors attend a class, they learn more about the church and feel welcome as they get acquainted with a few people. Recently some churches are exploring other teaching/learning options, but the Covenant’s Adult Ministry Survey reported that 84% of churches responding continue to provide these Sunday morning experiences. It is also pertinent to note that these venues received a rating of 3.75 on a 5 point scale when asked about their effectiveness as a resource for Christian Formation. Only five other ministries received a higher rating.
  2. Midweek Bible study – 63% of Covenant churches in the survey report that they offer a midweek Bible study. Many churches plan a weekly, all-church night that includes an inexpensive meal followed by ministry opportunities for all ages. The midweek Bible study is often taught by the pastor. Some churches create multiple mid-week learning options instead of providing these on Sunday.
  3. Ongoing small group Bible studies – Although the Planning Tool addresses small groups in a separate section, many churches see these groups as a key resource for teaching the Bible and learning to apply it to life. In addition, many churches place significant emphasis on this ministry as a resource for building community, attending to God’s presence, and encouraging Christian growth. Covenant church plants intentionally use small groups to help their churches grow by encouraging people to invite their friends and neighbors to join a group. (For more information on how Covenant church plants use small groups, go to the Church Planning Wiki) Ninety percent of Covenant churches in the survey report at least one small group in their church. Some churches emphasize small group participation between September and May and then organize other teaching/learning opportunities for the summer months.
  4. Study retreats or seminars (one day or weekend) – Churches use this model to raise awareness of an issue or dig deeper into a topic while spending a concentrated time with God. Many organizations provide traveling seminars held at hotels or conference centers in which they invite churches and individuals to participate. Some organizations also provide speakers who come to churches to address a variety of topics, including marriage enrichment, financial management, church vitality, missions, and prayer. These retreats or seminars can be held at a local church, conference center, or retreat center. It may be appropriate for churches to co-sponsor these retreats or seminars. The Evangelical Covenant Church provides many workshops and seminars to address a wide variety of ministry needs.
  5. Creating an all-church emphasis for a month or season – Seasons of the year, like Lent or fall, provide unique opportunities to focus the attention of the church on a specific topic or spiritual formation emphasis. Often included in this model are topic-related sermons, small group studies, and daily devotionals. Teaching/learning experiences like this can be organized to include all age levels. Examples of this teaching/learning model include:
  6. Increasingly churches are also using coaching, mentoring, and accountability groups as an element of their teaching/learning ministry to make and deepen disciples.

Questions for your church to consider:

  • What is effective about each of the teaching/learning settings that you provide in your church?
  • What signs of spiritual growth are exhibited by participants?
  • What improvements could you make to increase the effectiveness of your teaching/learning ministries?
  • What new settings could you consider?
  • Who would you like to attend each of the settings?
  • What discourages these people from attending?
  • What could be done to address the reasons listed under e. above and encourage people to attend?

How do you plan your adult teaching/learning curriculum?

How can those who are young keep their way pure?
By living according to your word.
I seek you with all my heart;
do not let me stray from your commands.
I have hidden your word in my heart
that I might not sin against you.
Praise be to you, LORD;
teach me your decrees (Psalm 119:9-12).

According to the Covenant Christian Formation survey, in most cases a group of people, usually including the pastor or a staff member, plans the curriculum offerings for the year. Some churches identified the topics for a few weeks at a time, while a few (11%) based their curriculum offerings on a multi-year plan. Most churches (69%) reported that they planned their curriculum seasonally. There are advantages and disadvantages to all of the options, and it would be helpful for this planning group to discuss the pros and cons of the various planning options. By planning the curriculum for short periods, it can remain flexible and change quickly to meet current needs. Finding teachers, however, to lead these classes may become a challenge. By considering the curriculum for a year (or more), it is possible to create a bigger picture for achieving the teaching/learning ministry’s desired outcomes. Scheduling teachers to teach their classes more than once to various groups in the church can also be helpful. The curriculum structures that follow in the next section may provide some ongoing structure while allowing flexibility when circumstances or resources require a change.

Questions for your church to consider:
Churches reported that they used each of the following schedules when planning their adult curriculum. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each of these planning schedules? How would switching to a different schedule be helpful for your church?

  • A few weeks at a time
  • One season at a time (fall, winter, spring, summer)
  • Annually
  • According to a multi-year curriculum plan

Three options for curriculum planning based on a multi-year approach

Many churches look for a structure or plan on which to build their adult curriculum. An effective plan will include a balance of topics that address multiple needs related to spiritual growth. For smaller churches, selecting topics may be easier because most of the participants are known. In mid-sized and larger churches, a straightforward plan that makes clear the purpose of the adult teaching/learning opportunities will be helpful. In every church, it is essential to identify the purpose for the class and its desired outcomes based on the church’s definition of a disciple.
The following options illustrate how some congregations organize their curriculum plans.

Option 1: Topical Planning

The previous version of the Adult Ministry Planning Tool encouraged churches to use the following areas or topics as a guide for curriculum planning. This plan created both balance and variety in a church’s teaching/learning ministry as each topic was included during a three-year span.

  1. Biblical Studies
    • Old Testament and New Testament survey
    • Biblical book studies
  2. Formational Christian Living
    • Evangelism and discipleship
    • Marriage and the family
    • Christians in the workplace
    • Personal devotional life
  3. Church Related Subjects
    • Ethical issues
    • Christian doctrine
    • Church history
    • Covenant theology and history

Option 2: Church Vision/Mission/Purpose Planning

The second option invites the planning team to begin the curriculum planning process with an exploration of the church’s vision/mission/purpose statements. In this approach, the planning team discusses the vision/mission/purpose statements and identifies the areas and topics where adults in the church need to mature in order to “live” this mission. This option takes the vision/mission/purpose of the church seriously and intentionally structures the teaching/learning settings to support and implement it.

Option 3: GROW Planning

The Covenant’s Department of Christian Formation has identified four areas where Christian formation is essential for developing disciples. Based on the acronym GROW, the four areas include God’s word, Relationships, Obedient living, and Worship. Each area provides opportunity for responding to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

Topics for the teaching/learning ministries could be selected so that the ongoing curriculum plan includes or addresses each of the acronyms directly. Of course, there is overlap in these four areas. For example, we learn to live obediently based on God’s word, and by studying God’s word we learn obedient living. All of our teaching in the church is based on God’s word, but the different acronym areas provide a different direction or emphasis. Each class session will also be enhanced by intentionally including all four acronym areas.

Your team may like the GROW idea but feel that the acronym areas should be weighted differently. It is possible to put more emphasis on certain elements and less emphasis on others. Addressing all four GROW acronym areas over the course of a year or two remains the goal.
The following chart identifies a small sample of classes that could be incorporated into your curriculum plan based on GROW.

For more information on this topic, download the ID article, “Three Options for Curriculum Planning.”

Questions for your church to consider:

  • What do you like about each of the three planning options? What do you dislike?
  • How would creating a structure like the ones presented here enhance your teaching/learning ministries?

Additional topics to consider when planning teaching/learning ministries

They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:33-37).

As we plan for our adult teaching/learning ministries, we need to consider the people whom we want to involve in this ministry. What are their needs and why would they want to participate? Consider the following ideas as you review and plan your teaching/learning ministries.

Is the Adult Learning Setting a Safe Place?
Adults need to know that this will be a safe place. This is probably more critical for the person who has not attended before, but it affects long time members, as well. All want to be sure that they will not be embarrassed by being asked a question that may expose a lack of understanding, or find a passage of scripture when they have not learned the difference between Genesis and Isaiah. Adults also need to feel welcome but not singled out. Churches regularly encourage visitors to get involved by participating in a teaching/learning experience. Unfortunately, at times the visitor will enter a room full of strangers and not be invited to join their conversation.

Important Characteristics of Adult Learners
The following list of preferences is taken from secular research, but it also applies to the church classroom. By considering these preferences when designing a class session, the teacher meets the adult learners at their point of need and interest. Using this list in an orientation session with your adult teachers can provide a constructive discussion and enhance your learning sessions. Barry Sweeny adapted this list from the work of John Goodlad.
Adults prefer learning situations which:

  1. are practical and problem-centered
  2. promote their positive self esteem
  3. integrate new ideas with existing knowledge
  4. show respect for the individual learner
  5. capitalize on their experience
  6. allow choice and self-direction(5)

What needs are evident in your people?
When creating a curriculum plan, it is essential to consider the needs of those attending, as well as the needs of those whom you want to attend. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is no longer a satisfactory answer. What do these people need or desire to learn in order to live as disciples in their complicated, day-to-day world? Above, we mentioned the importance of a clear definition for what a mature Christian or disciple looks like and a clear path to help people move in that direction. People need to be encouraged to determine their place on the path to maturity and identify what they need to do to move forward. Being intentional about this helps people see the potential impact of each teaching/learning offering. Also, it guides the adult ministry team in selecting topics and settings that support individuals on their paths. It may be helpful to conduct a survey of your church members and friends to identify the spiritual growth needs of the congregation. The following survey questions may provide valuable information for the adult ministry team to use when designing ministries to support people as they move along their paths to spiritual maturity.

Spiritual growth survey questions for church members and friends

  1. What is the “temperature” of your spiritual life right now?
  2. What factors influence how you responded to the above question?
  3. What would you like your spiritual life “temperature” to be?
  4. What do you need to do to help that happen?
  5. How can the church help you achieve this goal?

Another resource for discovering needs and encouraging a commitment to Christian growth is the My Commitment to GROW card.

Conclusion

In this article we introduced several topics for a planning team to consider when designing a church’s teaching/learning ministry. As you reflect on the article and the Planning Guide, select the sections that you want to discuss based on the needs of your church. Take your time and don’t try to complete everything in a single meeting. The desired outcome of this discussion is to clearly define what a disciple looks like in your church context and then determine the resources necessary to help your people become, and deepen as, disciples of Christ.

Footnotes

  1. Congregational Vitality is an emphasis within the Evangelical Covenant Church and the Department of Church Growth and Evangelism, to help churches evaluate their current state and decide the actions needed to become a Healthy Missional Church. Included in the process is the 10 Healthy Missional Markers that provide a gauge for evaluating the health of a congregation. The Christian Formation Planning Tool is intended to support the 10 Healthy Missional Markers.
  2. Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger, Simple Church (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2006).
  3. Another version of the Opportunities for Ministry can be found in the research conducted by Willow Creek. Greg L. Hawkins and Cally Parkinson, Follow Me: What’s Next for You? (Barrington: The Willow Creek Association, 2008), p. 20.
    • Exploring Christ – The people in this group have a basic belief in God, but they’re unsure about Christ and his role in their live.
    • Growing in Christ – The people in this group have a personal relationship with Christ. They’ve made a commitment to trust him with their salvation and for their eternity, but they are just beginning to learn what it means to be in a relationship with him.
    • Close to Christ – The people in this group depend on Christ daily for their lives. They see Christ as someone who assists them in life. On a daily basis, they turn to him for help and guidance for issues they face.
    • Christ-Centered – The people in this group would identify their relationship with Christ as the most important relationship in their entire lives. They see their lives as fully surrendered to Jesus and his agenda.
  4. Gary A. Parrett and S. Steve Kang, Teaching the Faith, Forming the Faithful (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), p. 140.
  5. Principles of Adult Learning, adapted from John Goodlad’s writing, 2008, by Barry Sweeny, Best Practice Resources, web site at www.teachermentors.com.

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