Using Curriculum in Youth Ministry: Evaluating Curriculum

Adapted from a presentation given on Sat, Sept 11, 2010 at a Metro DC Synod youth ministry workshop.  Four points guided the discussion. This blogpost focuses on the third point.

  1. To use, or not to use, curriculum?
  2. Are you ready to teach?
  3. How do you evaluate and select a curriculum?
  4. Some recommendations

Third Question: What curriculum to use?

Visit a trusted source.  What constitutes “trusted”?  A source – author, publisher, distributor – that is theologically appropriate and pedagogically engaging.  You might feel that you struggle to find resources that have both of these characteristics!

Overwhelmingly, materials from our Lutheran publishing house, Augsburg Fortress, are theologically reliable and, increasingly, quite engaging.  When I started out in youth ministry over ten years ago, the Augsburg Fortress catalog wasn't my go-to place for resources.  To this day their offerings are not nearly as expansive as those of larger publishers and youth ministry niche publishers, but what they have is quite good, both theologically and pedagogically.  You may also check out the published and online denominational resources of our full-communion partners, the United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), The Episcopal Church, and so forth.

I realize that with these words I essentially give a blanket recommendation to our denominational publishing ministry, Augsburg Fortress, and for that reason some of you might be reaching for the "go back one page" button on your browser.  Click away, if you must, but please understand that it's not that I find every single lesson plan that Augsburg Fortress creates to be perfect, but that overall I find the curriculum they've developed in recent years – Akaloo, Here We Stand, Re:Form, etc. – to be quite strong, theologically reliable, and engaging. 

OK.  Keep reading, please.

Third point One Question: How do I theologically evaluate a non-Lutheran curriculum?
The youth ministry curriculum market is saturated by publishers whose theological perspective is anywhere from somewhat to significantly different than that of our Lutheran church.  While we ought to respect the distinct teachings and theological perspectives of our fellow Christians and be willing to learn from them, we should nonetheless place in our children's hands materials that resonate with our church's teachings and teach our children what we want them to know about God, the church, and the world.

Theology is important.  Just because the games look great or the packaging is market-tested to suck you in, we should still be careful about theology.  Luckily, the theology embedded in a curriculum usually has markers that reveal where the writers are coming from.  While no list is exhaustive, if in reviewing a curriculum you stumble upon any of the following markers, please tread carefully, as the material in your hands likely does not reflect the theology of our Lutheran church.

  • A “decision” theology that asks learners to (or assumes that Christians must) “choose Christ.”  While we are called to make decisions in our faith – from deciding to go to church on a Sunday to striving to live our lives as Christians – nonetheless, the grand faith narrative taught in our churches is that God chooses us, and not the other way around.
  • Too much concern about “moralistic” or “cultural” issues.  Surely we Lutherans are called to live upright and moral lives in service to others, and surely we need to look at the popular culture through the critical lens of faith.  However, materials that have a strong emphasis on moral concerns or a combative approach to the popular culture often teach a legalistic approach to faith and life that doesn’t resonate with our teaching of how God works in the world.  Simply put, a black and white approach to moral or cultural issues is overly simplistic.  As children of a tradition that embraces paradox, we Lutherans should avoid simplistic or draconian approaches to the supposed dichotomy of church vs. culture.
  • A near total lack of teaching about service to others.  Our faith calls us into the world to love and serve others, not just with words but with deeds.  If the curriculum seems overly concerned with convincing people of right thought, right belief, or a quick Scriptural answer for every question, you might do well to drop those books and run away.  However, if the curriculum reflects a dedication to service of neighbor and witness through action, not just convincing words or proof-texting Bible verses, then you’re probably in the right place.
  • Strict gender roles.  Do women and girls have one role, and men and boys another?  If all the examples are of girls sewing of cooking, and boys hammering nails or hiking in the woods, don’t buy it.
  • Literal” or “fundamentalist” approach to reading Scripture.  If the publisher tells you on their FAQ page or on the inside cover of their books that they are literalists or fundamentalists, the material likely will not jive with our Lutheran approach to Scripture.

Third point Two question: But, but what if I “fix” the theology?

It's not usually worth it to “fix” the theology (unless it is a minor fix, such as changing references to Methodist worship practices to fit with our Lutheran practice of worship).  A theological perspective usually permeates a curriculum, if the curriculum is done well.  Fixing one or two lines of text, or replacing an activity, might change the most egregious of theological difficulties, but the underlying structure of the curriculum is likely still bent in a theological direction other than the one in which you want to travel.

Third point Three question: But the theologically sound stuff bombs with the kids. What should I do?

It’s easier to come up with creative activities than it is to re-write bad theology.  If you have a curriculum that is spot-on theologically, but creatively lacking, develop a few questions or activities of your own that fit the content of the lesson.  Then, write to the publisher and let them know how you tweaked the curriculum to make it work in your setting!

Excursus: The folks who write and edit curriculum are not clueless, dim burning bulbs.

You don't have to go far in a congregation, synod gathering, or youth ministry conference to hear grumbling about the church and, in this case, the church's publishing ministry.  I chalk that up to two indisputable facts:

  1. Neither the church nor its publishing ministry are perfect; and,
  2. We are a people who like to grumble.

Let me dispel one myth right away: much of the material we get from Augsburg Fortress Publishers is not written by cubicle warriors ensconced in a Minneapolis office building.  Rather, curricular materials from Augsburg Fortress are largely written by people who currently do youth ministry or have had extensive experience in parish ministry – pastors, teachers, VBS leaders, children’s ministry coordinators, youth directors, from small and large congregation, in rural and metropolitan settings, on the coasts and in the midwest.  After the materials are written, they are reviewed and, in some cases, tested by practitioners. 

This process is not perfect (see point 1, above), but c'mon folks, let us not allow the perfect to become the enemy of the quite good.  And this is no guarantee that the material will always “work” for your congregation or that it will always be very good.  But overwhelmingly the Augsburg Fortress material you have in your hands was written, edited, and evaluated by someone with training and experience in youth and education ministry, striving to contribute to a good and faithful ministry.

Next post: Curriculum Recommendations

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

One thought on “Using Curriculum in Youth Ministry: Evaluating Curriculum

  1. As one of the people who writes curriculum now being published by a denominational publisher (namely Church Publishing/Morehouse Education Resources, part of the Episcopal Church’s publishing wing), I’d like to poke my hand up and say, “I’m not a cubicle person!” Thanks for making that clear.
    I don’t know if we’re typical, but the curriculum I’m part of (Confirm not Conform —, if you’re curious) was developed by a local congregation because they couldn’t find anything they liked. It wasn’t developed because we did a market study.
    One of the things we’re actually working on is making the program ecumenical, which is harder than we thought. There are theological differences that make it difficult–for instance, talking about sacraments. The differences between Episcopal and Lutheran sacramental theology are pretty significant. I can see that going with a denominational publisher really does make a difference theologically; some beliefs and traditions are simply hard-wired into us and are not a two-line fix. The theology really does permeate the curriculum.

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