are you messages at odds with each other?

i was listening to an emergent village podcast the other day, and doug pagitt was talking about how things we do in our churches are often at odds with what we say about the gospel. i sent doug an email with some educational theory terminology about what he was talking about, and he suggested i post it. so here it is!


Was just listening, in my car, to the podcast of you at the emergent mainline event, and you were mentioning the concept that we often have things we do in our churches (like how we arrange our chairs, or when people are “allowed” to speak) that are at odds with what we say about the gospel.

Let me offer you some language for that that might be helpful.  In education theory (and in real life practice) circles, there are multiple kinds of
curriculum (and, I would contend, that “curriculum” is just an ed-theory word for “message”).  The “formal” or “overt” or “plain” curriculum is the
content everyone thinks about.  In a classroom, it’s the teaching plan.  In a church, it’s the Sunday school lesson and the sermon.

But there are two other helpful terms:  non-formal curriculum, and null curriculum.  

The non-formal curriculum is the stuff we do, but don’t talk about.  It’s that stuff you were referring to:  how we arrange our chairs, our
architecture, who gets to talk when, power and social structures, all the expected norms and programs and means and methods.  Those are a “curriculum” (or message) in and of themselves, and the leader/teacher/pastor/organizer is foolish if she thinks the non-formal curriculum doesn’t communicate every bit as much as the formal curric.

Then, null curriculum is the stuff we don’t do and don’t talk about.  For example, if a youth ministry NEVER talks about homosexuality (because
they’re afraid to bring it up, not knowing how to respond), that becomes part of the null curriculum.  Churches, of course, have boxes full of this
stuff.  And — educational theorists say — the null curriculum ALSO communicates just as much as the formal curric (or, if not just as much, it
communicates a lot).

Anyhow, I thought you might find that helpful, and slip it into a future talk.

13 thoughts on “are you messages at odds with each other?”

  1. interesting. i haven’t heard the terms before but i think they are very useful. any educational resources you can recommend detailing more on these? i was wondering more about education theory resources rather than youth ministry resources.

  2. robert – i won’t be able to recommend anything for a week or so (travels). but, in the mean time, you could just good the two terms and i’m sure you’d find something.

  3. Chairs communicate?! But don’t we also say that people forget 75% of what they heard in a message before they get to the parking lot.

  4. SO TRUE! I was really convicted by what Kurt Johnston said in one of his seminars at the San Diego NYWC. We are always teaching, even when we’re not. There are so many unspoken things that are communicated and I’m trying to be a lot more aware of those.

  5. My first introduction to these concepts was “Fashion Me a People: Curriculum in the Church” by Maria Harris. It’s an older book by Westminster Press (1989) but it’s a pretty good intro and helped me to look more carefully at what our church was teaching.

  6. Marko you should read a book by one of my seminary profs C. Ellis Nelson titled How Faith Matures. It is an amazing work written in 1989 that highlights all that we do as Christians is education. He gives ideas and theories about how to use this “null” curriculum to add in your teaching (mostly by thinking about it! What a great book and an awesome opprotunity to learn from this man!

  7. please help me understand how chair set up communicates as much as the spoken word? I won’t argue that it doesn’t matter, just pales in comparison to formal curric. Condidering that the Holy Spirit is at work in the job of preaching I have a hard time understanding the ‘equal’ communicative power of chair set up.

  8. Awesome post. I have recently become frustrated with the inconsistency between the differences in the “two messages” being taught in my undergrad ministry classes. The professors continually lecture on the importance of relationships and mentoring, but spend zero time with their students. The ministry students notice all this and have grown very frustrated.

    may the love of the Gospel infect all aspect of what the Church does

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