Aug  2017 01
Every Congregation Is a School… for What?

What does the congregation you know best actually teach? The answer is complex.

Educator Elliot Eisner wrote that every school has a threefold curriculum: the explicit, the implicit, and the null.

  • The explicit curriculum is what a community claims to teach. In a seminary, that would be the courses organized into a learning sequence.
  • The implicit curriculum is an envelope or environment or culture in which the explicit curriculum is enacted. Elements of an implicit curriculum might include the arrangement of seats in the room (interactive circles or rows for listening), whose voices are valued (one expert—the teacher—or rotating roles of teacher and student), and the reward system.
  • The null curriculum is what is not taught, what is left out, either intentionally or unintentionally. For example, in public school settings religion is often part of the null curriculum. In seminaries, courses in human sexualities would be in the null curriculum in many conservative schools, and apologetics, evangelism and church growth are among the null subjects in progressive Protestant schools.

According to Eisner, every school teaches both more and less than it claims. The more is the implicit curriculum, and the less is however the explicit curriculum is diminished by the undertow of either the implicit or the null curriculums.

Eisner’s insights apply to congregations, too. Every congregation has an explicit curriculum, an implicit curriculum, and a null curriculum. And it is worthwhile for a congregation’s leaders to attend, now and then, to how the congregation’s curriculums work.

There are practices and theologies a congregation claims to teach (explicit), as evidenced by the curriculum used in church school classrooms or by perusing topics addressed in adult classes. Many congregations have adopted vision, mission, and values statements which (should) express the foundations for the explicit curriculum.

There are practices and theologies that are not on the curriculum menu but are present and real, and more caught than taught (implicit). A few examples of implicit curricula at work are:

  • “We welcome all,” says the sign outside, but one racial group predominates within.
  • How long does it take for a “newcomer” to no longer be a newcomer?
  • Every year closes with three special appeals to bridge the revenue-expense gap end, so givers with means wait until that third appeal to see what is needed from them.
  • It is okay to “share” complaints with the pastor while she prepares to enter worship; in fact, the elders do it regularly in their pre-worship elders’ meeting (true story; I saw it happen). Because the elders do it, several congregants feel permitted to do the same. Regularly.

There are practices and theologies that are absent (null) from particular congregations. Signs claiming “we welcome all,” in my opinion, express a fantasy, a well-meaning but impossible-to-realize unreality. No one congregation can welcome—make a space for—everyone. No one congregation can teach everything Christianity has taught, or teaches. No one congregation can embody every worthy Christian practice.

  • Some social justice orientated congregations offer nothing that looks like contemplation. Possible message: “Introverts will have a tough time here.”
  • Searching the sermon archives of some pillar-of-the-community congregations will reveal the absence of the word “justice” from the Gospel the community hears. Possible message: “Watch it, Preacher! We like the social order as it is.”
  • In some formerly-mainline and African-American Protestant congregations the biblical scholarship of the last 250 years, informed by literary and historical studies, is very much part of the null curriculum! (Just ask yourself how many persons you know can recount two different creation stories and two very different Jesus birth narratives.) Possible message: “Leave our cultural Christianity alone.”

Perhaps there is another word to pair with Eisner’s insights concerning the three curricula: ambiguous.

Communities in general, and schools and congregations in particular, are not term papers: grammar and spell-checked, edited for economy of words, plagiarism-free, formatted, and neatly bound (okay, indulge my fantasy of what a term paper should be, please!).

Rather, communities embody contradictions, ambiguities, good and bad intentions, errors, outright sins, forgiveness, righteous grudges, failed and partially successful and fully grace-filled reconciliations, and a legion of conflicting dramas. Congregations are the stages on which multiple dramas are played out, and those dramas seldom mesh beautifully.

It is the ambiguities of congregational life, the myriad of examples of individual dramas not meshing in a community, that lead me back to what should be every Christian congregation’s explicit curriculum: how to love God and neighbors as ourselves, as understood through practicing the way of Jesus.

Every congregation’s curriculum should be focused on how to love as THE core human value because God is love.

As schools and congregations get into their “back to the fall routine after the summer” modes, it is a good time to consider what we are teaching—explicitly, implicitly, and by absence. It is a good time to bring love into focus as the explicit curriculum, and how the implicit and null curricula amplify and diminish that focus.


Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips Faculty
Phillips Theological Seminary offers Christian graduate theological education
in service of intelligent, just, and compassionate religious and civic communities. We welcome
students to a safe space for truth-seeking conversations about the Bible, Jesus, and faithful living.
Courses available on campus and online for certificate, diploma, MDiv, MAMC, MASJ, & MTS
programs, and on campus for the DMin program.

Phillips Theological Seminary

901 N. Mingo Road
Tulsa, OK 74116

p 918-610-8303
f 918-610-8404

Campus & Directions

Site content © 2005-18 Phillips Theological Seminary

The materials on this website are owned, held, or licensed by Phillips Theological Seminary and are available for personal, non-commercial, and educational use, provided Phillips is properly cited. Any commercial use of the materials, without the written permission by Phillips Theological Seminary, is strictly prohibited.

Site design, programming, and CMS © 2005-18 Verdend Interactive

Like PTS on Facebook
Follow PTS on Twitter
Subscribe to RSS and Podcasts