Thursday, August 22, 2013


Low prep!     Easy prep!     No prep!

There are many curriculum companies that advertise the absolute easiest in lesson presentation.  And there is an appeal to the increasingly busy volunteer base that is consumed each week with work and school and extra-curricular activities. Who wouldn't want something that doesn't require extra time out of an already packed schedule?

But I fear the whole low/easy/no prep movement is missing some fundamental points. This isn't necessarily the fault of the curriculum companies, but rather the interpretation and expectation of the consumers. Let's take a look at these (warning: major ranting ahead!):

1. Curriculum has always been easy to transfer and present.  At the whopping age of 17, I was asked to teach a 5th grade Sunday School class. The kind lady in charge handed me a packet of curriculum from a major publisher.  You know what was in it? Colorful posters to illustrate and enhance the lesson, handout materials so the kids can read and apply stuff through the week, worksheets to do with the kids, and a teacher's manual that presented the lesson word for word. If I had only been given this material fifteen minutes before class, I could have read the lesson out of the manual, pausing at the appropriately indicated times to show the poster or have the kids fill in the blanks.  Easy prep is nothing new. Even today, most published curriculum lays out everything or even puts it all on a dvd, so all a teacher has to do is press "play."

2. Somebody had to prepare the "low prep" curriculum. Somebody had to do the study and research in order to create the lesson plan and content. Some places even "field test" their curriculum in order to iron out the bugs. A lot of hard work goes into creating curriculum, because the message is important. And the fact that we are communicating this message to children makes it even more so.

And that leads us to the key missing point...

3.  Low/easy/no prep curriculum requires prep! This may not be popular, but I believe that a volunteer who gets the teacher's book should open their manual, turn to the lesson, note the Scripture passage, close the manual, and spend some time in pure study of the passage before returning the teacher book. They should be thinking of how the lesson fits in the flow of the series, the individual needs of the kids in their class, and maybe even how to do the lesson better than the teacher's manual explains it. In short, the wise teacher needs to prepare, not just "look over" the lesson.

Now let the record show that I am not against "low prep" stuff in general.  I'm sure most children's workers have had to "wing it" with the teacher's manual once in a while. Low prep curriculum can help simplify concepts and lay out creative strategies for presenting the lesson.  Many outfits include video segments to help reinforce the lesson being taught. I'm all in favor of making volunteer's lives easier as much as possible.

But I have seen far too many volunteers say, "I love this curriculum, because I don't have to do anything to get ready for Sunday."  I've watched the "teacher of the week" get his or her materials on Friday during lunch hour so they would be ready on Sunday. And I know a certain percentage of teachers look over the teacher's manual during commercials on Saturday night. It costs the teacher NOTHING and the kids get shortchanged. Most pastors I know (including my own) spend hours prayerfully laboring  over the text and how to present it to their adult congregations. Yet the most important congregation of all gets the time it takes to read over the lesson manual on Saturday night (or in the car on Sunday morning!).

How much time is enough time for preparation?  That may be the subject of another post, but for me, I ask myself, "if my low/easy/no prep curriculum got lost in a fire, could I still do the lesson on Sunday?" And maybe a more fundamental question is, "Are the kids worth what is most convenient to me or are they worth my very best?"

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this subject in the comments below.

Related post: Easy to Use and Transfer?


Wednesday, August 14, 2013


For the introduction to this series, click here

For part one of this series, click here

When I think about the face of the church, what it looks like, and how it presents itself to its members and to the community in general, I like to think of two levels: the level of personal interaction and the level of external presentation. These aren't scientific, sociological, or demographic distinctions, they are merely my attempt to categorize what I've observed in my limited study of local churches. In part one of this series, we looked at the importance of personal interaction, how a congregation relates to newcomers and one another.

I began with that level because the temptation (or trap) some churches fall into is to make today's level, the level of external presentation, the primary element in their picture of the church. So let us agree in principle that people, not programs, are the key component to the portrait of a local church. Amen and amen.

All that being said, understood, and established, there is most definitely a place for external presentation within the local church. Most people come to church via personal invitation and most people are "won over" by the warmth and friendliness of the congregation, but quite frequently, it is the building and programs that initially get their attention.

It is surprising how many churches have warm, friendly congregations, but their buildings are in need of paint and yard work. A visitor wanders in, but there is no signage to direct him or her to the nursery, the children's area, or the sanctuary. They get a church bulletin that looks like it was typed by a grade school student. When they pick up their hymn books, they have to blow the thin layer of dust off.

The church's programs and the mechanics of how the church operates are also noticeable. What is available for my kids (four empty beige walls in the kids' area doesn't look very inviting!)? How do they do music? Who "runs" the church? Certainly not all of these questions are going to be explored in depth, but they do lead to some initial impressions. The kids area is a big one that will become very evident.  Church government will usually take some time to explore. Even elements such as technology will make an impression: do you project lyrics or announcements on a screen? Is your lighting and sound an enhancement or distraction?

None of this implies that every single church should have the latest gadgets, the most efficient, business model of leadership, or the most professional praise band. Budgets and giftedness within the congregation will play a huge role in this level of our portrait of the church. I have a feeling that, in this day and age of mega-churches, that a good many people might be looking for the smaller, simpler church.

Here's a great exercise when looking at your church.  Periodically pretend that you know nothing about your church and you are visiting for the first time. Write down your impressions of the parking lot, the building, the foyer, the sanctuary, the coffee, and the people. Try to look at everything as if you were there for the very first time. It's quite revealing and might help in some decision making regarding external presentation.


Tuesday, August 13, 2013


For the introduction to this series, click here

When I think about the face of the church, what it looks like, and how it presents itself to its members and to the community in general, I like to think of two levels: the level of personal interaction and the level of external presentation. These aren't scientific, sociological, or demographic distinctions, they are merely my attempt to categorize what I've observed in my limited study of local churches.

Today, I want to look at the personal interaction.  In my opinion, this is the most important piece of the portrait of the local church.

Personal interaction is vital to the portrait of the local church. How a congregation relates to one another and to those who are visiting speaks volumes about the church. In an attractive church, people are talking to one another, there are lots of smiles, and handshakes, hugs, and high-fives are being exchanged. People seem genuinely glad to see each other.  It looks a lot like a family reunion, full of folks who have been apart for a week and can't wait to get caught up.
Image Credit: Western Saloon Clip Art from VECTOR.ME

This warmth comes across in how visitors are treated. Have you ever watched an old western movie where the hero walks into the saloon and the piano suddenly stops, poker players put their cards down and stare, and the barkeep nervously wipes the counter? Though not quite that severe, I have been in churches where a newcomer is treated like "the visitor (cue dramatic music)." The members were polite, but guarded, conversations ceased, and there was an overall formality in place. I'm sure if you asked its members, they would all describe their church as friendly, but the truth is, they were friendly to one another, but not necessarily to the stranger in their midst.

Contrast that with the church where a visitor is given a warm (but not overwhelming) welcome. A church where the newcomer doesn't have to guess where to go or what to do, because one (or more) of the members are right there to walk them through it. Oh, and these members aren't necessarily serving in an official capacity, they're just being themselves.

Obviously, this warm, inviting atmosphere has to start from the inside. The church is made up of Christians: men and women who have the Holy Spirit living inside and therefore, have a genuine faith that manifests itself on the outside. This is cultivated by deliberate fellowship, prayer, and solid Bible teaching. It also comes from the realization that we are all on a faith journey, meaning that I have struggles, you have struggles, we all have struggles, so let's help each other along.

Now because we are human, no church is going to display the warm, caring, friendly, joyful attitude one hundred percent of the time. But as the old saying goes, if someone is looking for a perfect church, they shouldn't join because they would ruin it. But since the church is comprised of people, this level is important to emphasize, grow, and develop as the local church presents itself to its community.

Unlike its secular counterparts, the local church does not grow primarily through advertising or programs. It grows through people...people sharing their lives, sharing their faith, and living it out on a personal level.

.Part 2

Monday, August 12, 2013


I am not an expert on church structures, but I like observing local churches and seeing how they present themselves to people and their communities. I like seeing the details of church life.  I collect church bulletins, I check streaming services from around the country, and I read books and articles. What a church "looks like" is of great interest to me.

As I indicated before, I am not an expert (if you are an expert on "organized ecclesiology", feel free to weigh in), but I like to think of two levels while thinking of the public face of the local church:

Level One: personal interaction. This is how the people behave toward each other and to newcomers. In many ways, it is based on a lot of intangibles, such as love, caring, compassion, welcome, acceptance, and so on, but it is really the most important element of the local church presentation.

Level Two: external presentation. These are things like buildings, worship service structure, church government, advertising, and other tangible items. While not the most important factor in what a church looks like, the external presentation can play an vital role in the picture of the church.

For the next couple of posts, I'm going to take a brief look at both of these levels and why neither has to be sacrificed for the other. I welcome your comments and ideas.

Part 1                Part 2