Choosing a curriculum for your congregation is a tricky business; there are a lot of questions to ask and answer before you dive in and begin planning. There are the obvious ones of cost to implement, ease of use, quality, and availability of materials—these are the easy ones to ask and answer.
The more difficult questions, however, are in many ways the more important ones: What is the viewpoint of this curriculum, theologically? Does it speak to the understanding of discipleship that we live out in this place? Does it honor the tradition of faith that we live into as a community of disciples?
I asked myself these questions as I flipped the lid of the campaign kit for Zondervan’s learning series The Story: The Bible as One Continuing Story of God and His People. The curriculum is the outgrowth of the book of the same name, compiled by Max Lucado and Randy Frazee of Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, TX.
The book is a retelling of our faith story (the Scripture) in one continuous, consecutive, redacted story. The authors used excerpts from the NIV translation of the Bible (a NKJV of the book is available, but the curriculum uses NIV only).
The idea to reshape the text as story seems like a natural follow-on to the school of so-called canonical interpretation, which works to view the Scripture as a whole. The Story takes the process one step further and actually reframes the story for the twenty-first-century reader. Of course, the act of text selection itself infuses the theology of the editors into the stories presented.
There is much to admire about The Story. As a curriculum, it is an educator’s dream. It contains a program for each of the major life stages in a congregation: adults, youth, and children (although a further division of the adult curriculum might be useful). It makes excellent use of video and provides extensive online resources. It uses play for learning purposes for the youth and children, and it includes at-home study materials for the family.
The kit provides thirty-one weeks of material for both participants and leaders and contains an amazing implementation guide which, if followed to the letter, will likely lead to a successful program—if the material is theologically consistent with what you want to teach (more on that below).
If the thirty-one-week program won’t work for your congregation, the curriculum can be taught as six separate mini-series. These units correspond to the authors’ division of the Biblical story into the movements of God in history.
The materials are beautifully produced and available in both English and Spanish. The Church Campaign Kit is available for $149 when purchased through www.thestory.com or $300 when purchased directly from Zondervan. Separate material bundles are available by target group: small group, youth, etc.
The Story kit is much more than a curriculum—it is church in a box. It also contains complete guidelines for sermon preparation with matching graphics and an accompanying contemporary music program.
And herein lies the danger of this program: if a congregation embraces the kit and implements the full program as published, they will be creating a massive learning context that may or may not support their own theology of discipleship.
The curriculum uses a consistent framework of interpretation throughout. For the authors, the Bible is a story on two tracks. First, there is the upper story that tells of God in history; and second, there is the lower story, or the story about the failings of our sinful human nature.
The foundational theological claims look like this: (1) God considers humankind his greatest creation. (2) God desires a relationship with us. (3) That relationship is continually blocked by our sinful nature, a nature we are born with as the descendants of Adam and Eve.
This viewpoint is a very clear throughout the materials, from those created for the small groups to the parent take-home materials aimed at children. If this viewpoint does not agree with the orientation of your teaching, you as an educator will need to view each lesson and make sure that you present alternate interpretations alongside each lesson in the curriculum.
As an educator myself, I realize that there is value in working with materials that discomfort us, if we use them thoughtfully and respectfully. That being said, my initial response to the premise of the series is discomfort—mostly with the idea that we must edit the biblical stories for our congregation.
The implementation materials suggest that by drawing people into the biblical stories with a less imposing form than the Bible itself, we may actually create the desire for further and more complete study of both faith and Scripture. I think that there is danger in that assumption because there is the possibility that this kind of reframing will create a comfortable space that doesn’t challenge the seeker to go deeper into their own study.
Would I as a small group leader choose The Story as study materials for my group? No, I would not. But I am a member of a free-will tradition that values the individual’s ability to read and interpret Scripture on their own.
Putting aside that opinion, if you are comfortable with the theological underpinnings here, either because they are consistent with your teaching plan or because you are willing to do the work to use them as a jumping-off point for discussion, The Story is a very useable, beautifully produced teaching tool.
Susan Sevier is a small group leader and Deacon at the Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. and an M.A. student in Christian Formation at the Virginia Theological Seminary.
The Church Campaign Kit for The Story is available for review in our Key Hall resource room at Virginia Theological Seminary.