Free Curriculum!

Back in 2016, a good thing happened. Free curriculum, that due to its source, can be considered doctrinally safe and sound. What follows has nothing to do with the curriculum.

I am genuinely pleased that in our capitalistic culture, the time and effort was made to help student ministries the world over with meeting this need.

However, in reading the comments from the press release, “Youth curriculum debuts_ 6-year free resource”, by Michael Foust on Baptist Press (http://www.bpnews.net), I do have a concern that the stated goals will not be achieved – and it has nothing to do with the curriculum.

I know, appreciate, and applaud Richard Ross. As a student at Southwestern, I was privileged to have him lead a class when he was only an adjunct professor. He’s been around student ministry a little longer than I have.

I know him well enough to know that he would likely agree with at least some of what I share below.

In the press release, Ross is quoted as saying,

“Our broken culture, the millions of lost in the U.S, and the unreached people groups globally demand that we develop true disciples,” Ross told the Southern Baptist TEXAN, news journal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

“Yes, we need to offer biblical ministry to every teenager, regardless of spiritual condition or motivation,” Ross said.”But every church absolutely must offer a place where those select teenagers gather to truly become world-changing disciples. That is what we are missing today, and that is what we must begin to do — or all is lost.”

While everything Ross shared above is absolutely true, neither he nor I, have ever seen or used any curriculum that can accomplish this.

Candy Finch, one of the writers of the curriculum is quoted:

“While many churches are doing a great job of discipleship, the truth is that we are losing the majority of our young people,” Finch told the TEXAN.

I also agree with Finch’s statement, but we are not losing them due to the content and quality of our curriculum. We are losing them, in part, because we are depending on the curriculum to do what God has called us to do.

Churches that are doing a great job of Discipleship use their curriculum to support their discipleship efforts. Some may even strategically choose or write their own so that what happens in the classroom aligns with what is happening in life.

As a youth minister that was purpose driven before the book was written, I love Richard’s question,

“What is your plan for discipling your core teenagers for six years, from grades 7-12?” (And what about your adults?)

It would be best if your answer to this question was crafted to answer the question posed by Thom Rainer in Simple Church. In his discussion of the imaginary pastor of the imaginary Cross Church, this pastor’s dream was accomplished, in part, because he answered the question_ “What does a mature disciple look like?

If you answer this question, and then build a ministry strategy that is designed to accomplish what you imagine, including the scope and sequence of your Bible Study, you have the best opportunity to develop that which you seek.

While I am extremely confident that Ross agrees that this plan must not depend solely on curriculum, the unintended consequence of the offer of free curriculum that promises… to make “teenage disciples who are fully prepared to disciple others — now and for a lifetime.” will not achieve the intended result.

Unless…

There are a couple of scenarios where this promise can be met.

Scenario 1: Maturity is characterized by the ability to follow curriculum.

Because experiential learning is a powerful method, it is likely that many students involved in six years of this study will be able to lead others through this study. That is a good thing. It is a really good thing if your definition of a disciple is someone who can lead others through a discipleship curriculum. If this is your definition, then the promise will be met.

You see, as Southern Baptists (speaking for myself) we’re really good at offering Bible Studies and believing that this simple fact means that we are making disciples. Bible Study = Discipleship. However, the facts don’t bear this out.

We’ve known for decades that a large percentage of students leave the church upon graduation. Many never return. Some return with then have children of their own. All of these students have been in Bible Study. Bible Study that, by and large, was led using some vetted and approved curriculum.

However, we’re now seeing the same thing happen with adults. There is a large number of formerly churched people in the United States that no longer want to be involved in church. It is one of the fastest growing segments of our culture. These people have been in Bible Study for years. Most also in a bible study that utilized some piece of curriculum.

And yet we are still seeing our churches close at a rate around 4000 a year. The curriculum will not fix this.

Scenario 2: Maturity is Characterized by Making Disciples (and the curriculum may only part of the process)

Andy Stanley, in his book Deep & Wide, makes the point that classes don’t …” create mature believers. Classes create smart believers.”

Again, experiential learning is a powerful method.

Discipleship is not the process of teaching others what you know, or – often in the case of curriculum – teaching others what you studied so that you could teach this week’s lesson. Discipleship is transferring what you experientially know to others so that they may know it experientially.

I’ve looked through some of the lessons in Disciple 6. Great topics. Valuable information. Anyone who purposefully goes through this material will certainly be smarter.

But, how powerful would your disciple-making process be if your students actually saw you witness well to Muslims so that when you lead them through Session Yellow 23, you and they share the life experience? This disciple-making would align with your study.

Discipleship is transferring what you experientially know to others so that they may know it experientially.

Don’t know any Muslims? Then how about Yellow Session 4 – “Defending the Faith in Society”. If your students only see you passionate about Christ inside the walls of your church, if they have never seen you “defend the faith in society”, you have lost opportunity to engage in disciple-making, regardless of which curriculum you use. But, if you were to purposefully place yourself, and those students you disciple, in situations where you – and they – can defend their faith in Society, how much more powerful would your Bible study be?

Smarter. Mature. Pick one.

What does a mature disciple look like? Create experiences and opportunities (outside of the church) for those you disciple to give them the best chance at getting there. Create experiences and align your Bible Study with those experiences.

Studying ministry is not experiencing ministry. Studying evangelism is not doing evangelism. The same can be said for (Spoiler Alert_ Discple6 topics ahead) Relationships, Ethics, Missions, Service, Prayer, Leadership, Worship, Stewardship.

Richard, to you and all of the authors, I thank you for this great work. To all who would use it, use it well, but don’t depend on it.

Making Pie

It’s called the Great Commission with reason. It’s not just a good commission. And it’s not just a great suggestion. 

It is the final instructions from Christ to His followers. All of His work up to this point was to accomplish our salvation and to prepare the messengers for the never-ending task of telling the story.

He said…

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” – Matthew 28:19-20 (NIV)

If your small group Bible Study needs a purpose beyond “being a small group” or “meeting weekly”, how about the Great Commission as a starting place?

Making Disciples is Like Making Pie

PIE:  You take some things that are not a pie, and you make them pie. If you follow the instructions (plan of baking), then some pretty bland things become some pretty sweet stuff.

DISCIPLES:  You take people that are not disciples and you make them disciples. If you follow the instructions (plan of salvation), some pretty bad things become pretty sweet spiritual stuff.

Contrary to popular opinion, making disciples is not making believers into stronger disciples. Jesus did not make a distinction between believers and disciples. In the New Testament era, they were the same thing. So, the “making of disciples” is actually evangelism – making those that are not disciples to be disciples. It is not telling believers how to be better. It is telling unbelievers how to believe.

The word them, refers to the disciples that are being made. Baptizing them, therefore, means that baptism is something that is done to those who have been evangelized.

Discipleship, as we call it in our culture, was important to Jesus as well. Once them have believed and been baptized, we should teach them to obey Jesus’ teachings. This certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be teaching unbelievers as well. It simply means that the process is not complete at the point of salvation.

Many small group Bible studies don’t make disciples, don’t see new believers baptized, and the teaching very often boils down to believers discussing things they already believe, as espoused by the newest author or literature as assigned by their church.

Jesus wasn’t giving us a checklist as he left for home. He was telling us to be in the life-changing business:  lost lives saved, saved lives grown, grown lives multiplied. Are the lives of people in your Bible study group changing?  Lost lives saved, saved lives grown, grown lives multiplied?

Who Should Go?

In most churches, the Bible Study ministry is the single largest ministry organization in the church. It encompasses more people and includes such organization, that if this ministry is not part of the “going”, there very likely is no going at all.

Certainly, pastors should go. But even here, Jesus did not make a distinction between clergy and laity. Of the very ones who received the original commission, most were “unschooled, ordinary men” (Acts 4:13). If we were to draw parallels, would these have been the seminary trained among their peers?

Perhaps the Choir should go? Perhaps the Building and Grounds Committee or the Flower Committee should go? But then, aren’t the people in these ministries also in the Bible Study ministry?  Does it really matter what church label they wear in order to go?

Who is Them?

Let’s start with who they are not. They are not members of other churches. While this generalization certainly does not refer to those that are not yet disciples, the overwhelming number of “non-disciples” is not in any church. They are in the world.

Facts about Them:

  • Them don’t attend church
  • Them strangers are easier to go to than Them neighbors
  • There are tens of thousands more of Them strangers than there are of Them neighbors
  • Them will go to hell unless believers go well

How many families visit your church, move into your church field, have kids who attend your VBS and other children’s activities, and have youth that attend your youth functions?  Most of them are THEM.  The others have the Holy Spirit as a source and guide.  If these others are seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they will very often be led to a church that is GOING after THEM.

What Does GO Mean?

GO does not mean wait for Them to come in. It means going to get Them, wherever Them are, and bringing Them along with you. Bringing Them in happens during the 6.5 days a week that we are not at church. On Sunday morning, by default, the church is waiting for Them to come in.

Let’s Be Chicken

The Bible Study small group should see itself as an incubator:  warm, secure, nurturing, safe, etc. Within the incubator are the “unhatched” and “newly hatched”. It is the environment that facilitates healthy birth and the beginning of a new life. Newborns are nurtured and fed until they can take care of themselves. But – and I encourage you to get a mental picture here – how old are the chickens in YOUR incubator?  Seems silly doesn’t it, to invest in the resources to facilitate new and healthy births, and then let the newborns live, age and die as if they are, and will always be, babies. Are you still nurturing and feeding the fully grown?

When Christians discover God’s plan and will for their lives, the Holy Spirit is free to walk through this newly opened doorway to move them – change them – into what He desires. They will then be empowered to step out of the incubator and participate in the full life and fellowship of the “farm family.” Maturing believers run incubators, they don’t live in them.

This kind of life change – spiritual transformation – cannot be taught. It cannot be caught. It can only be facilitated.

So, perhaps Jesus meant this…

Therefore go get THEM, and make THEM disciples [from] all nations, baptizing THEM in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching THEM to obey everything I have commanded you.

“And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  It’s hard to imagine that Jesus meant that He would be with us as we do our ministry without going after THEM, or study His Word without THEM new disciples and disciples-to-be.

Small group Bible study is a marvelous tool for accomplishing that to which all of us are called. God’s Word and relationships are the stuff of life change, and those are the key elements of any small group.

The Great Commission is a great purpose to consider for your small group. If you accept the commission, it may very well change what you do in your small group, but it will be a change for the better!

Try this exercise.  Dialogue with those in your Bible study about why Christians do or don’t go.  Write the reasons down.  Spend enough time at this so that all agree that the list is fairly comprehensive.  Then mark out all of the reasons that are not about THEM.

Perhaps that part about “everything He commanded” needs a little more attention.

Hancock, The Train, and Confirmation Bias

There’s this scene in the movie, Hancock. You know the one. It was one of those that just stunned you momentarily when you saw it. It’s still fun to watch today.

But it got me thinking about a declaration I’ve heard in many churches in which I’ve been involved.

Here’s a guy with all of the resources in the world to do whatever needs to be done, and he saves this one guy in less than stellar fashion. The crowd is up in arms. The damage that’s done to automobiles, the crushed train engine, the derailment of dozens of railroad cars, power lines, and what turns out to be the last remnant of Hancock’s reputation are overwhelming and devastating.

The crowd surrounds Hancock and yells that he could have simply picked the car up off of the train tracks and moved it out of the way. Not one of us would disagree with the crowd. He had plenty of time do this another way. Hancock, living with the sort of denial that psychologists refer to as “confirmation bias” argues with the crowd and levels personal, verbal attacks as a way of justifying what he did as acceptable. Though he didn’t say it exactly this way, his attitude is, “What’s your problem?  I saved his life, didn’t I? Wasn’t it worth it?”

I used to be a member of a mid-sized church that every year produced a major Christmas program as an outreach event. Here is the short list of statistics from the event several years ago:

  • $ 16,000 – and this was because they only had to upgrade software and equipment that they had purchased over the years as they built up this event.
  • 200,000 man-hours. Months of choir rehearsals, drama rehearsal, orchestra rehearsal, light and sound technicians, set and stage design and construction, publicity and promotion, break down and clean up. Add in the hours that soloists and actors spent on their own, learning their parts, and 200,000 man hours is a very conservative number.
  • 4 performances, involving approximately 175 participants, with an average attendance somewhere in the 800 range.
  • 5 response cards turned in.
  • 1 person reported accepting Christ (but this person also reported a re-commitment to Christ).

And then someone says it. “If we reach only one, it was worth it.”

Could we not have found some way, with all of those resources, to pick up that one person that needed saving without derailing thousands of dollars and hundreds of thousands of man-hours? Let me be clear: everyone is worth saving. However, I’m fairly confident that if it takes $16,000 and 200,000 man-hours to reach each person, the cause of Jesus Christ is lost.

This was not the first year, nor was it the last, that this church produced such a program. The program was driven by those that love music and drama. Calling it an outreach event gave it the spiritual justification it needed. The reality is that outreach did not happen. But having 3000 people attend the event made it easy to believe that outreach was happening, even though it wasn’t.

Raymond Nickerson, of Tufts University, defines Confirmation Bias:

Confirmation bias, as the term is typically used in the psychological literature, connotes the seeking or interpreting of evidence in ways that are partial to existing beliefs, expectations, or a hypothesis in hand. 


Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises”, copyright 1998 by the Educational Publishing Foundation

In other words, Confirmation Bias is the intentional or unintentional practice of ignoring or discounting any information that does not agree with what we already believe. This bias includes the desire to seek out and rationalize any information that will support what we do believe. (This is often the cause of proof-texting with scripture: taking passages out of context to “prove” a point or position.) Don’t confuse me with the facts… my mind is made up.

Something that often happens on this journey away from effectiveness is the subtle redefinition of effort. Somewhere along the way, this outreach event became a “gift to the community.” There was no change in effort, no change in expense – only the purpose changed. And it changed to match what was already happening. It changed from being “so that” people would be reached for Christ, into a gift for the community “because” that is what it had become. The encouragement to invite friends and family worked. However, the fact is, the longer one is a Christian, the more “Christian” is their circle of family and friends. We filled the house with believers. But because most of us did not know most of them, it felt like outreach.

In other situations, the word remains the same, but the meaning changes. “Outreach” too often is satisfied by events that draw other Christians to your church. Let me ask you to consider your pantry and your refrigerator. As the master of your home, if you were to take cheese, lettuce, and chicken out of your refrigerator and place them in your pantry, would you then look in your pantry and think (with the appropriate amount of Confirmation Bias), “Wow, I’ve got more food in my house now.”

Do we think that the Master is somehow fooled into thinking that He has more people in His house because someone has moved from The Reformed Refrigerator to Protestant Pantry? It’s not possible to reach out to those that are already reached. Confirmation Bias allows us to believe it is.

Now, here is the solution for Confirmation Bias.  Stop it. Just stop it. Stop deceiving yourself because of your bias for your own preferences, programs, personalities, and polity. If your church has a purpose statement, ask yourself and others:

  • Are we really doing this? No, really, really doing this? (In other words, is this really our purpose, or is it simply a statement in a frame, hung on a wall?)
  • How are we doing at this point in time?
  • What specific plans do we have to accomplish this purpose?
  • Will those plans really get us there?
  • What is my specific role?
  • Am I willing to do what is necessary?
  • What gifts has God placed in our body to help us accomplish His purpose?
  • How will we move our membership into alignment in this purpose?

And, equally important:

  • What are we doing that is working against this purpose? (For example, time, people, and resources are not unlimited.) In other words, what do we need to say “No” to, so that we have the time, people, and resources to say “Yes” to God’s purpose?
  • What barriers do we need to overcome?
  • What processes need to change?
  • What polity needs to change?
  • What programs need to change?

If your church does not have a purpose (statement), set about arriving at what God’s purpose for your church is, and then set a strategic plan in place to accomplish that which God has set for you to do. And please, let the facts confuse you. And let the wisdom of God bring clarity to your mind.

The Well-Trained Stay on Track

ontrack_03482I grew up with railroad tracks running behind my house. I cannot remember a time that I could go to sleep without hearing the clackity-clack of the wheels on the tracks, boxcar after boxcar rumbling by in the dark.

Some years ago, I lived even closer to the tracks in Colorado. They ran about thirty feet away from my home. They didn’t often run at night like they did in my old North Carolina home, but they did have some things in common.

  • No train ever moved without knowing where it was going. Those tracks are there for a reason.  Forward-thinking individuals envisioned destinations, planned the way, built the structure, cleared obstacles, and set in motion journey after journey that impacts the lives of thousands of people every day.
  • Except for the tragic, every train arrives at its destination. Unless a train goes off its tracks, hits an obstacle on the tracks, or runs out of fuel, it will arrive at its destination. It knows where it is going and how it will get there. It knows what potential problems may arise, and often where to expect them (we call them “railroad crossings”). And with apologies to an air conditioner company, “it’s hard to stop a train”.
  • Except for the dying, every train journeys toward a new destination. Sometimes, a train is put out of its misery. It has traveled hard and long, and repairs to make it functional are simply not worth the expense.  Otherwise, every train gets set on a new journey as soon as the present one is completed.

Churches could learn a lot from trains.

  • No church ever moved without knowing where it was going. Oh, there is the illusion of movement, but running in circles is not really going anywhere. It is not only possible, but it is Biblical for the leaders of a church to know where God wants them to go, if only for the current journey. It is possible to envision destinations, plan the way, build the structure, clear obstacles, and set in motion journey after journey that impacts the lives of thousands of people every day. The apostles did it following Jesus’ teaching, and the scripture reports that these unlearned men “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6, ASV). They knew where they were going, the followed a plan, built the church structure, cleared obstacles, and set in motion the journey that has resulted in generations of new disciples for Christ. However, in the United States, thousands of churches each year reach no one for Christ. Thousands each year reach one or two. These thousands and many thousands more reach people accidentally. There is no plan and no structure. But even running in circles tends to stir up the occasional accidental opportunity.
  • Except for tragedy, every church can arrive at its destination.  There really are only a few reasons why churches don’t arrive at God’s plan. And it is a tragedy when they don’t. Churches that are on track are not surprised by the occasional obstacle.  In fact, they have predicted it, planned for it, and deal with it appropriately. They know where they are going, how many resources it will take to arrive, and they have a plan to work these things together for that good journey. A church headed in God’s direction is hard to stop.  Unfortunately, it’s also hard to stop one that is running in circles.
  • Except for the dying, every church journeys toward a new destination. Sometimes, a church does run out of track. But unlike trains, churches don’t have to be “retired”.  Trains only have two choices: continue to new destinations or retire. Nobody wants a train that just sits on the tracks blocking traffic or runs in circles.  These are not the purpose of a train. Sitting and circles are really just the first stages of running out track.

The well-trained stay on track.