Jen Wilkin on Reclaiming Sunday School for a New Generation

Jen Wilkin on Reclaiming Sunday School for a New Generation

Jen Wilkin on Reclaiming Christian Education in the Local Church


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Jen Wilkin: My name is Jen Wilkin. I am the director of classes and curriculum at The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas.

We are here today to talk about, probably, my favorite subject. Well, I would say a subset of this is my favorite subject, which is Bible literacy.

But we’re here to talk about Christian education in the local church. Not Your Grandma’s Sunday School Class is, I think, the title that I came up with for this. How many of your churches, those churches that are represented here, how many of you, in your churches, are still adhering to a Sunday school model? Can I see your hands? Okay. That’s a fair number of you. And then how many of you have more of a simple church model?

You know what I mean? Like, where you have just home groups and then you have weekend services, whatever you call home groups? Let’s see. Okay, so that’s a fair number as well. How many of you would say that your church has some form of formalized Christian education happening at it? Okay, great. Well, hopefully, I’ll be preaching to the choir.

We will see. So, my role at The Village Church means that I am responsible for all of our adult classes. And so, we have men’s and women’s Bible studies, we have core classes that teach things like foundations of the faith or how to study your Bible, and then we also have…

It’s after lunch and I can’t even think. We’ve got core classes, and men’s and women’s Bible study, and we also have a training program in the institute that is not under my responsibility but which we feed our students into. And the training program is so that you can receive seminary-level instruction at the local church level. You can do the training program for up to 21 hours of seminary credit for about $1,000.

And partnering with Southern and DTS, yeah. But also you can just do it as a lay person and you can do it, not for seminary credit, and I think it costs something like $200 to do that 32 weeks of a mix of biblical and… Guys, it’s going to be a rough session, I can’t talk. Biblical and systematic theology.

And so, that is something that…and then we also have a residency program for sort of a next step. And we wanted to do this because seminary is incredibly expensive and also because we believe that we need those kinds of ideas being communicated at the local church level in more a church of a certain size.

And so we felt like, for our church, in particular, we needed to think on these things and see about solutions. Why is Christian education important in the local church? Well, how about we start with a pop quiz? Are you ready? You got something to write on? We’re going to do a quick little 20-question quiz. You ready?

Number one. Are you ready? I didn’t hear a lot of paper shuffling. Okay.

Number 1, name the first three Israelite kings. We’re going to move pretty fast, by the way.

Number 2, where did Jesus grow up?

Number 3, who lived in Ur and moved to a country he did not know?

Number 4, what were the occupations of Cain and Abel? Cain and Abel.

Number 5, who prophesied, “For unto us a child is born, unto us, a son is given?”

Number 6, how many books are in the Bible? How many are in the Old Testament? And how many are in the new?I see some of you are not writing and that is upsetting to me. That’s all one question, yes.

Number 7. How many years of famine did Joseph prophesy to Pharaoh?

Number 8, what was the name of Jacob’s youngest son?

Number 9 , what is Noah’s first act when he emerges from the ark?

Number 10, who are the sons of Zebedee?

Number 11, how many people were saved on the ark? You’re past the halfway point. How you feeling?

Number 12, who said to whom, “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart?”Who said to whom, “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart?”

Number 13, what type of animal did Balaam ride? Extra points for the King James. Always. Always. Always.

Number 14, who commanded the sun and moon to stand still?

Number 15, which of Jesus’ miracles is recorded in all four gospels? So, one of his miracles is recorded in all four gospels. Which one is it?

Number 16, what is the other name for Mount Horeb?

Number 17, what were the names of the mother and grandmother of Jacob? Mother and grandmother of Jacob, in that order.

Number 18, which two men are recorded as not having died?

Number 19, who made the golden calf? You’re almost there guys.

Number 20, which disciple found a coin in the mouth of a fish? Good?

Now, hand your paper to the person next to you. I’m kidding. But let’s go quickly through the answers and see how you did.

Number 1, who were the first three Israelite kings? Saul, David, Solomon.

Where did Jesus grow up? Nazareth.

Who lived in Ur? Abraham.

What were the occupations of Cain and Abel? [Together] Farmer, Shepherd.

Who prophesied, “For unto us a child is born?”  [Together] Isaiah.

How many books are in the Bible?  [Together] 66.

How many in the Old? – [Together] 39. How many in the New? – [Together] 27.

How many years of famine did Joseph prophesy? [Together] Seven.

What was the name of Jacob’s youngest son? [Together] Benjamin.

You guys are doing great. Hope you don’t ruin my illustration. What is Noah’s first act when he emerges from the ark? Builds an altar and offers sacrifices.

Who are the sons of Zebedee? – [Together] James and John. –

How many people were saved on the ark? – [Together] Eight.

Who said to whom, “Man looks on the outward appearance, the Lord looks on the heart?” God to Samuel.

That’s right. What type of animal did Balaam ride? Loud and proud. – [Together] An ass.

Nice. 14, who commanded the sun and moon to stand still? Guys, you never pass up an opportunity to say, “Balaam’s talking ass.” Every chance you get, always use the King James.Sorry. Sorry, Presbyterians. Okay. Joshua commanded the sun and moon to stand still.

Which of Jesus’ miracles is recorded in all four gospels? That’s right. Feeding of the 5,000.

What’s the other name for Mount Horeb? Sinai.

What were the names of the mother and grandmother of Jacob? Mother was Rebecca. Grandmother was Sarah. Which two men are recorded as not having died? Enoch and Elijah.

Who made the golden calf? Aaron.

And which disciple found a coin in the mouth of a fish? Peter.

Okay. So let’s have a little show of hands. How many in the room got 16 or more? You guys rock. That’s pretty good. I’ll tell you what, that’s the most hands that I’ve seen any time I’ve ever given this quiz proportionally. So, way to go TGC crowd. Good job. Good job. Now, let me ask you, though, as I was asking those questions, how were you feeling in your stomach?

Man 1: Tested.

Jen Wilkin: Yeah, it made you a little nervous, didn’t it? Did you have to struggle to come up with some of those answers? Right? Okay. I need you to remember that feeling. I need you to remember that feeling because that is the feeling that the average person in the pews each week is feeling. And they think that they can’t tell anyone that that’s the way that they feel because the assumption that we make is that we all know our Bibles.

Now, I didn’t even get into questions of doctrine, and I didn’t ask you to articulate a robust view of the Trinity. I did not ask you about the dual nature of Christ. There were a whole list of things that could have been on here, which, frankly, would have been a little hard to administer as test questions in this format. But would you have felt any discomfort around answering those questions?

Probably so. And what we began to see at my church, but what I see all over the place, is that we have seats filled on the weekends with people who are hoping that they will not be discovered for what they do not know. And yet, these are people who deserve to know about their faith and deserve to know about their sacred text.

And so, what Christian education says is, “We see you and we acknowledge that this is something for all of us.” The first time I read this quiz, I felt panicked. And I teach the Bible weekly. I don’t know the Bible as well as I should. So, it’s the job of the church to make sure that our people are growing in their understanding of the scriptures and in their understanding of the doctrines that we hold for orthodoxy.

So why did so many people dump Sunday school? Right? A lot of us were like, “No, we’re not doing that anymore.” And why? Why did that happen? Well, Sunday school actually began in the 1780s, and it was started as a space to teach children how to read, who were laboring in factories all week long. And can you guess what was used to teach them how to read?

The Bible, that’s right. So it was the original Bible literacy platform. And then, in the 1870s, public education came along and Sunday school began to be repurposed for other things. It became a place where there was education for children through adults. But then, it’s fair to say that in many churches there was sort of a mission drift around Sunday school.

And at the time that many churches were saying, “I don’t want to do Sunday school anymore,” Sunday school was no longer doing, from a discipleship standpoint, what it had at one time done. Then, over the past 20 years or so, we’ve seen a move toward a more decentralized ministry model to more organic ministry structures.

And our highest stated value for many of us in our churches has been community, trying to address this epidemic of loneliness that we see in our society. Many churches have said, “Our number one stated goal is for you to live life with one another.” But where we can end up with that is with a pendulum swing that renders our churches well-connected communities of biblically and doctrinally illiterate believers.

So, I would say that the current state of things has come to this. People typically come and sit to hear teaching over a passage that they have spent no time in themselves before they hear teaching over it.

So we would call that a passive learning experience. Not only that, but as long as we perceived in the culture that Christianity was kind of the main thing, that most of us were Christians, we probably weren’t as focused as we should have been on making sure that those who called themselves Christians knew why they believed what they believed grounded in the word of God.

And over time, there developed a divide between the person who stands up here and the person who sits out there. And I call that the expert-amateur divide. And so, the person who stands up here was perceived to be the expert and the person who sits out there is perceived to be the amateur. And my job is to teach you in such a way that when I finished teaching, you’re left with the impression of, “Wow, how did that person do that? That was amazing.”

And I would even say that those who inhabited the expert area of this analogy even got comfortable with it. We liked the way that it felt. But a disciple is a learner. And if the church is to fulfill the great commission so that we might “Go and make disciples, teaching them to obey all that he has commanded,” then we’re going to have to diminish the expert-amateur divide.

Because what resulted from this were people sitting in the pews with a sort of learned helplessness, “I need someone to tell me what the Bible says.I need someone to tell me how doctrines work.” And we began to have almost entirely passive learning environments. Not only that, but there was a proliferation of materials available to us through other sources.

You know, does anybody remember tape ministries back in the day? Cassette tapes? I still got me some sweet R.C. Sproul on some cassette tapes up in the game room, I just can’t get rid of them. I don’t even own a cassette player anymore, but this happy memory is there. And so, when the internet comes along and changes all of that, all of a sudden, we all have a lot of access to a lot of content.

And we believed that content was what would make us grow and develop. We lost a sense of the importance of incarnational teaching. So, I’m the chiefest of sinners here. I put out video-driven Bible studies. Do you know what I don’t want? I don’t want my head on a screen in every church women’s ministry.

That may be a starting point for people, but it should be a means to an end, until there can be a living, breathing person there, teaching the scriptures to your people. Because they’re not going to dialog with me, they’re not going to be able to follow up with a question with me. And there’s a real risk of preserving the expert-amateur divide if those who are utilizing those resources don’t understand that it exists.

So, the other problem that had crept into the church was that we got into a pattern of looking around at all of the things that people were doing and saying to ourselves, “Well, people only have so much time to commit to this.” So what we need to do is we just need to keep lowering the bar on what we’re asking them so that they will opt in.

This is one of the things that has driven me crazy the most. Because have you looked around and noticed, first of all, we live in a day and time where studies would show we have more discretionary time than people who’ve lived at any other time in human history. And yet, the church has a tendency to apologize for asking for it.

And then, to give cookies on the bottom shelf when we do finally get you through the doors. People have discretionary time and they’re going to choose where they spend it, but they’re not going to spend it with the person who asks the least of them. Your people do Whole30, they run marathons, they are able to commit and to be disciplined.

They are going to commit and be disciplined to the most compelling message. So we, in the church, need to make sure that we’re communicating to our people that discipleship matters and that it’s worth the time that you invest.

So, one of the first things that a church does when it begins asking questions about discipleship is to say, “Well, what do our people need?”Or, “What are our people asking for?” And an important step in developing any kind of Christian education strategy is to change that question to a different one. Because your people don’t know what they need. Now, I don’t mean that they’re children, but I do mean that this idea is so lost on them at this point, that it is up to those of us who are in leadership to say, ” This is how disciples are formed.”

Not only that, but the other thing that people can ask is, “Well, what do we like to focus on?Like, what’s really in our wheelhouse?” And then we go to the things that feel most comfortable to our staff or the people who that we have currently serving in ministry capacities as we think what discipleship is going to look like. But the more important question to ask is this, “How are disciples formed?”

How are disciples formed? And this is actually not a terribly hard question to answer because it’s being answered for us all over the place in other environments. Because you’ve heard the expression, “We’re all being discipled by something.” So, who’s good at discipling people into what they want them to do?

Pay attention to what they’re doing, and then see which parts of it might be a good fit in the church. So, at The Village, for many years, we were a simple church. We had home groups and we had weekend services, and that was it. And that presented several problems. One, was that we only had two environments where you could connect with people. One was a giant room that required zero commitment and the other was a tiny room that required you sign your life away in blood for the rest of your life.

And you had to go through what was the rough equivalent of a speed dating process to find this group over here. So, over time, we began to realize that that was not going to work long term and we began to ask some better questions about how disciples are formed. And I am not digging on home groups. Home groups are fantastic at community.

But to call them teaching environments is a stretch. Anybody been in a small group and tried to do a Bible study and have any kind of, you know, really quality discussion around it? Now, if your home group leader happens to be a Bible teacher, then you might be in good hands. But the reality that churches face is that we have a critical mass of people who can facilitate a discussion and only a handful of people who are gifted and trained to teach.

And so, when you have this highly dispersed view of discipleship, then you’re leaving what is being taught open to a lot of questions. And it’s very hard to make sure that what you wanted to be taught is what actually got taught. So, we’ve had a fascination with organic ministry models, that is good in so far as you have things like home groups that are serving a particular purpose in the church.

But anytime we want someone to learn something and know it well, organic is not going to be their friend. My daughter, Mary Kate, is graduating in May with a BS in Chemistry. She believed that there was a lot at stake if she didn’t know which chemicals went with which chemicals. Felt like there were probably some actual consequences related to that. Plus, she wanted to get a job in that field and so she really needed to learn chemistry exceptionally well. When my daughter wanted to learn chemistry, guess what she did not do?

She did not… She did not gather with a group of her peers and have a feelings-level discussion of Chapter 5 of the Chemistry textbook. What did she do? She went and found the best instructor she could.

She had an element of self-study before she went to class, she had group elements to what she did, and then she sat under teaching from someone who knew what they were talking about. I don’t know about you, but I actually believe there are very real and dangerous consequences for mishandling this information.

And I want our people to be discipled into it in a way that is not a mystery, but that is actually pretty obvious. What if the local church took a few plays from just the playbook that any education environment was using? So, at The Village, we decided that we needed scope and we needed sequence.

A lot of times what happens is we go, “Oh, we need classes.” And so, we just start coming up with things that we want people to take part in. But instead, it’s better to think, “No. What’s the main thing?” Like, what is the person who’s a new believer or who has never thought about these things, what do they need first? And then, what are the things that everyone needs? So in our case, that’s Bible study. I would say that’s in your case too, but I’ll try to give you that hard sell as we go along.

And then, lastly, what are the next steps for people who maybe are a little more mature in their faith? But what I want you to know is that people are generally untaught with regard to the things of the Lord. And that doesn’t mean that they haven’t listened to podcasts, and it doesn’t mean that they haven’t gone online and watched videos, and it doesn’t mean that they haven’t come to conferences.

But you realize that here, this thing you’re doing right now, it’s a passive learning environment, because it required nothing of you before you came in the room and sat down. And so, what learning is, is it’s partnering in the process. It’s taking on some of the risk and discomfort associated with acquiring a skill or acquiring an area of expertise. So we’re looking in all of our environments at The Village to have what we call dedicated active learning environments.

So, active just means that when you come and participate in one of these learning environments, you’re going to be asked to do work. So, we’re raising the bar. Okay? And so, we’re going to have three elements to any class that we put together, I call this the three-legged stool of learning. And that is, we’re going to have personal study time, and then we’re going to have time where you discuss in a group of peers, and then we’re going to have time where you sit under teaching.

And those things are going to happen in that order. Why is the order important? What happens if I put the small group discussion time after the teaching time? Are they going to talk about what they thought about what they were learning? No, they’re going to talk about what I said in the teaching time. And we’ve gotten back into a more passive learning pattern. And so, we placed the discussion time before the teaching time.

Now, this can be a little counter-intuitive because a lot of the patterns that we’ve gotten into with the way that we’ve been resourced are… How many women in here have done women’s Bible studies for their whole lives? Okay, great. And so, you remember how you would get that curriculum, and you’d be reading along, and you’d hit a question that was kind of hard and you’d be like, “Ooh, that’s kind of hard.But I bet if I just keep reading a little further down, that I’m going to find the answer.”

Right? Not only that, but many of the things that we have called Bible studies, were actually not really Bible studies in the purest sense. And so, one of the things we’ve had to do is really fight to refine that term and say, “There are book studies, and there are devotionals, and there are topical studies, and then there are Bible studies.”

Because we found that many of our people thought they had been going to Bible studies for years when, in fact, they hadn’t, and they would have flunked this quiz big time. Why? Because they were reading about the Bible, but they weren’t necessarily reading the Bible. So, when we think about this time where they’re spending time doing their work on their own, it is probably not what you’re thinking of.

It is not a time where I go through and I work whatever the assignment was and I feel really good at the end of it. It’s actually intended to raise dissonance like all good learning environments do. So, anytime you’ve learned something new, the first time that you did it, you felt really dumb. Have you noticed this?

Anybody play a musical instrument? And the first time you sat down to play it, you were bad at it and you did not enjoy yourself. And then you came back and you did it again, and you came back and you did it again, and again, and again. And over time, you grew in your proficiency. And the same is true of learning anything, but it’s certainly true of learning the Bible and doctrine. And we have a misconception that learning spiritual things should be easy because God wants me to learn them and I have the Holy Spirit.

But when Peter gives his analogy for this in 1st Peter, he uses a nursing analogy. Sorry guys, hang with me for a second. He says that we should crave the milk of the word, the pure milk of the word, like newborn infants. Ladies, how easy is it to nurse? It starts out almost impossible, and then, it gets better as the child learns how to do it.

And if this is the metaphor that we see in Peter, First Peter, I mean…by the way, he’s a dude, he wrote it. You guys can relax a little bit. We should understand that even when we come to the scriptures, that we should not expect that wisdom is just going to drop from the heavens into our brains. This is something that’s worth investing in a learning process for.

So, we’re looking for active learning environments where, in the time that we’re doing work on our own, we are being stretched to think and we probably come into our small group time, not entirely certain of some of the answers. You don’t…nobody gets to, like, check off their homework and say, “I got an A.” They’re going to come in and then they’re going to have a discussion based around… and this is important, around the homework, not around how they’re feeling this week, not around prayer requests.

And for those of you who’ve done BSF, do you hear me ripping it off big time? Yeah. What we want to do in the local churches, pay attention to why things like BSF and CBS have endured for as long as they have. And we’re going to get to some of those things in just a minute. And then, we want to say, “How could we bring those beautiful things into the local church where we’re learning in community with one another?”

So you go from small group time to…well, you go from individual time to small group time, where I jokingly say it’s a pooling of ignorance, but that’s not strictly true, it’s a pooling of what you have drummed up during your personal time, and comparing notes, and asking questions. And here’s why that’s a pretty affirming time. It’s a time where we can admit that feeling that’s in the pit of our stomachs and where we can find out that other people are in the same place that we are, “Oh, but maybe someone’s a little further along and I really liked the way that person paraphrased this. That’s better than my paraphrase.”

Those kinds of things. And then, you go from there into the teaching time. And a good teacher is aware of what was happening in those other two environments and is looking to close the gaps at that point, is looking to give some resolution to the tension that has been raised. So, the order in which those things happen matters.

But that’s how we designate something as an active learning environment versus a passive learning environment. Sunday morning gathering? That’s a passive learning environment. Now, you can make it more of an active learning environment by publishing what you’re going to be preaching over before Sunday, so people can read it, but I’ll tell you what I’ve found.

When you do that, it raises the bar on what you have to teach. Because you can’t fudge past the hard parts because they spent a week looking at it. I actually love that. That is really energizing for me in the Women’s Bible study that I’m teaching. Can’t dodge the hard stuff, but not only that, you can take the teaching a lot further when you know that someone has spent time thinking about it before they got there.

Think about how much time we have to spend in a one-off message, building out the context, and giving people a framework for it. That’s another apologetic for teaching entire books of the Bible in these environments. So, active learning environments, and then dedicated learning environments. That’s the other word that you heard me say. And I’ve touched on this a little bit with the small group time and the way that we structure it.

But when I say dedicated, what I mean is that the highest stated purpose of that environment is learning. Unapologetically. We’re not worried about people saying, “Aren’t Pharisees going to come out of there?” We’re not worried about people saying, “Why do you hate community?” We are saying, “This is a place where we come for learning.”

Now, I’m in the women’s classes and I am not worried one bit that those women are going to make friends with one another. Right? The men’s classes, it’s really interesting to see, because the men are like, “Finally I get to just sit somewhere and think, instead of having to gut myself, like a fish, you know, and tell you all my feels.” And so…and this is an interesting thing and I would add to this as I’m on this little portion of my rant, that single-gender learning environments are an important part of this conversation.

Some of you know that I have talked fairly extensively about women in the church and the importance for there to be overlap and male-female environments, and I 100% believe that and I also 100% believe that single-gender learning environments are solid gold. I think it’s a both/and. You’re going to have some people who are going to feel comfortable whether they’re in single gender or mixed gender, but for many of us, we’re going to feel much more comfortable entering into a conversation.

So, for women, in particular, women are more comfortable entering into a thought-level discussion around the text when it is women only, and… for example, last week we taught on the story… the last two weeks of our study, we taught on David and Bathsheba, and then we taught on the rape of Tamar. I am so thankful that we had a single-gender space to teach that in and for women to process that in, because we had a ton of stories come out of that, that probably wouldn’t have in a mixed-gender environment.

So, when I say that learning is our highest stated goal, what I’m not saying is, we’re just coldly delivering content to you. If we’re doing it right, it’s going to hit us in the gut. It should impact us at the feelings level. But we’re not starting with the feelings level and hoping that the thought level happens, we’re starting with the thought level and allowing the feelings level to come along after we have thought hard and well about what we are learning.

This is particularly foreign to a lot of women’s Bible study environments. And then for men’s groups, when it’s just a single-gender men’s group, we have actually found that the press is to get them to stop talking about what they think and begin talking about what they feel. So there are nuances to this, but it is good to have options that are both single gender and mixed gender, so that everybody finds the learning environment that is most productive for them when they’re going to commit their time to it.

So the three-legged stool is that you have individual time, and that you have group discussion time, and that you have teaching time, in that order. Those are the building blocks for an active learning environment. And then, stating up front, “Our primary goal is learning.” So that when people come, because you’ll have to retrain people, they’re going to come expecting that it’s going to be a small group where you all talk about what this verse means to me, or about how you felt about it, how it hit you.

And we’re going to try to retrain people to say, “No, there’s actually an objective meaning that we’re trying to uncover here.” And we can talk about how you feel about it and what you thought it meant, but we’re going to do that within an organized context. And this is going to be important because you’re going to have to rebuild expectations and you’re going to then have to build trust that you are going to guard that time for what you said that it was for.

So there’s a training element to this. If you have…so I’m talking about, specifically, The Village. By nature of our facilities, we have to do large format. I don’t hate it. It means we have lead teachers and then everybody’s in small groups with a bunch of small group leaders. So, when we train our small group leaders, we have to coach them around, “Hey, it is your job to be a co-learner and a facilitator, not an expert and not a teacher.”

If they think that they’re a teacher, then the three-legged stool gets broken because people have private learning time, and then they have teaching time, and then they have teaching time. And they’re fatigued by the time they actually get into the actual teaching time. So we train small group leaders to be co-learners and facilitators, so that what they’re doing is making sure that a discussion stays on track and honors the learning outcome for that week.

But it’s not enough for us to just set that expectation with our leaders. We also say it at the beginning of the semester to everyone who attends, because that way, there’s accountability on both sides. That way, if you have a small group leader who’s like, “I mean, I heard that, but we’re still going to do prayer requests for 30 minutes at a time and then we’re going to rush through 15 minutes of discussion,” then someone in that group is going to come tell me on the survey at the end of the year, “Hey, that didn’t happen in my group,” and then we’re able to make sure that these groups are doing what we asked them to do.

And then it also helps everybody who’s going to be in the group to know, “Oh, it’s this, not that.” So that, because if we’re saying, “Commit your time to this,” then we want to make sure that we’re delivering on what we said we were going to do. So along those lines, I think that what people would like to believe is if we just have really good content, that’s going to solve our problems.

And I wish that that were true, but Sunday school hung around for a really long time, even after the content had gone way south. And why is that? Well, I think it’s because there are some generally recognizable structures that can help us design environments that people tend to opt into, whether anything good is happening or not.

These are the kinds of things that your kids’ soccer coach is offering and these are the kinds of things that your personal trainer is offering. Like, have you ever had a personal trainer? I’ve never had a personal trainer, so this is getting a little vulnerable. But let’s say you had a personal trainer, can you imagine them going, “You know what, we’ll just get together whenever. We’ll work out the times.” They would never do that.

They would never go with an organic model of meeting with you because they know that you need some things to keep you engaged in the process. And so, we have a terrible acronym. It’s SPAACE with two A’s. So, SPAACE. We’re looking to create SPAACE for Christian education, and here are the deal breakers.

You could drop terrible content into this and people would probably still opt in for 22 weeks out of the year. The first…the S in SPAACE is structure. Structure. We design environments that honor the participant’s commitment. Spiritual formation happens in environments where the method is clearly stated and followed and participants know what to expect of leaders and vice versa.

So, the Bible studies that we’re doing at The Village are formulaic. They do basically the same thing every time, just in a different book of the Bible. And everybody knows that the structure is we’re going to pick an Old Testament book one year and a New Testament book the next year, or depending on the length, it might be, you know, one semester of two books. And we are going to follow the same formula of learning that we have all along.

And then, they know that we’re going to have small group time, and we’re going to have worship in between, and then we’re going to have the teaching time. So, a very structured approach that’s going to help people opt-in with the time that they have. Next, predictability. We attempt to have our calendars and schedules follow the rhythm of our people’s lives.

So, we adhere to the same pattern every year so that our people can anticipate and plan for when and where our meeting times occur. The smaller your church is, the more likely you are to dabble and test, right? And to go, “Oh, well, we tried that.It didn’t work. So we changed it.” And so, I would urge you to take a look at the rhythms in your community.

So this is what it looks like for me at The Village. I know that I can do 11 weeks between Labor Day and Thanksgiving. And then I can do 11 weeks from the third week in January to the second week in April. And that will mean that our spring break neatly transects the middle of the study. Why is that important? Because if spring break is too close to the end, I’m going to lose momentum. No one’s going to come back after spring break.

If it’s too close to the beginning, I’m not able to build momentum. So I’m thinking in terms of how many barriers to entry can I remove? And one of them is when you’re actually physically putting this on the calendar. Another huge barrier to entry is childcare. But we’ll get to that in a second. So we’re looking for… if I plan something on Friday nights in Texas in the fall, no one’s going to come because that’s football, right?

So don’t plan things at times when you’re making it hard for people to commit to something that you’re then going to ask more of them when they get there. Look for the regular rhythms in your environments. So structure, predictability. The A, accountability. Participants are held accountable to prepare, attend, and contribute. Leaders maintain awareness of and contact with those who attend and they follow up to encourage faithful participation.

So that means that in that small group time, people always are like, “Oh, the reason that these studies do well is because of the teaching.” And I’m telling you, that small group component is where the money is. Because if you’ve ever been in a bad small group, it doesn’t matter if Billy Graham is teaching you Bible study. Tim Keller. Bad analogy. Tim Keller is teaching you Bible study. If you’re a small group time is miserable, you’re going to avoid it and you’re going to start coming to what?

The teaching only, and then we’re back to a broken stool. So, small group time is a time where you know that you were seen, that you’re missed if you’re not there, and where we’re looking for you to contribute. So a good small group leader is going to be trying to make sure that everybody in that group is weighing in. We’re not doing homework checks or anything like that, but you’re going to sit there with your workbook out because we’re using that as the basis for the discussion and you’ll probably feel like someone might see if you didn’t do your homework.

Another way that we have learned to establish accountability for our people is that we charge for all of our classes. We charge $30 a class, we write our own curriculum. So the curriculum cost, the actual cost, is not as high as it would be if you were going and purchasing like a $14 workbook somewhere. So you’d have to figure out what is the right number.

But we have found that it incents people to continue to stay faithful to what they have opted into when they have a little skin in the game. For a long time, we were like, ‘Oh, it’s ministry. It should just be free.”And so people treated it the way that we treat free things.

Okay. So, accessibility. The next A is accessibility. Accessibility. Instruction and participation are expected at a level appropriate to the environment. So, leaders are going to consider which terminology, and resources, and discussion elements are appropriate for the learning outcome.

So, in our Bible studies that I’m responsible for, we communicate everything at an eighth-grade reading level. Is it because I think our people are dumb? No. It’s because, in that environment, anything that needs to be said should be able to be communicated in plain speech. Now, I actually like to push on the guys who are leading the training program about their use of big words.

If any of you listen to the podcast, I’m always making them define, you know, “Oh, soteriology, that’s a very big word. What does that mean?” Because I have more often than not been the outsider in those conversations. I am not formally theologically trained. And so, I know how many times I’ve sat there and thought, “Everybody else knows what that means and I don’t.”

And when you’re talking about getting the average person in the pews to lose the knot in their stomach, you have to really choose the moment when you’re going to employ the big word. And then, you need to be sure that you define it and you help them handle it well. So these environments need to be accessible. And one of the things that helps with the accessibility is, obviously…I can’t believe I’m going to say this on recording, my whole church is going to know now.

If someone can’t afford the $30, we’re going to scholarship them. We don’t want the cost to be a barrier to someone who it’s a barrier to, but we also want the cost to help those that it will help. And then, childcare. If you are a pastor in here, I beg you, I beseech you, reorganize your budget so that you can get money for childcare. Childcare is not an entitlement issue.

It is not something that your women should have to try to figure out on their own. Yeah, and I understand. I understand. I’ve been a part of church plant, I haven’t always been at big churches, I know how hard this is and I am urging you, do what it takes to solve the riddle. Because women, when they have that first child, is usually the first moment when they recognize that they don’t have what it takes.

And it is at that point where if you say, “Well, yeah, we have a Bible study but it doesn’t have childcare,” do you know what’s going to happen? They’re not going to not come to the study because they don’t have childcare, they’re going to go to the Bible study that does. And you don’t know what they’re teaching.

If there are church planters in here, just a little heads up, if you wait on this and you say, “We’ll start women’s Bible study at some point when we get our act together, or when we figure out the childcare thing,” your women are all going to go to a parachurch Bible study and then when you’re ready to start it, they’re not coming back to your church. Do you know why? Because they’re not going to think that you’re going to offer structure, predictability, accountability, and accessibility in the way that these other organizations do in their sleep. So, it’s very important that we take the time to evaluate this particular need for women because I would say that the issues of illiteracy are even more pronounced among the female population than they are among the male population.

So accessibility in terms of the level of instruction, but also accessibility in terms of what we’re trying to do is remove every barrier to entry that we possibly can. So, lower the bar on participation and then raise the bar on what we ask of you when you’re there. Next, the C, community. Oh, I bet you didn’t see that coming, did you?

Yeah. We look for ways to help relationships form and deepen. We want leaders to create space for participants to develop trust, and friendship, and transparency, and accountability with one another, not in the same way that you would in a community group, but certainly there is an element of community that happens in these classroom environments. Here’s why they are an awesome add, okay? Because they are mid-size environments that are a commitment of 11 weeks or 22 weeks, that’s the length of classes that we offer.

And then, if you don’t ever want to go back, you don’t have to. So you’re going to have community with people who you might not see otherwise. Most of us want to know more people than the people that are in our home group, right? And so then you start to learn about other people who are in your church. It’s just a great opportunity to have community at a different level than you would in a home group. The idea of deeper with few is a beautiful idea.

It’s just a limited idea. You know who loves deeper with few? Dudes. They got their two buddies and they’re good until Jesus returns. But women, generally, are interested in having a lot of low-level connections with people. And so, it’s not that we’re not willing to go deep, it’s just that we also want to go wide.

Okay. Where am I? Community. Next. So we’re not looking to obstruct community, we’re just saying learning is our highest stated goal and then we’re going to facilitate community as it is appropriate to the environment and the learning outcomes.

Next, excellence. We do what we say we will do, we adhere to the expectations we have set, and we utilize feedback loops to ensure learning outcomes are being met.

If you think about it, you could do all of these things and people would come, “That’s Sunday school with bad curriculum.” And so, for many of us, we can’t turn around and bring Sunday school back. Those of you who still have it, praise the Lord, enjoy it, and put good content into that existing structure. That’s why Sunday school was a thing.

Think about it. It happens at the easiest time for people to opt in, it removes all the barriers to entry that I’ve discussed with you. All you need is to drop some really good stuff in there with some clear learning outcomes and leverage that space. For the rest of us, it’s going to be a little trickier. And I want to address one question that comes up frequently when I talk about this and it’s, “Won’t classes compete with community groups?”

Was anyone thinking that? There’s, “Aren’t they going to compete with one another? What if people choose to go to a class environment and then they’re not a part of a community group?” So hear the thinking behind that. It’s assuming that these two things are accomplishing the same goal. And they’re not. And we’re not even trying to cover it up.

What we have found is that people actually are willing to commit to more than just a home group when they know they can trust that it will be structured, and predictable, and all of these things that we’ve talked about. But because a home group is an organic structure, it lacks a lot of these things and it’s very hard to opt into. So, classroom spaces that are guarding these things are a good opt-in point for people.

And what we find, too, is a lot of people are starting in classes and moving from there, into these other community group environments. And here’s the other thing, sometimes people really need to be in a class more than they need to be in a community group, and vice versa. And we had gotten into a place in our thinking where we thought it was our job to tell people what they needed next.

And we’ve learned that they’re actually full grown adults and they can sort it out for themselves, and that our responsibility is to make sure that there are places for them to do so and that we do what we said we were going to do. If you start trying to start something like this, one more encouragement to you, choose rhythms, all of these SPAACE.

Put this somewhere that it could live until Jesus returns and then don’t tweak it for two years. Give it time to gain traction. People won’t immediately trust you just because you started something like this, you’re going to have to build credibility over it. And if it keeps moving around in the development phase… now, obviously, there’ll be some tweaks, but if it keeps moving around, then they’re going to be like, “Hmm, I’m going to go to that thing over here that meets at the community center where I know they’re going to do what they said they were going to do.”

So, commit to and plan something that is sustainable for at least two years and then you can begin to, sort of, run diagnostics on it at that point. I’m prayerful that this will be something that is restored to the church for those who have lost it and I’m prayerful that this will be something that we care for in the churches that still have it. That we would understand that we owe it to our people to help them grow, certainly, in how they feel about God, but definitely in what we know to be true about Him.

We want our feelings to be informed by right thinking. And it would be a beautiful thing to see a love of God with our minds restored to the local church. We have just a few minutes for Q&A. If you have a question that you want to ask, we have five minutes.

If you have a question, you can come to the mic and ask it, but if it’s too hard, I will just stand here and stare at you.

Man 2: I’ll be first, real quick. I hope this question is applicable to a lot of people in here who have had Sunday schools for a while. If not, please tell me, and I’ll sit down. But our church is a revitalization project. Our senior pastor has been there for the last six years. We’ve got the church used to expositional preaching, moving towards plurality of elders. Our biggest issue at the church right now is small groups was instituted maybe four years ago, but it’s still every Sunday night, and it’s at the church. The overwhelming majority of people think that it cannot be anywhere but the church and it’s just another Bible study.

As you mentioned, when they say Bible study, they mean devotional or something else. So, the big issue is Sunday school is what Sunday school was 30 years ago. It’s not good theologically and doctrinally, you know, challenging material. How do we encourage the growth of small groups and the community that can’t be found in that depth and in that breadth in the learning environment without sacrificing, you know, all of the good that comes from Sunday school?

We don’t want to do away with Sunday school, we don’t want to do away with small groups. How does The Village go about doing that? How do you recommend going about doing that?

Wilkin: Well, one of the ways that we have tried to make those groups hold hands with one another versus be seen as competing one another is, when people sign up for a small group in the Bible study environments, we allow them to sign up with those who are in their community group, so that there’s overlap.

And that’s another thing that actually helps with retention. Because part of my rant, which I didn’t get to is, don’t do four-week classes, guys. You’re communicating what you’re doing is not important. People want something that’s a regular rhythm of their life. So, make sure you’re doing longer classes, but then to get them to opt-in, you want them to be incented to be there because it’s the people they already know and like, you know, plus some new people who are going to meet in that group.

And we coach our small group leaders around how to make sure, in a Bible study, if you have six women from a home group and two women who just showed up, how do you make that work? You know, don’t let it feel like it’s just lopsided. So that’s one of the ways. And then, I think depending on the…like, if you’re an exegetical, if you’re going through entire books of the Bible on Sunday, there’s so many easy ways to cross over and layer content between that environment and what you’re doing in these other environments that help people say, “Oh, I can do that.”

Man 2: All right. Thank you.

Man 3: Okay. Real fast. What percentage of people take the classes from the church as a whole?

Wilkin: I’m not sure what the percentage is. I would say…well, okay, now, here’s the deal. We fill them, like, we’re out of space. So, we have, currently, we have 2,200 people in classes. And that’s, like…and so one of the beautiful things I get to say when I stand up each semester is, “Hey, because you’re here, someone else isn’t. So please come every week.” So, yeah.

Man 3: How many classes do you offer at the same time?

Wilkin: Again, we have major space limitations. And so, we have chosen what we think is most necessary. And so, we do men’s and women’s Bible study. I don’t even have the space right now to have a mixed-gender class.

Man 3: By space, you mean, physically?

Wilkin: Physical space. Yes. Because 10 years ago, our ministry philosophy was the church happens out there, and so we built a church with no adult meeting space. Guess what? We just bought land.

Man 3: What does it look like on the multisite model? So like, how many…do people have to all go to Flower Mound or?

Wilkin: No. No, we built this out at all of our campuses.

Man 3: So, then, how many teachers do you have?

Wilkin: A lot. We have a lot because we do 22-weeks semesters, and so, some of them have teaching teams, some of them have a lead teacher, and then some other teachers who come along behind. And this is a big switch. When you start trying to fill teaching spots in these environments, particularly for the men on staff, they know how to preach, but they don’t know how to teach. So, they’re accustomed to delivering a message but not dialoging or thinking about learning outcomes.

Man 3: So there’s a whole mechanism to train those teachers?

Wilkin: Yes.

Man 3: Thank you.

Wilkin: Yes. So we have men’s Bible study and women’s Bible study. They’re studying the same curriculum, just in gender-specific environments.I would love to have a mixed class, I just don’t. And then we also will run one core class each time. Yes.

Woman 1: I just wonder… I mean, I was madly taking notes, but do you have an online resource or a printed resource where we could tap into some of this information?

Wilkin: You can go to The Village Church Institute page and you can find some of this content there.

Woman 1: Very good, thank you. –

Man 4: For those who kind of have the traditional Sunday school model and who may have been in it for multiple years but want to start to make a transition like this, what kind of encouragement would you give for the groups that are starting to do this but also to the rest of the church who may not be as open to it?

Wilkin: Start small and do it really well. So, pilot it and make sure that you do it really well. And I would say, start with the most important thing. And I can actually tell you what that is. It’s learning the Bible line by line. They have not learned that. They do not have that skill. And so, start with that and then you can add other things on. And be thinking in terms of, like, mission drift.

We don’t offer Financial Peace at our church, not because we don’t want people to know how to manage their money, but because we know that if they really need something like that, they can go somewhere else and get it. What are the things that are really important for us as The Village Church to be teaching our people? We don’t even offer like a class on complementarianism because what we discovered is that a lot of our people could articulate our distinctives, but they didn’t understand orthodox belief.

So we started teaching to our statement of belief. So, those kinds of things.

Wilkin: One more. We’ll do one more.

Man 5: Hey, thank you. So, I’m in Boston and we’re kind of in the Cambridge, Harvard, MIT area, a lot of postdocs. And we’ve just found, over the last 14 years of being a church, that we can’t really get people to commit to more than two touches a week.

So community group, Sunday morning. So my question is, with super limited space and then having trouble getting people to come out for a third time, what would you say to us if we tried to look into doing some of these things?

Wilkin: Well, you would probably, if you’re all meeting for your small group time at the same time…are you?

Man 5: We meet all throughout the week across the city. I’m from Dallas, so like, I know that you can hop in the car and go 15 minutes.

Wilkin: Yeah. So then, whenever you have facility access, you probably want to tag something onto that so that people don’t have to come back at another time. And you could decide whether… no, I don’t think it’s ideal to not do something weekly, but you could say, “Well, once a month, we’re going to meet. And here’s the pre-work and all of that.” There are ways to modify this to have…I would say the most important takeaway you could have is, “How could I start dropping in active learning environments instead of where we’re just telling you things?”

And then you begin to reshape their desires for it. And then, over time, it might be that you find that there is more space to have something ongoing. Yeah. Thanks. Thank you.

“Our highest stated value for many of us in our churches has been community—trying to address this epidemic of loneliness that we see in our society. Many churches have said, ‘Our number-one stated goal is for you to live life with one another.’ But where we can end up with that is with a pendulum swing that renders our churches well-connected communities of biblically and doctrinally illiterate believers.” — Jen Wilkin

Date: April 2, 2019

Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.


Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.