Nov 27, 2017


Redefine Your Classroom

Mike Filiccichia challenges collegiate leaders to think about the best type of classroom for teaching students to obey Jesus for a lifetime.

Recently, the Exponential conference has made famous the statistic that only 4% of churches in North America ever plant another church; it’s the church’s great “public health” crisis of our day. I’m convinced every reason the majority of American churches are infertile is internal. It’s not because the spiritual landscape is too difficult, the millennial generation is disinterested, or the prevailing worldviews are too unbiblical. It’s because we sold out Jesus’ methods for disciple-making in exchange for microwave discipleship, and that’s no one’s fault but our own. Somewhere along the line we bought into the notion that success meant a compelling preacher, a killer worship band, and a 6-week “discipleship” curriculum with sharp graphic design because those things drew a crowd, regardless of whether we ever saw them produce genuine obedience to Christ.

Variations on this theme simply cannot save us. We cannot move forward by tweaking and improving a fatally flawed philosophy of ministry; we must abandon it all together in favor of the slower, narrower, ancient way of discipleship.

The first shift we must make involves investing in fewer people now in order to reach more people later (This answers the “Who?” question of kickstarting a disciple-making movement). But there’s another crucial element, and without it, we will still fall prey to microwave methods. The second shift requires bulldozing inherited ministry environments and practices that appear successful but have not consistently produced obedience to Jesus in those who engage them.

In other words, it requires we redefine the classroom.

This is absolutely vital to fulfilling the Great Commission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” All too often we are content just to teach students about Christ’s commands, even if we’ve not yet taught them to obey. But teaching a concept and teaching obedience are two drastically different processes. Consider the difference between teaching someone the rules of golf and teaching them to swing a golf club. In the Great Commission, Jesus defined discipleship as teaching others to swing the club, but somewhere along the line, we substituted this ancient process with merely explaining the rules of the game and kept calling it “discipleship.” We must step back, take serious inventory of our ministries, and re-orient every practice toward what produces obedience to the way of Jesus instead of what produces crowds of students, ample ministry funding, or a feeling of personal significance. I have an inventory below to help you get started.

Ministry Composition Inventory
Consider your students’ course composition. If they are studying a primarily informational subject, say history or literature, they have a lecture and possibly a discussion section. If they are studying a more practical subject like chemistry or nursing, they likely spend more time in lab than in lecture or discussion combined. Wise teachers know that lecture can help you pass the written exam, but only lab can help you pass in life. Consider your own ministry’s breakdown of Lecture, Discussion, and Lab learning environments.

Lecture Environments
Purpose: Communicate necessary information
Examples: Hearing public sermons/teachings, hearing small group teaching, engaging with equipping tools (books, videos, diagrams, etc.)

Discussion Environments
Purpose: Deepen understanding via conversational processing
Examples: Small group sharing, personal storytelling, ministry debriefing, individual or group counseling

Lab Environments
Purpose: Develop patterns of thought and behavior via repeated practice of what is understood
Examples: Personal worship & devotional time, relational gospel sharing, serving the needy, resolving conflict, comforting the hurting, exercising spiritual gifts

How much time does the average new, growing disciple in your ministry spend in each kind of learning environment on a weekly basis? Most churches I’ve observed have around 60%/40%/0% breakdown in Lecture/Discussion/Lab composition, as experienced by a new and growing disciple. Write down your ministry’s present percentages.

Now consider the ministry modeled in the New Testament (especially the Gospels and Acts). What composition do you find there as Jesus and the apostles were forming the first disciples in the Church’s initial learning environments? I would argue it was somewhere in the neighborhood of 10%/20%/70%, but I leave you to form your own conclusions based on your study. Jesus was a wise teacher and he understood that his disciples’ sustained obedience required lots of time spent in the Lab with him. Whatever breakdown you arrive at, use it to inform target percentages you would want a new, growing disciple to experience in your ministry if your sole ambition was that they increasingly obey all that Jesus commanded. Write down a small chart like the one below.


Look at your needed changes column. Formulate two next steps you need to take in order to bring your ministry into greater alignment with your targets. As you notice these shifts bearing fruit, let them inform changes to your entire organizational structure. If your ministry is like most, you will find yourself tasked with how to cut all kinds of Lecture environments in order to create more Lab opportunities. And cutting your Lecture environments will require you to narrow your content focus significantly. In the words of Andy Stanley, you will have to “teach less for more”.

It’s crucial that you don’t understand “less” to mean less depth, but less breadth. Students will need incredible depth of understanding in order to walk in obedience to Christ, especially as they find themselves consistently confronted with their own ignorance and immaturities as they practice his pattern of life and teaching in these Lab environments. But they will need this depth administered over time as you walk alongside them and teach them obedience by your pattern of life.

Think of the depth of understanding required to effectively swing a golf club compared to just knowing the rules of the game. Though swinging the club is a single act that takes but a couple seconds, mastery requires hundreds of supervised hours of practice with a skilled player, requiring thousands of repetitions with consistent feedback and hands-on assistance. This can only happen in a Lab environment, and the information given in the form of feedback is dynamic; it’s always evolving to address the particularities of the student’s individual needs as revealed by their hits and misses. It would be impossible to deliver such dynamic, detailed information in a Lecture environment (which is designed for generalized, static communication).

So next time you spend time with a student you are discipling, put down the rule book, put the club in their hands, and help them to swing like a pro.

about the author

Mike Filicicchia

Mike is the North Campus Region Director at New Life Church, Ann Arbor. He is passionate about multiplying house churches among undergraduates and developing effective training tools and structures for mobilizing students in ministry.