It is a privilege to talk today with Trevin Wax, the Managing Editor of “The Gospel Project”, a new Sunday School curriculum from LifeWay Christian Resources of the SBC. He has agreed to answer a few questions about The Gospel Project for the readers of SBC Voices. (I think you could probably figure this out, but my questions are in bold and Trevin’s answers are in normal print.)
Trevin, welcome to SBC Voices. Tell us about beginnings of The Gospel Project. How did it come to be?
Thanks for the invitation, Dave.
The Gospel Project is LifeWay’s response to churches asking for a more “in-depth” Bible study curriculum.
I was serving on staff at a church in rural Tennessee when Ed Stetzer (the General Editor of this new curriculum) asked me if I would be interested in helping LifeWay start a new curriculum that was “theologically robust, focused on the grand narrative of Scripture, and missional.” There’s not a lot that would take me away from local church ministry, but the idea of developing a curriculum that would help people connect the dots of the biblical storyline intrigued me. The more I learned about the project, the more excited I became.
So, in November 2010, I moved to middle Tennessee and assumed the role of content editor for this new curriculum. One of the first things we did was bring together an advisory group of leaders whose approach to the Scriptures emphasized the storyline of Scripture and the need for churches to be evangelistically faithful and missionally focused. Then, we mapped out the content for a three-year cycle and got to work on the individual lessons.
At the same time my team at LifeWay was working on this new curriculum for adults, LifeWay was developing similar resources (under different names) for students and children. In November 2011, we decided we should align these like-minded products under one name, The Gospel Project. Since then, I’ve been giving editorial oversight to this exciting new curriculum for all ages.
It’s been quite an undertaking, to say the least! But we are prayerful it will result in more people understanding the Bible and their role as Christ’s ambassadors in the world.
As I understand The Gospel Project, it takes the students through the entire Bible teaching what you call “The Grand Narrative” of the gospel that weaves through the whole Bible. Is that accurate?
The grand narrative of Scripture is a key component, but “Christ-centeredness” is the major aspect, and missional focus is woven throughout.
The paragraph on Scripture in The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 ends with this statement: “All Scripture is a testimony to Jesus Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.” That phrase – “All Scripture is a testimony to Jesus” – sums up what we are seeking to do here. We are fleshing out what this statement looks like in regards to curriculum. How do we encourage people to study the Bible in a way that shines light on the supremacy of Jesus Christ in all things?
In 1961, W. A. Criswell preached an hours-long sermon on New Year’s Eve called “The Scarlet Thread” in which he showed how the stories of the Bible lead us to the cross. We are driven by this same approach to the Scriptures — one that has a long heritage in Baptist life. (In fact, one of the quarters in the 3-year cycle is called “Atonement Thread.”) The goal is to show how all the stories of the Bible are telling one overarching story of redemption through Jesus Christ.
I remember hearing Billy Graham tell about an occasion early in his ministry when he was disheartened and disappointed after preaching. He wasn’t sure why his sermon hadn’t had the power he expected. A businessman told him, “Billy, you didn’t preach the cross!” Graham said that’s the vital ingredient to every sermon. He never preached again without pointing people to the cross.
Charles Spurgeon is often quoted as saying he’d take a text of Scripture and then make “a beeline to the cross.” This new material might not get to the cross in the exact manner Spurgeon did each week, but we certainly share that desire – to lift up Christ crucified and raised, to make the gospel explicit, since it is the power of God – not only unto salvation, but also the message that grows us in sanctification and discipleship as well.
Church leaders have asked for curriculum that points to Christ every week. God is the primary Actor in the grand narrative of Scripture, and the gospel of Jesus Christ is the climax of this story. We’re approaching the Old Testament in a way that follows the model of Jesus on the road to Emmaus: all the Scriptures testify to Christ. We approach New Testament ethics and commands by seeing them as implications that flow from the gospel announcement of Christ crucified and raised.
What is it that you want to accomplish with The Gospel Project? What are its goals and purposes?
The Gospel Project for Kids takes children on a chronological journey through the Bible, showing how these individual stories point ahead to God’s ultimate plan of redemption through Christ.
The Gospel Project for Students and for Adults is theologically-driven, and by that, we mean it’s structured theologically. The scope and sequence is based loosely on the theological topics covered in A Theology for the Church – a great Baptist systematic theology textbook edited by Danny Akin. So, our goal is to take participants through the basics of systematic and biblical theology, while focusing on the grand narrative of Scripture and our calling to live on mission for the kingdom of Christ.
We’re directing our writers for the adult and student pieces to ask three questions of every lesson they deliver:
- “How does this topic fit into the big story of Scripture?” This question helps them connect the dots for learners to see how doctrine relates to the grand narrative.
- “What is distinctively Christian about the way I am addressing the topic?” This question always leads us back to the good news of salvation through Jesus.
- “How does this truth equip God’s church to live on mission?” This question helps us keep doctrine and Bible study connected to missional application.
When will it roll out? Is it ready to go?
The first quarter is Fall 2012, but it should be available by June. We’re getting close!
Is this a short-term curriculum, long-term, or dated and ongoing?
Each quarter’s material will premiere as dated and ongoing, but a short-term version will follow each release six months later. Churches will be able to use the material in a way that is convenient and flexible for their local context.
I notice that the curriculum is for children, youth and adults. Will each age group study the same topics at their appropriate level? Will families be able to discuss their lessons at home and be talking about the same basic subject matter?
The students and adults will study the same topics and passages each week. The children are on a different track. They are taking a chronological journey through Bible stories, showing how those stories point forward to Christ. There are great parent helps to provide families with the opportunity to have solid conversations about what they’re studying.
Even the term “gospel” has become somewhat controversial in this day. What do you mean by “the gospel”?
At its heart, I define the gospel as the royal announcement that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, lived a perfect life in our place, died a substitutionary death on the cross for the sins of the world, rose triumphantly from the grave to launch God’s new creation, and is now exalted as King of the world. This announcement calls for a response: repentance (mourning over and turning from our sin, trading our agendas for the kingdom agenda of Jesus Christ) and faith (trusting in Christ alone for salvation).
How is this curriculum different than others that Lifeway has produced? All of them have taught the gospel, have they not? What makes The Gospel Project different from other Lifeway products?
Great question! Since I’ve been an editor at LifeWay, my appreciation for the work done on other curriculum lines has only grown. It’s tedious, difficult work. But knowing we are giving church leaders good tools for teaching and discipleship makes it all worthwhile.
The uniqueness of The Gospel Project does not mean other curriculum options are not theological or gospel-focused – any more than calling your congregation Life Baptist Church means that the other churches in town are all dead.
The difference is the starting point, which is “Christ as the focus of all the Scriptures.” Explore the Bible’s focus is on book-by-book Bible study through the whole Bible in 8 years. The Bible Studies for Life series focuses on life application as well as worldview thinking. All of them are theological, and all of them include the gospel, of course. But the starting point for each is different. Those who prefer an expositional, book-by-book approach, for example, may not prefer The Gospel Project. And that’s okay. The various approaches to discipleship should complement one another, not compete with one another.
Okay, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. There has been some criticism leveled and suspicions have been raised about The Gospel Project because of the Advisory Council that seems to be predominantly Calvinist and includes those who are not Southern Baptist. Is “The Gospel Project” an attempt to indoctrinate Southern Baptists in “the Doctrines of Grace?”
No. When we put together the initial advisory group to give us some initial insight into the scope of topics we should cover, we invited people who were known for emphasizing the Christ-centered nature of the Scriptures. The advisory council is made up of people who think that way (and most were connected with Ed in some way).
But this “Christ-centered” emphasis is not exclusive to Reformed folks. That’s why eight of the eleven council members are Southern Baptist. The other three are Baptist, but not SBC. As far as how many are Reformed or not, I honestly do not know how many points people claim. (I just discovered recently that James MacDonald says he’s a 3.8 Calvinist!) That wasn’t a question or even a topic of conversation that came up in those initial meetings, as far as I can recall. The conversations were about how we could structure this curriculum in a way that points to Christ, not Calvinism.
We think it is great that leaders like D.A. Carson, Matt Chandler, James MacDonald, and Danny Akin would take the time (without compensation) to give us their input in how to shape a curriculum. That’s a dream team for us. They gave us input and we structured the timeline around these ideas.
Are you a Calvinist?
I’m a Christian – Baptist – Amyraldian. In that order. (In fact, I’m thinking of getting a bumper sticker that says “Amyraldian – and loving it!” Just kidding on that one.) I have benefited greatly from Christians across the spectrum. My favorite systematic theologies are Millard Erickson, Wayne Grudem, and A Theology for the Church. When it comes to soteriology, I generally prefer Erickson (which is why I don’t believe regeneration precedes faith, for example).
Were both Calvinists and non-Calvinists involved in the production of this curriculum?
Yes – at least I think so. We’ve never asked anyone if they were Calvinists. We ask them about the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.
There’s been an ongoing team of editors and writers. All of them have a track record of missional engagement and Christ-centered teaching and preaching. We’ve even borrowed longtime LifeWay writers from Bible Studies for Life and Explore the Bible. The initial advisory council’s included a mix, as I mentioned earlier, but their role was to give initial feedback on the structure and scope. They don’t have an ongoing role in the development.
There are several non-Southern Baptists involved in the process and some (in the blog world) have expressed concern about that. Why were those not part of our denomination used to produce denominational Sunday School literature?
I don’t believe inviting the input from three respected non-SBC Baptist leaders threatens Baptist identity. If we were bringing in writers from all denominations, then there might be a legitimate concern there, but we are not. Advice on the direction was given by eight Southern Baptists and three other Baptists. It’s hard to get more Baptist than eleven Baptists!
I understand that some people think we should never venture outside our denomination. We see things differently. We are thrilled to hear from people like D.A. Carson and think they have a lot to offer. Carson’s ideas on the storyline of scripture are widely embraced and we used them here. We can learn from folks outside the SBC (even if they only were less than 20% of the advisory council).
Those who (like me) are convictionally Baptist will be excited to see the inclusion of quotes and podcasts from Baptist preachers from today and yesteryear (W.A. Criswell, David Platt, Johnny Hunt, J.D. Greear, Paige Patterson, Charles Spurgeon, Adrian Rogers). But I think they’ll also be happy to see quotes from throughout church history (Augustine, Wesley, Luther, Chrysostom, etc.) and from some non-SBC conservative evangelicals.
Church history is our history too. We can glean insight from others without losing our biblical Baptist distinctives expressed so clearly in the Baptist Faith and Message.
Will the lessons deal with issues from the TULIP acronym? Will we hear about Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement or Irresistible Grace? Will we be discussing controversial issues like “does regeneration precede repentance and conversion?” In other words, will non-Calvinists find issues with this curriculum?
I don’t think so, but it depends on the non-Calvinists. We are not going to bring a doctrinal system to the text, but we do have convictions about the text as Southern Baptists.
For example, last week I heard about a Methodist church that wanted to use The Gospel Project. They asked about the theological distinctives. I told them we were quoting from John Wesley from time to time, and that they would probably like much of the curriculum. But when it came to issues of eternal security or baptism, we would write according to our confessional statement – the Baptist Faith and Message. When you get to issues of theological distinction, you can’t affirm two things at once. So when it comes to issues related to Calvinism or Arminianism or anything in between, we will stick with The Baptist Faith and Message.
So, we really do want Methodists to use the curriculum, but they also need to know that we believe certain things from the scripture– and the Baptist Faith and Message describes what we believe on those issues. On controversial issues, we explain there are multiple approaches to some topics within that confessional framework.
In the end, many people will not prefer this curriculum because it is confessional at the core. For those who are inside our denomination, I think there will be two groups who will not like this curriculum: SBC Calvinists who believe their soteriological system IS the gospel and want to push Calvinism rather than Christ, and anti-Calvinists who think any inclusion of Reformed writers (or someone who once met or even read a Reformed writer) entails a conspiracy or agenda to push a particular view of soteriology. Both of these groups are misguided.
What are you most excited about when it comes to The Gospel Project?
I’m excited about The Gospel Project for Kids because I’ve seen the Bible stories, the videos, and the reinforcement activities. And as a father of two young kids, I know they are going to hear about Jesus every week. They’re going to get more than just “be good” or “be friends” and mere moralizing. They’re going to see how the Bible stories point to Jesus.
I’m excited about The Gospel Project for Students because this curriculum is challenging. When I was a teenager, youth group time often frustrated me because it seemed like the teachers and the curriculum were talking down to us. Teachers at school expected more out of us than teachers at church. This curriculum is challenging, but I believe students will rise to the occasion. They will be introduced to the major themes of the Bible and learn some apologetics along the way.
And I’m excited about The Gospel Project for Adults because of the missional engagement that results from an encounter with the living Christ as He is presented in the Scriptures. I like to say that Bible study alone won’t change your life. The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day knew the Scriptures backward and forward, but Jesus said they were missing the point. The Scriptures are about Him. This curriculum will help adults connect the dots of the biblical storyline and experience the beauty of God’s grace shown to us in Jesus Christ.
All of these lines are driven by a love for the scriptures and a love for God’s mission. Users will see that throughout. You can imagine that Ed is always pressing us to encourage all God’s people to live on mission, and having that connection is so key. So, in the end, we point people to Jesus and then He sends them on mission. We think this curriculum will be a great help to churches that want to go deeper in scripture and go further on mission.
I appreciate Trevin’s willingness to explain the process, the materials and the goals and purposes of The Gospel Project. I’ve seen some speculation out there, but it is always good to get the facts, first. To be frank, I haven’t been this excited about a LifeWay roll-out in a long time. May Jesus be the center of everything, always, including our Sunday School curriculum!