LifeWise is life-changing.
“One of my favorite stories revolves around a boy who had never been to church before, but started coming to LifeWise classes during the school day and fell in love with the Bible and Jesus,” says Joel Penton, founder and CEO of LifeWise Academy. “The boy asked his LifeWise teacher to invite his mom to church. The teacher did so, and now the whole family is going to church and the boy is soon to be baptized. His mom attends a weekly Bible study with her son’s LifeWise teacher. I could go on and on about this story and so many others.”
Penton admits that before starting LifeWise in 2019, he was unaware of a 1952 United States Supreme Court ruling that allows public school students to be released from school during normal class hours to receive religious instruction.
“The ruling stipulates the instruction has to be privately funded, take place off school property and with parental permission,” says Penton. “LifeWise was inspired by a program in my hometown of Van Wert, Ohio, using “released time” under the Supreme Court ruling. The school had a 95% participation rate! I started looking into it and wondered why more schools weren’t offering a program like this, given the big impact it was having on kids. I soon realized it was because there were so many barriers to starting a program of that nature. You pretty much have to start your own private school.”
Penton wondered, “What if we could remove the barriers to entry so that every community could start a released-time program without having to reinvent the wheel?” With that question, LifeWise Academy was born. Through determination and prayer, Penton made it his mission to make LifeWise possible for all communities.
“Fortunately, I have a background in public speaking at middle and high schools,” says Penton. “I played football for Ohio State University and founded a nonprofit called Stand for Truth. It gave me a platform to do daytime assemblies at schools, followed by evening outreach programs where the kids could come back to school after-hours and hear faith-based messages.”
Penton’s nonprofit speakers bureau became a success and soon grew to reach thousands of schools and millions of students nationwide. The experience he gained prepared him well for his LifeWise role.
LifeWise launched its first two programs in 2019 and added three more in 2020. Penton and his staff set a goal of serving 25 schools by 2025, never imagining how quickly they would surpass that.
“In 2021, we were already up to 36 schools and now we’re serving 133 schools across four states: Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Iowa. We have approval from schools in several other states, so we’re already looking at more than 250 schools confirmed for next year. We believe this is currently the single greatest missed opportunity and it’s been around for 70 years, but it’s been under the radar. We’re working hard to change that and we’re excited to see what God will do.”
A number of schools in northeast Indiana are ready to launch LifeWise Academy or are in the process of setting up the logistics to make it happen.
“We have a 10-step launch process to get these programs off the ground and it starts with a signature campaign,” says Penton. “From there, a steering committee is formed and we then move forward with a planning process and leadership board. Our team works with local groups and the schools to make sure everything is covered and in place.”
LifeWise is funded entirely through donations. It provides participants and families everything needed, including transportation to the off-site classrooms as well as materials needed for the sessions.
“The curriculum is non-denominational and we walk students through the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation,” says Penton. “With each lesson we talk about a three-fold focus: head, heart and hands. With the head, we look at the information that’s on the pages of Scripture and simply teach the story. With heart we ask, ‘How does this connect to the bigger picture of the Gospel?’ Lastly with hands we ask, ‘If we understand this correctly, how is our character transformed?’ We partner with a wonderful curriculum called The Gospel Project and do some customizations to suit our context.”
Because the process of setting up and launching LifeWise requires time and coordination on the part of the school, Penton says it’s not at all uncommon for school leaders to ask, “Why should we do this?”
“I simply point out the many studies that show kids who have religious instruction in their lives improve in mental health, academic performance and character development. The students are going to benefit in measurable and remarkable ways.”
Penton says every school district may do things a little differently but, in general, LifeWise can be integrated into a student’s schedule the same way a specials-class, like art or physical education, would be. LifeWise classes are held once a week for participating students.
“The world we live in is filled with division and chaos, and there is a sense of hopelessness among students. Anxiety is through the roof. Suicide is through the roof. Unsurprisingly, church attendance is through the floor. We see those factors as related. Kids are getting excited about what they’re learning in LifeWise and it gives them this new hope. They’re taking that excitement back to school and are talking about the things they’ve learned. The Bible becomes part of their culture and part of their lives.”
Penton says because LifeWise takes place during the school day, it’s convenient for families who usually have numerous extracurricular activities.
He encourages anyone interested in learning more about bringing LifeWise into their community to look up their school on the LifeWise website, lifewise.org, to see if a local movement is underway and, if not, start a signature campaign.
“We believe that the power is in the scripture to change the lives of the next generation. We provide the tools, but it’s the people of the community who step up and get it done. What could be more important than reaching kids with the Word of God?”
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