From Heartbroken to Hopeful: Immerse at Valley Christian High School

Dr. Greg Tonkinson is immersed in a Gen Z world. In addition to having four teenagers at home, for the last thirteen years Greg has been the Spiritual Formation Director and Chair of the Bible Department at Valley Christian School in Phoenix, AZ. (VCS is rated one of the Top 50 Christian Schools in the country and ranked by USA Today as one of the top 12 sports schools in the country.)

In 2019, heartbroken and frustrated with their student’s alarming withdrawal from the Bible, Greg instituted a radical shift at Valley Christian, restructuring their Bible curriculum around Immerse: The Bible Reading Experience. What they experienced went far beyond anything he could have imagined.

I sat down with Greg to talk about the paradigm shift at Valley Christian.

Greg, I’d like to start with your story. How did you get hooked on the Bible?

I came to Christ as a freshman at Arizona State University thru Cru (formerly Campus Crusade). Ironically ASU was ranked one of the top party schools in the nation, but that’s where I came to faith.

Fortunately, my mentors as well as my fellow students were ardent Bible readers, so I kind of picked it up by osmosis. Because I had no real experience in Christianity or the church, I assumed this kind of deep Bible engagement was normal. I went on to earn a couple of Bible degrees and ended up teaching Bible at Valley Christian. It didn’t take long to realize I’d been living in kind of a Bible bubble and that my students, most of who grew up in church, had zero viable connection to the Bible.

As someone who spends a good chunk of your waking hours with high school students, what’s your perspective on this generation of young people?

My heart truly goes out to Gen Z kids and their parents. In prior generations, parents could look their kids in the eye and say, “I know what you’re going through,” but this is no longer the case. These kids have been swept into a technological revolution unlike anything we’ve seen before. And while there are some advantages, the drawbacks are dauntingly scary.

These kids are facing earth-shaking questions that weren’t even on the radar in my generation: global warming, terrorism, pandemics. Almost weekly I have students coming up to me asking real life questions about a friend or a sibling struggling with sexual identity.

We took Gen Z, put them on an island with all these variables, and told them to figure it out.

We took Gen Z, put them on an island with all these variables, and told them to figure it out.

In an earlier conversation, you told me Bible illiteracy among high school students is “catastrophic.” Can you elaborate on that?

When I started teaching Bible thirteen years ago, I started with a baseline of assumptions about where kids were at with the Bible when they started high school. In ten short years those assumptions have thoroughly eroded. They may own Bibles but for many of them their only real experience with the Bible are a few isolated Bible verses they see on the screen at church.

A decade ago they showed up bored with the Bible, but now they come to my classes questioning the validity of the Scriptures. They don’t even have a rudimentary knowledge of the Bible. They don’t know the key players.

I’m careful about my choice of words, so I don’t use the word catastrophic lightly. There’s absolutely no sense of marrying their faith decisions with a way to grow in their faith.

Tell me about your introduction to Immerse and your decision to make it the core of your curriculum.

I was at a point where this was affecting me personally. I was heart-broken over the condition of my students. There were sleepless nights. And by this time, I was also struggling with the thought that our pedagogy might be part of the problem.

We were doing a good job on systematic theology, world religions, contemporary moral issues. But there was a gaping hole. I couldn’t say with an ounce of integrity that our students were reading the Bible. We wished it and hoped it, but it wasn’t in our lesson plans.

Then in 2019, I attended Christian School International’s Symposium of the Bible at the Bible Museum in Washington D.C. You were there, Paul, and you introduced us to Immerse: The Bible Reading Experience.

I’m a skeptic by nature. I’ve been jaded by so many publishers peddling their wares, so I’m leery of easy answer solutions.

But the longer I listened to the Immerse rationale, the more I was drawn in. I heard a fellow teacher described the remarkable impact Immerse had had with his students.

I went home burdened with the idea that I was facing a crucial decision. It was like when I came to faith; I prayed and said to God, “Give me a reason not to do this, not to go in this direction.” It was a God moment; everything just clicked. My frustrations, my tensions, my heartbreak for these students; I began to feel hope that this fresh approach to the Bible might actually work.

Immerse is a paradigm shift. What adjustments did you have to make?

The adjustment to the Immerse Bible was seamless. Reading a Bible without chapters and verses and books in a different order—the kids didn’t bat an eyelash. It looks and reads like any other book they’ve ever read!

Because Immerse is designed around a more horizontal learning experience – more like a book club than a Bible study – I had to deconstruct the idea that I have the knowledge and you need to listen to me. Today I’m more of “the guide on the side than the sage from the stage.” I’ve had to step aside and honestly it’s been fantastic!

Three year later, Valley Christian students are immersed in Immerse. What impact is it having?

For starters, the kids are now reading 30 to 40 pages a week from Immerse. We’ve pivoted from just learning about the Bible to reading the Bible itself.

Coming from a place of feeling hopeless, I was so moved seeing groups of kids reading together in the classroom or in the courtyard, with their Immerse Bibles open, having engaging conversations. It brought tears to my eyes.

There was also a more subtle shift. In the past, the kids treated Bible classes like algebra or history or any other class. It was all about getting a good grade. As I watched the transformation unfold, it dawned on me that the kids weren’t just reading for a grade. They were reading to discover.

The kids weren’t just reading for a grade. They were reading to discover.

The deep reading has led to a massive shift in our conversations. We give the kids 5 open-ended questions and it’s been astonishing – so much more vigorous than when I was just lecturing. Students are the ones generating and owning the questions.

Occasionally I’m asked if this approach isn’t a breeding ground for heresy. I’d say the opposite is true. We’re learning that when we give students the freedom to ask hard questions, it doesn’t repel them; it draws them back in. It doesn’t make them question their faith. It’s only people who are cherry picking the Bible who think the Bible isn’t complex. Their faith today is more sincere and authentic.

Greg Tonkinson teaching at Valley Christian HS

When God meets them through his word, it’s electrifying.

Any stories you want to share?

Each week the kids have to send me a report on their discoveries and the questions they’re wrestling with. So I’m tuned in to what these kids are thinking like never before.

I recently received a report from one of my “quiet students,” someone who never spoke up in class.  We’d been reading about the endless cycle of Israel’s corrupt kings. He asked: Isn’t there a better way for God to do this? I know that God took care of the ultimate problem of sin on the cross, but it seems like it took him awhile to get there. Some might view that as sacrilegious or blasphemy. I disagree. This is what authentic theology looks like! This is how we turn students into theologians.

Recently I had a moment of profound joy. We’d just finished reading Immerse: Prophets, about 450 pages, and we were basking in the glow of that. I said to the class, “You read every major and minor prophet in 16 weeks!” I’m standing there tearing up and they’re wondering why I’m getting so emotional about this. But I know that my students are experiencing something that most of their parents have never experienced, and it gives me hope for this generation.

Will you share some final thoughts?

We’re fighting against this horrific trend of young people walking away from the faith. Before our Immerse experiment, I didn’t have any hope we could reverse that trend. But now I have a front row seat watching these kids engrossed in their Bibles.

In the last decade we’ve created Bible apps to make the Bible more convenient, but that’s not enough. We need an altogether new approach to the Bible, which is why I absolutely adore telling people about Immerse. It’s complex but simple. It’s profound but presented in a way that it’s approachable. It’s appealing, dare I say entertaining, and fun! It’s what the title says, it’s immersive.

Seeing my kids excited about God’s word and experiencing God – there’s nothing like it!

Student Reflections on Immerse

Bible teacher Nathan Smith has been using Immerse in his classes at South Christian High School for over a year. After trying Immerse at Calvin Christian High School and seeing the impact it had on his students, Nathan became convinced that the organic reading experience and “book club” discussion model needed to be incorporated into whatever Bible classes he taught.

Nathan has become a good friend of ours, and he blesses us by periodically passing along feedback he receives from his students about Immerse. He’s probably sent us more than two dozen quotes over the last year or so, and we wanted to share a few of our favorites. God is at work!

“I would occasionally decide to read the bible, then I would start from Genesis because I felt like I had to. Then I would get kind of bored because the whole creation part was something that I heard over and over my whole life. So I would flip the pages for some time then maybe go for a snack, then forget about it. This time, however, was different. The Bible, for instance, wasn’t what I was so used to. It didn’t have a black leather cover, it didn’t even have chapters and verses! It was so different, it felt like I was reading a book. A story. And that is what the Bible actually is, and the Beginnings Bible helped me a lot to recognize them.” -Freshman

“I have enjoyed reading the Beginnings Bible. I have grown up reading the Bible, but I let it come in one ear and go out the other because it just doesn’t resonate with me. However, ever since I have started reading the beginnings Bible on a daily basis I have been able to just fall into the story and actually remember what I have been reading so that I can learn from it.” -Freshman

“I realized that I never knew some of these stories existed before I read them without skipping in between stories. It was very eye opening to read what the life of Jesus was like in more depth and detail.” – Sophomore

“I liked reading without chapters and verses because it made it flow easier. When I read the Bible it is always hard for me to understand and I usually don’t really get a lot from it unless someone explains it to me. But when I read it this way it became a lot easier to read.” – Freshman

“One thing that definitely stood out to me throughout the reading is that I understood the content better. It was easier for me to comprehend and understand what I was reading in story-form. After reading the entire book, I was able to connect the dots of the sequence of events in the first five books of the bible.” – Freshman

“Reading through the whole New Testament was really a cool experience because it’s something that I usually would never do…It fascinated me on how much of the New Testament is letters to certain different churches. I had known that there were books in the Bible that were letters but I had never known truly how many of them were letters and that we could learn a lot from them.” – Junior

“I’ve grown up reading the Bible, going to a Christian School, and going to Sunday school. I thought that I already knew most of what the Bible was about, little did I know that I would be learning more and more each book.” – Freshman

“I found it easier to read and stay engaged while reading the old testament in book form instead of in the Bible. I love to read and it felt like I was reading a chapter book and it was easier to understand because the Bible can be pretty confusing. Reading the Bible, it is disengaging for me and this version was not.” – Freshman

High School Bible Teacher Shares How Immerse “Reinvigorated” His Class

My name is Ben Tameling, and I am a Bible teacher at Grandville Calvin Christian High School. I am writing to express my enthusiasm for the Immerse: The Reading Bible series created by the members of the Institute for Bible Reading and published by Tyndale Publishers. For the first time this semester, I used the Kingdoms book for my Old Testament Survey class and the Messiah book for my New Testament Survey class. In both cases, it reinvigorated my teaching and my students’ approach to the Bible. What struck me so positively from this experience are the following three qualities.

First, my students and I really appreciated and enjoyed the “user-friendly” format of Immerse. I had several students remark that reading the Bible this way felt less intimidating. As a Bible teacher who personally loves reading and studying the Bible, this comment blew me away at first, but then I began to see where students were coming from: all of the study notes, cross references, and footnotes in many well-meaning “study Bibles” end up distracting young people from actually reading the text itself. Reading both a large portion of the Old Testament and all of the New Testament using this format helped students focus on the grander narrative. The introductions to each book gave us helpful historical and cultural context for each book, but then we were off and running, uninhibited by the clutter of so many gigantic Study Bibles.

Allowing students to “immerse” themselves in Scripture allowed me as a teacher to let students’ observations and reactions drive the class.

Second, I enjoyed having student discussion lead the class rather than my own preconceived agenda. I still did and do a lot of planning, whether it be formulating “unit maps” to help introduce major concepts in biblical books, summarizing key learning targets, or putting together “recaps” to help students review together, to name just a few things. But allowing students to “immerse” themselves in Scripture allowed me as a teacher to let students’ observations and reactions drive the class. As their guide, I encouraged them to ask questions continually as they read and for them to share those in small groups, whole class discussion, and in their weekly journal reflections that I required. This last technique was a great way for me to keep up with students as they read, dialoguing with them along the way and prodding them to keep asking great questions as they sought to connect the dots throughout the Story. In short, it was fun to explore a balance between pouring a foundation for them to build off of and then letting them go to work as they read and shared their own perspectives.

Third, going along with the above points about the user-friendly format and the student-driven dialogue, I believe using Immerse has allowed students to work toward a more holistic understanding of the Bible rather than see it as a series of disconnected “devotional chunks”. In my experience using Kingdoms, students could now approach the account of the Israelites entering and then exiting the Promised Land as part of a Story, more like an absorbing, tragic novel rather than a tedious textbook. Likewise with Messiah: suddenly all of the teachings and miracles of Jesus flowed together into a discernible storyline conveyed similarly yet differently by each Gospel writer. And rather than rush as a teacher to try and make each and every passage “applicable”, it was fun to watch students make connections between then and now themselves.

All in all, I am so glad that I was made aware of Immerse: The Reading Bible and can’t wait to keep exploring ways to integrate it into my other classes, refining and honing my own skills as a teacher to help open up the Bible to students, and in turn being blessed by what they teach me through this experience of reading communally.

In Christ,
Ben Tameling
Bible Teacher
Grandville Calvin Christian High School

Bringing Immerse into Angola Prison

Angola Prison, nicknamed “The Alcatraz of the South,” is one of the world’s most notorious prisons. Located outside Baton Rouge, LA, it’s the largest maximum-security prison in the country, with the property bigger in area than Manhattan. It began in the mid-1880’s as a slave plantation, named “Angola” after the African country from which most of the slaves came.

When Angola was converted to a state prison in 1901, the inhumane practices from the slave plantation carried over. Convicts were frequently abused, underfed, and subjected to unregulated violence. Prisoners were often worked to death under the harsh conditions.

In November I was invited to Angola to present Immerse: The Bible Reading Experience to the 28 Protestant churches that operate inside the prison. Thanks to a partnership with New Orleans Baptist Seminary, there is a seminary program within the prison that has trained and ordained over 100 prisoner/pastors.

Our relationship with Pastor Jim Cymbala at The Brooklyn Tabernacle opened the door at Angola. After Immerse was successfully launched to 5,000 people at BT, Pastor Cymbala caught a vision for Immerse in Angola. BT has a long partnership with Angola, with groups traveling there every year to visit the prison hospital and minister to the men on death row.

Louisiana has one of the strictest penal codes in the country. Nine out of ten prisoners will die there, either by execution or by natural death. Many of the men I met committed crimes when they were teenagers and will never taste freedom again.


There is a long history of violence and abuse at Angola. I talked to men who told me how before going to bed, they would stuff magazines under their T-shirts and into their shorts to keep from being stabbed to death in their sleep.

We toured a housing unit referred to as “Red Hat” after the red paint-coated straw hats that its occupants wore when they worked in the fields. The building, located next door to the execution chamber and electric chair, consisted of 30 cell blocks. Each cell measured 5 feet by 7 feet, with a cement bunk and no mattress. Dinner was served in stinking buckets splashed onto the floors. During times of overcrowding, fifteen prisoners, often naked, were pressed into a single cell. Red Hat officially closed in 1972.

In 1995 a work of redemption began with a new warden, Burl Cain. Cain adopted the posture that if you treat people like animals, they’ll act like animals. He built several dormitory-like units where inmates could move for good behavior. He started a rodeo where prisoners could become cowboys for a day, and where artistically-gifted inmates could sell their creations to the 10,000 spectators who come for the rodeo. It was Warden Cain who invited New Orleans Baptist Seminary into the prison.

The presence of Christ’s church in Angola has been palpable. The most violent prison in America went from 1,387 assaults in 1990 to 371 assaults in 2012.

Immerse immediately captured the imagination of lead chaplain Jim Rentz. A Bible in the New Living Translation that was easier to read, with no chapters & verses, with the books in a better historical order. He also liked that Immerse is more of a book club than a Bible study.

Chaplain Rentz told me there’s lots of good preaching in the churches, but structurally it’s always been very top-down. Immerse provides what’s been missing: the invitation for the inmates to simply read and dialogue together. Another chaplain, Liz McGraw, is excited. “The churches have been pretty siloed,” she told me, “but Immerse offers us the opportunity to come together as one, all different denominations, to read God’s Word!”

But how would the pastors react? I was able to present and explain Immerse to them for about 90 minutes. During my presentation I sensed they were tracking with me, but then came the moment of truth. With some trepidation I asked for a show of hands: “Who is interested in taking this to their church?” Without hesitation, all 28 hands shot up. We’re all in.

Later that night, to a packed house, I shared the Immerse vision with a larger group of 400-500. The meeting ended and I was swarmed with inmates, full of questions, wanting to know when the Bibles would arrive. There were tears. The hope of the gospel and the power of the Scriptures has shone a light into the darkness at Angola.

Beginning in February, all 28 Angola churches will begin reading the New Testament together with Immerse: Messiah.

This is a powerful story in the making, but it needs your prayers. Already we’re seeing the domino effect. A large state prison in Michigan, upon hearing about Angola, has decided to launch Immerse to 300 inmates in January.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, for the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted and to proclaim that captives will be released and prisoners will be freed. ~ The prophet Isaiah

“I needed to step back and let God speak to me as a child” Immerse Email Testimony

Last week we received an email from Kevin Kellogg, Groups Pastor at Grace Fellowship near Columbus, OH. In January they launched the New Testament Challenge using Immerse: Messiah.

Kevin forwarded an email he had received from Todd, a member at Grace Fellowship who has been deeply blessed by his experience with Immerse. His story, and others we’ve heard, are what the Bible Reading Movement is all about.

Rather than setting up an interview with Todd as we’ve previously done with Immerse stories, we’re sharing his story word-for-word as he originally wrote it. Enjoy!


The past six weeks has been an unexpected journey for me.

I would consider myself an above average bible student. I grew up in a church that instilled the importance of committing bible verses to memory. Starting in Pre-Sunday School we would be sent home with new memory verses every week. The teacher took the time each Sunday to listen to those who memorized their verse and placed a star next to the names of those who completed it successfully. At the end of the year we would graduate to the next class “with honors” if we had perfect attendance AND successfully completed our memory work for the year.

As we got older the competition got harder and the “prizes” grew in value. We went from memorizing verses to memorizing chapters and even books. In order to be at the top of the list you had to do way more than just memorize verses and attend church on Sundays. By the time we were in junior high school we would have to do community service, teach bible classes and even preach a sermon to the church. The prize was no longer stickers and recognition but we would be rewarded with new bibles, full scholarships to summer camp, pizza parties and Cedar Point or Kings Island tickets.

My bible education continued after high school too. I attended bible college for four years, taught in-depth bible classes, did a lot of preaching, homeschooled four children, etc. Needless to say, after more than 50 years of life, I have “studied” the bible from cover to cover many times.

I emphasize “studied” because I grew up in a church in which we were instructed to always read the bible with a critical mind. The translation being used was of utmost importance. Some translations were careful translations of the oldest sources of manuscripts available. Whereas, other “translations” were either “transliterations” (paraphrases) or “translations” of translations. For that reason, you really had to really understand the source of your scripture. Once we were certain we were reading from a respectable translation we almost always approached scripture from the perspective of “This is what it says; This is what it means; This is what other denominations wrongly interpret this passage as saying.” For this reason, it is difficult for me, to this day, to read a passage of scripture without critiquing it based on standards that have been drilled into me from a very early age.

The reason for the lengthy background to my Immerse experience is because it is necessary to understand the enormity of the blessing I am receiving through this study. My apprehension from the very beginning of the NT Challenge was that I knew we would be reading from a translation that I have not vetted and we were only given 8 weeks to read through the entire New Testament. (It took me three years to teach a Sunday School class on the book of Hebrews alone). Eight weeks would never be enough time to cross reference everything I was reading with other translations as well go through the whole process of analyzing the 4 W’s and H, then comparing the meaning of the current passage with all the other areas of the bible that mention the same topic.

This is an area, I can now see, that God has been working with me in regards to my life-long critical indoctrination and that I needed to step back and let God speak to me as a child. Before we began reading Immerse, I resolved that I would NOT be critical of what I was reading, I would NOT “STUDY” what I was reading. Rather, I would read the assigned lessons exactly as we were being assigned – a few pages each day, five days a week. I would attempt to suppress any preconditioned understanding that would emerge to the forefront of my thinking and would try to take the words I was reading at face value, as I was reading it. I was so committed to this approach that I challenged my entire group with the same thing – knowing there were a few that had a similar background as me.

The result for me has been amazing! When I first started reading Immerse, everyday I broke my commitment to not cross-reference with another version because I was constantly reading something that I have never seen before. Every time I looked up a phrase or meaning that I KNEW did not exist in my translation, I was proven wrong. By the end of the first week I was convinced and renewed my commitment to stick to “reading only”.

Daily I go through disbelief at how simple the meaning of the scriptures are rolling off the pages and directly speaking to me. It goes beyond that though. It is definitely refreshing to read the bible from this perspective. I would never be able to tell you how many times I have read through the bible – the equivalent of cover to cover. What I will tell you is that I am near the completion of reading through the New Testament for the first time in my entire life. It is like I studied the abridged version of the bible my entire life and for the first time ever I have been offered the opportunity to read the complete work.

The complete work is SPEAKING to me. It is CHANGING MY LIFE. My take away from this past six weeks is that God is calling me into the ministry. What that looks like, I don’t know. It may be that He wants me to be more evangelistic in my secular life. It may be He wants me more involved in the local church. It may be He is calling me to mission work. It may be full-time ministry. All I can tell you is right now, He is doing the speaking and I am doing the listening and I’ve told Him – “Whatever you want Lord – Here I am.” Now I’m just waiting on Him in His timing.

Thank you for presenting me with the NT Challenge. It continues to bless me!