Thinking Out Loud

August 21, 2017

Shopping for Church Curriculum on Amazon or Google Involves Risk

The IVP art director who designed N.T. Wright’s Bible study series had a thing for boats.

Today’s topic deals with an internet reality that is filled with complexities on a number of levels for churches and people organizing independent fellowship groups and Bible studies.

Before delving into the meat of today’s subject, I want to address two potential situations which can exist in a majority of churches, at least in North America.

  1. In some churches, individual leaders are charged with sourcing and ordering materials for different ministries within the church, and expenses are reimbursed either through charging participants, or from the general fund account.
  2. In other churches, study material is a ‘top-down’ decision, with paid clerical (or administrative) staff choosing what each group will study and ordering it themselves on the group’s behalf.

The problems we’re discussing today generally apply to the former situation, though can also take place in a surprising number of cases involving the latter situation.

So…the group leader, capitulating to an internet shopping world goes online and discovers a particular resource for their small group that seems to fit the bill.

  1. It’s on the book of Philippians, which is exactly what they want.
  2. It’s a fill-in-the-blanks format, which is exactly what they want.
  3. It runs ten weeks, which is exactly what they want.
  4. It’s under $10 US per book, which is exactly what they want.

What could possibly go wrong? (go wrong? go wrong? go wrong?)

I’ve seen these things happen firsthand:

  • The website is out-of-date and the particular resource is out of print and now it’s become a ‘Holy Grail’ type of quest to find the item in question. (Some groups will locate a single copy and do photocopying which in my opinion places them in a gray ethical area in terms of both the practice and the appearance.)
  • The expectations of the group aren’t the same as the person doing the purchasing. (You’re looking for a study book and they want to do a book study.)
  • A Baptist group accidentally orders a resource by a Pentecostal/Charismatic author. (Though in one case, they actually decided to go around one more time with the same series.)
  • A Charismatic/Pentecostal group orders a resource by a cessationist author. (Discovered when they like it enough to check out their other writings, only to find their doctrine being slammed.)
  • A small group discovers they’ve accidentally ordered something belonging to what would be considered a fringe Christian group with doctrinal distinctives that were not readily apparent (eg. Seventh Day Adventist)
  • The search process lands someone on a website not realizing it belongs to an even further-removed group such as LDS/Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness and is impressed enough to delve further into their writings, never returning to their place of origin.

There are several ways this can happen:

  1. The product they followed up on when they typed their criteria into a search engine belonged to a commercial publisher or distributor who was paying for search engine optimization (SEO) or even a paid ad itself.
  2. The internet isn’t very discerning; it follows an algorithm to obtain results depending on what you type. But too many search terms can also send it off the rails.
  3. The person searching isn’t very discerning; they are not trained in terms of knowledge of who it is behind the website or the publisher.

At risk of leaving somebody out, here, in no particular order, are some publishers of Evangelical Bible study material I believe everyone in that target group can trust:

  • InterVarsity Press (IVP)
  • Zondervan
  • Baker Books
  • NavPress (publishing arm of The Navigators)
  • David C. Cook
  • Thomas Nelson
  • AMG Publishing
  • Tyndale Publishing House
  • Moody Publishers
  • City on a Hill Productions
  • Bethany House
  • Harvest House
  • Concordia Publishing
  • Abingdon Press
  • Waterbrook Press

(Some omissions were intentional; others I will correct depending on comments or emails received.)

Some of you who know me know that I continue to advocate on behalf of remaining Christian bookstores. This is the best way to source material because it has been vetted both by the above publishers and the individual store owner, who is a professional in this field.

Additionally, some authors who have books issued by the above publishing houses, have chosen to do some of their small group material in-house in order to capitalize on the smaller profits necessitated by smaller print runs. It’s hit and miss on whether local stores can get these, and the situation is greatly complicated for people living outside the US, where the shipping and handling costs are prohibitive, unless they’ve arranged for a representative in that country to stockpile copies for buyers there.

It reminds me of the story we carried last week on our trade blog, where a woman was looking for fall Bible study material in a thrift store.

She had found an old book — and I’m not saying it wasn’t a worthy resource to use — and now wanted to order ten of them.

You know what comes next, right? Long out of print. To be expected…

…I shudder to think people don’t realize that hoping to find your church’s adult elective curriculum in a second-hand store is rather foolhardy.

If you find something which meets the established criteria (as in the above example) and is included on the publisher list above, there are still things that can go wrong. Someone trained in the field can quickly spot potential for product mismatches like,

  • “Do you know that study guide needs to be used with a DVD?”
  • “That guide is actually a companion to the book, produced for people who are using both.”
  • “That only covers the last six chapters of Romans; it’s a part two which only makes sense if your group has done part one.”
  • “This series is intended for new Christians; your group might find the material a little oversimplified or even condescending.”
  • “They call that a study guide but it’s really meant for people who have some background in Biblical Greek (or Hebrew).”
  • “That resource is actually divided into 52 readings, meant to be done weekly over the course of a year.”
  • “It’s really just a few pages long; the price you’re seeing is for a package of ten.”
  • “The text quotes in that one are entirely from the KJV; your youth group might find that a bit awkward.”

Ultimately, you can’t get this type of service from Amazon and you’ll never get this type of product discernment using a search engine such as Bing, or Google. Admittedly, I am biased, but this simply isn’t the way to shop for materials for your study group.

 

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July 23, 2009

Free Market Small Groups: National Community Church

In a few weeks churches will be starting to promote the fall season of small group ministry.  In the part of the world where we live, the dominant model is one where the pastoral leadership determines a course of study for the whole church, regardless of when and where the group meets, often consisting of material based on the sermon the previous Sunday.    So I was intrigued by a comment in the book unChristian by David Kinnaman, where guest Mark Batterson, pastor of National Community Church in Washington says something to this effect:  ‘We have a free market approach to small groups.’  I wondered how this plays out and asked them for further clarification.   Does it always work out or are there liabilities?   Heather Zempel, Discipleship Pastor at NCC was good enough to write back and include a link to her blog, where she defines “Free Markets” more clearly.   You can link here to read the article as it appeared in 2006 at her blog, Wineskins for Discipleship, or simply read it reproduced below, with a special greeting from Heather.

I’m the discipleship pastor here at National Community Church… The bottom line is this: we encourage our leaders to get a vision from God and run with it. We don’t have a structure and a system that we ask leaders to come serve. We don’t have a set of curriculum we ask them to cover. Instead, we encourage them to leverage their gifts, abilities, interests and influence to create community and make disciples.

I view my primary job as not to give our leaders direction on what to do or study in their groups but to discover and excavate the God-given disciple-making DNA he has placed inside our leaders and then equipping them, encouraging them, and empowering them to go make disciples.

Free Markets

A free-market small group system allows for a high degree of relational connection and creativity by allowing leaders to turn their existing relationships, gifts, interests, passions, and hobbies into disciple-making small groups.

Oswald Chambers said, “Let God be as original with others as he was with you.” So why do churches force people into little clusters that all look alike, slap the label “small group” on them, and then promise that they will grow exponentially in their faith as a result?

For any small group or discipleship program to be successful, you need leaders who burn white hot with a vision for making disciples. That’s why we implement a free market small group system at NCC. We believe discipleship happens best within the context of shared interests, and it flows naturally out of leaders who are driven by a passionate vision from God.

Too many churches establish a vision and a small group model and then ask their leaders to come serve that vision and model. At NCC, we have reversed that by encouraging leaders to get their own vision for discipling others and then equipping them to do it in whatever relational context they find themselves. The NCC vision for small groups is specific enough to give direction and focus, but broad enough to give latitude for leaders to get their own vision from God and run with it. Leaders are motivated when they see where their passion meets a need.

We only have 2 basic requirements for NCC small groups. One, there must be opportunity for connection and relationships (relational). And two, discipleship should be the primary purpose (missional). And of course, the leader must also meet the leadership deployment requirements as specified by NCC to be an officially recognized NCC group.

We want to encourage innovation and creativity. We believe that God has designed each person uniquely, and he can use that uniqueness as a catalyst for disciple-making.

Examples of some groups that have come out of our free market system include:

  • Fantasy baseball
  • Spiritual warfare
  • Sign language
  • Inductive Bible Study
  • Acting
  • Evangelism
  • Running
  • C.S. Lewis’ Writings
  • Women in Leadership
  • Weight Training
  • Church History
  • Crown Financial

For more reading on this particular topic, see the following resources:

Dog Training, Fly Fishing, and Sharing Christ in the 21st Century (Ted Haggard)

Small Groups That Buzz (Heather Zempel)

  • So how are leaders and topics for small groups (cell groups, house church, etc.) chosen where you worship?
  • Does your church allow a free-market approach to midweek groups, or is the course contented dictated to house leaders by senior leadership?

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