Thinking Out Loud

September 9, 2013

Preview A Dozen Small Group Resources at One Low Price

A few months ago I reviewed a unique small group resource from Hendrickson Publishing, The Best of Small Groups DVD with host Brett Eastman. You can read that review here. Last week Hendrickson kindly sent me a copy of the second in the series, The Best of Small Groups Volume 2. Once again I was able to sample the first group session in DVD curriculum series from a variety of independent filmmakers and distributors. The DVD is also an end in itself, as home study groups can cycle through the material with a study guide that is sold separately. I really wish Zondervan or Thomas Nelson had a product like this. Failing that, I honestly can’t understand why they aren’t striving to get their product included in video samplers like this one.

Best of Small Groups Volume TwoThere are three repeat teachers from the first volume, Francis Chan, John Piper and Chris & Kerry Shook. Piper’s contribution, like the one in the previous edition is simply sermon video from a conference. It’s indicative of the range of the quality of material you find in a mixture like this, with variances in audio and video quality and overall length. I’m never sure that the Shooks know which camera they’re talking to, and at about four minutes, the Pete Wilson segment is less than half of the shortest video clips in the package and really isn’t fair to users who would be expecting something longer.

There are also variances in the amount of scripture content. On this front, I really enjoyed Bill Hull, author of The Disciple-making Pastor, one of two clips I would watch again. The other one was Nancy Guthrie, one of the three women featured in the DVD, ostensibly teaching on Genesis, but opening the first session from the perspective of Jesus’ appearance to two disciples (not among The Twelve) on the Road to Emmaus. Like Piper’s sermon, it was filmed with her standing in place for 30 minutes, but later I wished I had been paying more attention.

In terms of production values, it’s hard to beat Mark Batterson’s segment. He tracks with someone hiking across Antarctica against all the expected weather challenges. A little light on scripture, but we have to remember that (a) these are simply first episodes, and (b) we don’t know what is covered in the various study guides or leaders’ guides.

The strangest segment is by Dr. Byron E. Crute teaching on the opening to the Lord’s Prayer. People seem to get up and leave in the middle, and the segment ends with someone teaching a song, giving the whole thing the appearance of an outtake from a Christian television network. Mind you, it’s a nice song.

Tom & Chaundel Holiday from Saddleback have a segment on energy management, and Eastman’s wife Dee, also from Saddleback Church, teaches on health. James MacDonald doesn’t miss a beat in his segment, and after all these years, I finally found out who Cynthia Heald is, after being aware of her books for several decades.

Would I seek out the full curricula for some of these? Definitely the Bill Hull, Francis Chan. I’d recommend the Nancy Guthrie for women’s groups and for a younger demographic, possibly the Mark Batterson. Although I have mixed feelings about the whole patchwork quality of this and the first volume, I have to admit I hope there is a third edition, as these form a valuable service.

July 21, 2013

An Excellent Small Group Resource

You have three small groups doing the same curriculum, but one of them had to cancel one week due to illness and another is two weeks behind. So the problem is, how do you fill in the space for the groups that are ahead?

You find the glut of DVD study resources a bit bewildering and you want your individual leaders to be able to select their own studies, but the challenge is, how do they gain familiarity with the different authors, pastors and speakers?

Best of Small Groups DVDEnter a product from Hendrickson Publishing called The Best of Small Groups. This weekend I’ve been watching and listening to Volume 1 in the series. (Volume 2 is now also available.) The DVDs contain 12 samples — the full first week’s episode — of a number of DVD curricula from a variety of producers and publishers and can also be used with a study guide that is sold separately or available in a single copy in a packaged edition with the DVD.  Brett Eastman serves as a host creating continuity for the series through is introductions and closing comments for each one. The actual DVD presentations range from 16 minutes to the dramatic story of 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper, which is 38 minutes.

Some of the videos are recorded before a live audience, some are shot on location, one is done like a Christian talk show format, but all represent the finest Bible teachers including Francis Chan, Kyle Idleman, Max Lucado & Randy Frazee, Chip Ingram, Erwin McManus, John Piper, and others.

The “cut and splice” nature of the product means there are some mis-matched audio levels, and not all the material is going to be of interest to every group, but generally speaking, this is a resource that deserves much broader recognition.

I’ve watched eight of the twelve sessions as I’m writing this and looking forward to hearing the rest, and hopefully somehow getting my hands on Volume 2 at some point in the future. Even if you’re not involved with small group ministry in your church, this product represents excellent value-for-money in terms of inspirational teaching and getting to know some great writers and speakers.

March 19, 2012

Campus Alpha Now in 7-Week Format

Two weeks ago I was given a copy of an updated edition of the campus version of the Alpha Course, the popular evangelism and discipleship course which originated with Holy Trinity Church in Brompton, a district west of the London city centre.

Most people associate the course with Nicky Gumbel, although he didn’t start the course, but greatly popularized it after arriving on staff at the church in 1990. Since then, Alpha has been spun off in a variety of revisions, translated into a variety of languages, and customized to suit a variety of denominations. There is a prison version of Alpha, and it’s one of the few Christian resources for which study guides are available in Braille.

In the youth edition of Alpha, talks are always given live, no DVDs are used. But in the student/young adult/campus version the talks I saw feature a younger presenter, Jamie Haith.

Haith presents the course standing next to a video monitor in a manner not unfamiliar to fans of Andy Stanley. There are also some animated sections which are rather brilliantly synced with the live commentary.

But like its parent curriculum, Campus Alpha is again a lecture format. A university or college student who is open to investigating the Christian faith — the stated purpose of Alpha after all — is going to listen attentively to these lectures as do the students in the live audience.

Is that the best way to communicate with postmoderns? I’ve already expressed in this blog a bias toward an alternative, the mini-movie format H20 course, referring to it as “Alpha meets NOOMA.” While that course’s distribution has been passed like a hot potato from Standard Publishing to Thomas Nelson, it’s best days may be yet ahead, as the new Not a Fan DVD curriculum has greatly enhanced the profile of host Kyle Idleman. It’s so hard for so many of us to break away from the sermon paradigm; to move beyond propositional preaching.

But with Alpha, many times it’s the already-converted who take the course — sometimes several times — to deepen their understanding of basic core doctrines. So many times Campus Alpha is delivering to an audience already on side.

While some will argue that college and career ministry is neither middle school nor high school ministry, I keep thinking that in dealing with the broader spectrum of “youth,” some of the references (i.e.:to owning, or wanting to own a wristwatch), or quoting classical theologians maxims in Latin are just not the best strategies in connecting; again, especially with a postmodern environment. The audience listens politely, but doesn’t necessarily react to the attempts at humor.

Still, if Haith is simply following Nicky Gumbel’s script, he does it perfectly. His apparent passion for the subject matter makes him more than just what the Brits would call a ‘presenter.’

This is material that we all need to review from time to time. In the U.S., acceptance of the Alpha Course has been geographically spotty. If you haven’t heard of it, suggest to your church leadership they consider hosting either an adult version of Alpha or, if you live in a ‘college town,’ the revised 7-week Campus Alpha.

This is absolutely solid material, but don’t expect a lecture format to connect with every university or college student.

NOTE:  The 7-week course is in fact now being used in non-campus settings because of its length being shorter than the 10-week version hosted by Nicky Gumbel; however when referring to the length of both, it’s important to mention the retreat weekend courses comprise additional lectures, in this case three more, bringing the total to ten.

Also, in the revised format I was given to review, I’m told that more revisions took place with the support materials than in what is seen on-screen.

Finally, the entire package is being distributed pre-loaded on a flash drive, not with physical DVD discs.

February 27, 2012

Living the Red Letters

Before beginning a review of the actual content of this six-session, small group DVD by Tony Campolo, I need to take a paragraph or two to wave the flag, for this is a homegrown production.

In the Canadian Christian bookstore environment, about 90% of everything of everything on offer is U.S. produced. True, Canada is the point of origin for a number of Christian music artists; and a number of top Christian authors have a Canadian birth certificate; but many of these products turn up on the label or imprint of U.S. record labels and publishers. Material produced for domestic consumption is rather rare, though The Word Guild is always reminding me that we do have quite a few talented people who haven’t made the leap to the American market. Yet.

But a DVD curriculum? There have been a few, but nothing that takes on the production and packaging ambitions of The Red Letters featuring “progressive” Christian Democrat and social activist Tony Campolo, with Colin McCartney of UrbanPromise Toronto playing the role of interviewer.  That Tony’s blog is called Red Letter Christians and Colin’s book is titled Red Letter Revolution makes these two a natural pairing.

The six sessions deal with: What it means to be a red-letter Christian; consumerism and materialism; compassion, especially as it applies to three hot button issues — homosexuality, poverty and the environment; religion and politics; personal spiritual discipline and prayer; and the Christian life as a joy-filled life.

The DVD clips run between 8 and 17 minutes. Our normal family Bible study doesn’t use prescribed questions, and so this was somewhat foreign, but we used the small group guide and went through the five sets of questions for each episode. At first I tended to approach each set as a single question, but soon realized you could take hours to properly consider each discussion subject.

The DVD was a multi-camera production filmed at Toronto’s Church of the Redeemer whose auditorium and chancel actually serve as background. Knowing this was produced primarily for the Canadian market — though available in the U.S. on A-zon — I was significantly impressed with the camera cuts and editing.

Colin McCartney is extremely relaxed as an interviewer and Tony is… well… he is, as always, uniquely Tony Campolo. If he can’t get your small group going on some of these subjects, then nobody can. There is no denying his personal conviction that to claim to be a Christian is to make living out the red letters part of daily life.

The Red Letters DVD curriculum was produced by World Vision Canada and Colin’s organization UrbanPromise Toronto. A review copy was provided to Thinking Out Loud by Graf-Martin, a Canadian based agency providing enhanced marketing support to Christian authors and publishers,who are also rolling up their sleeves on this one to facilitate distribution to Christian bookstores in Canada.

This is a product I can recommend with confidence, and on a personal note, if you live nearby, I’d be more than happy to walk your small group through all six weeks of this excellent series. If it’s a weeknight meeting, I prefer decaf. Here’s a short preview:

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