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  • The website is out-of-date and the particular resource is out of print and now it’s become a ‘Holy Grail’ type of quest to find the item in question.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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May 9, 2014

Curriculum Review: AHA by Kyle Idleman

AHA Church Kit - Kyle Idleman - City on a Hill ProductionsAfter veering off into a more documentary style with the small group curriculum for Kyle Idleman‘s Gods at War, City on a Hill Productions returns to the cinematic type of production it does best: an integrating of multiple dramatic story lines with direct teaching. AHA: Awakening.Honesty.Action takes a modern look at the story of The Prodigal Son in Luke’s gospel and has the courage to suggest that not every wayward son who has a moment of clarity while feeding the pigs actually makes it back home.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching all six episodes. The video clips run about a half hour each. The acting is superb to the point where I wondered, with all the Christian movies releasing lately, if City on a Hill ought to be reaching for an even wider audience.

There are various applications to this curriculum. So far, Idleman, the teaching pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky has released three books and three videos, plus the H20 video series (see the review linked below) which landed him on our radar. So that leaves you with several choices, and these are just my suggestions:

  • If I were working with new Christians or even seekers for whom the story of The Lost Son in Luke is foreign, I would probably use the video.
  • If I were working with people who have been Christians for awhile, I might do the book study.
  • If I were working with people who have been in small groups for a fair amount of time, and like to think and like to discuss, I would do the video.

The video really provoked some thought when we watched it as a family in ways that the book didn’t. And like the parable, not everybody lives happily ever after. But the book is excellent by itself as I stated earlier this year.  And the curriculum possibilities get even more complex:

  • The church kit comes with a leader’s guide and a journal. You could simply watch the videos, have a weekly discussion, and a small homework assignment for the following week.
  • You can also get a journal for each group member, for which a sample is included. It provides a day-by-day writing assignment between group meetings, so the teaching content remains fresh when the group reconvenes and there is opportunity for personal transformation.

If you’ve been around the church for any length of time, you might argue there’s nothing new here. In many respects, Idleman’s Gods at War covered material also found in Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods or Pete Wilson’s Empty Promises and AHA is reminiscent of Keller’s Prodigal God which Idleman quotes at one stage in both the book and the video.

But Jesus’ parable in Luke offers limitless applications; it’s the story that keeps on giving.

[Note: This is a review of the Small Group Kit; AHA is also available for a teaching series in your local church in a Pastor’s Kit, which is an entirely different product containing only short video clips at a much lower price.]

At the end of the last episode, we watched a couple of the features which clearly reveal the hearts of the director and cast. They are truly committed to excellence. Honestly, I can’t wait to see where City on a Hill Productions goes next. I leave you with their corporate tagline:

Story is the language of our Hearts
Media is the language of our times
We use both to share Jesus with the world

June 6, 2013

Kyle Idleman – Gods at War: The Video

Gods at War Video CurriculumThe Gods at War video curriculum is a six-week, interactive, DVD-driven Bible study for small groups that can be offered in a 90-minute weekly format, or if the group is time-constrained, in a 60-minute weekly format. The video clips themselves run 22 – 30 minutes. The curriculum is based on Idleman’s sophomore book with Zondervan by the same title, though the curriculum offers its own Follower’s Journal which retails for $9.99 US; therefor it isn’t necessary that group members read the book, although some will want to.

The Gods at War video teaching series is one of five major DVD-based church resources released from City on a Hill Productions to feature Kyle Idleman, teaching pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky; however unlike the Not a Fan and H20 group studies This one abandons the cinematic style that had him teaching on location and doesn’t have any scripted dramatic vignettes or story line. Instead, the teaching is interspersed with documentary style interviews with five individuals who have wrestled with various ‘gods’ in their past: Pleasure, love, money, power and self.

One of those interviews is with the late Chuck Colson, and that, as the saying goes was worth the price of admission. It’s a story about the lust for power that everyone needs to hear, not just Americans. But two of the interviews are with individuals, a woman and man respectively, who wrestled with same sex attraction and sexual addition and infidelity. For that reason, I suspect the DVD series may be a little to edgy for more conservative churches and/or certain teen groups. The intention is that for discussion purposes, small groups would split up into male and female subgroups, and in that context these portrayals are real, and honest, and probably a best fit for generating conversation.

The curriculum package retails for $59.99 US and contains a sample of the 208-page Gods at War Combat Journal — also available separately — which was written by Southeast’s Ross Brodfuehrer and offers two phases of processing the video material; as well as a 44 page leaders guide with discussion questions. The DVD also offers a 15-minute message from Kyle to group leaders with tips on managing discussion in a small group format, which should be required viewing for people using any DVD curriculum to lead a Bible study.  

The curriculum kit should not be confused with the Pastor’s Kit which retails for $29.99, not reviewed here, which is for pastors who want to teach through a six-week series on Sunday mornings and contains much shorter video clips.

With the Not a Fan book and video series still riding high on national sales charts, many churches looking for something else may want to move on to Gods at War. The book covers similar themes to Pete Wilson’s Empty Promises and Timothy Keller’s Counterfeit Gods, but the video series is more distinct. While I missed the full movie treatment used in previous City on a Hill series — I referred to H20 as Alpha Course meets Nooma — I think this series has the potential to promote life change even among those of us who would never think that idolatry is a factor in our lives, even if its expression in our lives is more subtle than those in the featured interviews. 

Watch the series 2-minute trailer here.

November 15, 2010

The Effect of Pornography

Back in April 2008, when I posted a then-somewhat-current version of  The Pornography Effect online, I would make a point of promoting this resource on the blog on a monthly basis.

But then the blog took on a life of its own, and I got away from doing that, and in the meantime, we have many new readers here.

So here’s the deal:  The book is called The Pornography Effect: Understanding For the Wives, Mothers, Daughers, Sisters and Girlfriends. It’s a book for women — though it gets lots of male readers — who have some man in their life who is either internet-pornography-addicted or internet-pornography-affected.

It offers somewhat of a description of the kinds of things people are seeing online for people who don’t want to have to experience it firsthand.   It’s intended as a crisis resource; the original publisher we dealt with suggested it be sold shrink-wrapped in packages of four or five, and left on pastors’ desks to hand out to people dealing with the wake of addiction.

Three years since its writing, and two years since its posting online, I believe this resource is needed more now than ever.   I believe it says things that nobody else is saying on this particular topic.    And while I would re-write the entire thing today, it grieves me deeply that this book never found a publisher.   A real publisher.   Who could put the book in stores.   Real stores.

Two years ago, to make the material available, we took a blog, but posted the chapters in reverse order so that it would read more like a regular website.   The last shall be first in order that first shall be first.   Or something like that.     It gets hits daily — which is amazing —  but hasn’t been mentioned here at all for at least a year.

So if this topic is of interest to you, or someone you know, here is the first of two options:

The other option, if you don’t have 55 minutes; or aren’t dealing with this issue right now, but want to read more:

So often we hear of marriages ruined by one spouse’s internet addiction.   We heard about another one last week.   I believe this resource is simply one of many that can offer help and information.     Feel free to forward the link to the book, or copy and past the link to this very blog post.

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