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Resource Review: Francis Chan’s Basic Series

Resource Title: Basic Series

Author: Francis Church

Year Published: 2011-12

Price: $49.99 for the entire set of 7 DVDs

In One Sentence: A video curriculum that seeks to explain the basic beliefs and practices of a Christian community while utilizing an integrated narrative to add a theme to each video.

Evaluation: 4 out of 5 stars, a very good series

Review

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One of the great areas of curriculum growth over the past decade has been high quality video curriculum that delivers a compelling message that people just want to talk about. Francis Chan’s recent series, Basic, is another installment in the growing product line available to churches and groups.

In this 7 part series, the host, Francis Chan, utilizes a familiar pattern of video storying with dramatically plain presentations to deliver a compelling message about a central belief or practice of the Church nestled alongside a video narrative. 

Perhaps this sounds familiar, and that would be because it is. The once highly popular Nooma series that was conceived of and hosted by Rob Bell began this trend. If one we were to compare a Nooma video to a Basic video, the similarities would be striking. Now this isn’t a mark against Basic, in my opinion because the format and presentation work. Perhaps a lot of this has to do with the production company, Flannel, who brought together the video and story.

Essentially each session looks like this: slow, dramatic opening with a teasing video shot of someone doing something that doesn’t fit, hipster style music drifts in, a title slide tells you the name of the session, and then the speaker’s voice suddenly is laid over with some kind of compelling opening line. Soon the host shows up on the scene and his talking is the principal voice for the next 10-15 minutes. Video of the speaker is overlaid the narrative story that is going on. This works well, though it is predictable, and it engages the ADHD video multitasking context that so many young adults are used to having in their lives.

The videos are extremely high quality and the content from Chan is tremendous. 

The sessions appear to fit together in terms of the backstory that is going on behind Chan’s monologue. They start with three sessions identifying individuals and have them engaged in an activity or situation that speaks to a challenge of understanding the main figures of belief: God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. For instance, in the first video on the Fear of God, we see a young woman on a bed and the room dramatically fills with water. It is supposed to symbolize how the fear of God is an all consuming force. It is an effective technique.

Once ou get beyond the third video the three main characters find themselves on a journey and a joined by a Messiah figure. In the remaining videos the characters take on a journey and we are shown how they encounter different experiences that shape them and, ultimately, send them off on their own. The message of the videos is very good.

The sessions are:

  1. Fear of God
  2. Following Jesus
  3. Holy Spirit
  4. Fellowship
  5. Teaching
  6. Prayer
  7. Communion

 

Now, there is a bit of disjointedness in the storyline. For the most unaware viewer (like myself) it does seem that the story lines in the first two were created separately and then mashed together when the producers realized how good the series actually was as they expanded their sessions. That does take away a bit from the overall but not terribly. These are very good videos.

As for content: Francis Chan delivers excellent content that stays within the appropriate boundaries of biblical orthodoxy as he engages a discussion about foundational things of Christianity.

One area where the series does fall off is in the “discussion guide” that accompanies the DVDs or can be downloaded for online videos. Like so many other guides of this nature it under-delivers for prompting discussion. Group leaders who have been through this before, with the Nooma series, will know what to use and what to add to facilitate discussion. Perhaps it is part of the larger strategy of the videos, but the overly simplified discussion guides are limited in the conversations they provoke.

However, this is a great video resource. I would recommend it for all ages, though it is highly suitable for young adult and student work. It will provoke discussion. As a small group leader myself, I can open up with the “What do you think?” immediately after the video and even the most reticent groups are engaging in discussion.

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Resource Review: The Gospel Project

In my final “Ode to the SBC” post for this week I wanted to take a look at a curriculum piece published by their convention press, Lifeway. The Gospel Project is a new curriculum option for churches, regardless of denominational affiliation, which can be used for their groups ministries. Here is my review:

The Gospel Project

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Resource Name: The Gospel Project

URL: http://www.gospelproject.com

In a Sentence: A comprehensive curriculum that engages the meta-story of the Bible, the plan and process of salvation, through weekly Bible studies at all age levels.

Cost: about $4 for student books and $12 for leader guides, ebook options are available that reduce the costs.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars, a solid curriculum option

Review

One of the things that Southern Baptists have always seemed to do well is develop comprehensive Bible study curriculum pieces that can be used in Sunday Schools, small groups, and other group ministry avenues. Though the groups materials have been comprehensive (several plans have you reading through the entire Bible in a non-lectionary 3 year plan) there have been some who desired a more rigorous curriculum that engages the broader story of the biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation.

So, not too long ago a bold new piece was developed called The Gospel Project.

The Gospel Project (TGP) seeks to take participants on a three year journey through the themes of Scripture, keeping the Cross of Jesus Christ in plain view. This kind of Christocentric study is helpful as it reminds us that Christianity is, ultimately, defined by the person and work of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 2:2; 8:6; 2 Corinthians 5:20-21; etc.) Underlying the theological approach of TGP, the hermeneutical approach is to equip teachers/facilitators with a strong shovel and dig deep into the Scripture to talk about how we find Jesus in Scripture.

The approach is successful and TGP provides a fine resource for doing so. Each teacher guide is overflowing with exegesis, questions, historical quotes, theological discussion and other relevant data that equip the group leader beyond what might be necessary. So, in the preface the editors remind the group leaders to cut what they desire. One of my personal philosophies as I develop groups curriculum is to give teachers more than they need. It is always better to have more and cut away the rest than to be under prepared.

As TGP breaks out in different age ranges there are options for preschool, young kids, older kids, youth/students, and adults. This kind of comprehensive Bible study approach is important and not usually executed well. TGP brings this together well, though not perfectly, and provides a good platform for a church who want to journey through the Bible as a family.

The execution of the lessons plans is sound and through 13 week studies students are walked through theological discussions of the grand narrative of Scripture.

Questions are usually thoughtful and the examples/illustrations are helpful. One of the things that is provided at the end of each session in the leaders’ guide is a resource list. This probably could be more well rounded with other pastors, more diversity, and a broader reach into other media. Also, the 13 week curriculum cycle is fairly good though if you’re running an open group I’m not entirely sure how comfortable new participants might be showing up on week six or seven. Finally, it’s a Lifeway publication which does well to move away from some of the patterns often found in their curriculum, but it does keep its toes in some of the pedagogical patterns and that might backstop it from application outside Baptist churches. It shouldn’t but it might.

The curriculum is a solid piece and looks like it can be used across the evangelical spectrum in non-denominational or other denominational churches. My teachers, who have used it, have enjoyed it, though there is some need to soften the harder theological edges at times. All too often we hear clamoring about “substance, depth, and theology” from loud voices that are actually fewer in number than the rest of our churches. This is the kind of curriculum that provides grease for that squeaky wheel. However, if you’re not careful in the delivery the marginal, less mature believers who outnumber the others might get left behind (not eschatologically.)

I recommend The Gospel Project, especially for a deeper step and across the generational composition of your church.

One additional note

Recently TGP has gotten flack for being “Reformed” or “Calvinist” in its theology. Growing up at Calvary Baptist Church in Bel Air, Maryland I was taught that historically, Baptists (and Southern Baptist specifically) have appreciated reasonable diversity on theological perspectives. As I read through, and have used the TGP, I haven’t found a heavy handed Reformed or Calvinist perspective preached.

Now, many people on the board of advisors and some of the authors are admittedly Reformed. So it probably didn’t help the editors’ case that this is a general curriculum if one only looks at the first couple of pages of the first leaders’ guide. However, I don’t find an overwhelming Reformed or Calvinist perspective in the Gospel Project. There is a Reformed perspective, but there are other perspectives that are fully within the evangelical theological perspective.

As a PhD candidate in his final stages of program work, I have read a plethora of theological works and approaches. As I was trained at my undergraduate and seminary levels, I encountered perspectives from the wide range of theological positions. I am not Reformed. I am not a Calvinist. I love my Reformed and Calvinist brothers and sisters in Christ. I value their input. I am thankful for their passion. I love their commitment to Christ.

The Gospel Project isn’t a deeply Reformed or Calvinist work. It is safe for Southern Baptist in particular to use as it looks to elevate and proclaim Christ. Just a quick note. 

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Resource Review: Modern Parables

Resource Name: Modern Parables: Living the Kingdom of God

URL: www.compasscinema.com

In Short: Modern Parables takes six parables of Christ and present modern retellings through high quality cinematography and innovative lessons.

Cost: $60 for the whole curriculum

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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Review 

A couple of years ago, Compass Cinema‘s released a video based groups curriculum called Modern Parables. The curriculum had six video lessons that took some parables of Jesus and recast them into a contemporary (or modern) setting. In creating and releasing these parables, the leaders at Compass Cinemas made having high quality cinematography along with high grade acting as vital to their effort. 

The six parables which are considered in this series are: (click the links for trailers)

Each parable has its own unique story which is retold in a way that captures a group’s attention and identifies central points. Each video is between 13 – 21 minutes long, though they generally stay within the 15 minute time frame. This is helpful for group discussion. Also, as part of their approach the group lesson plan uses two sessions to talk about each parable. The first session is a viewing of the film with a brief discussion and the second session explores the themes a bit deeper. You can check out some of the film trailers on their Vimeo site. (Also, if you check out YouTube you can preview some of the full length videos I believe.)

The curriculum content is rather good and provides a good lesson path for each video. Facilitators, or teachers, can easily navigate the sessions and draw out some important points. Biblical content is central to each lesson and it is handled maturely by the curriculum authors.

As I’ve used the content, the reception by twentysomethings and adults through age 45 has been excellent. The videos are rather engaging. They mix humor with serious drama. Various films aren’t afraid to confront difficult topics: a Middle Eastern man is the Samaritan, racism is still prevalent in another film, and other important themes. In the Shrewd Manager they get behind the seeming contradictory message to the deeper issues in a timely way. The Sower will make you want to become a farmer. Perhaps the only film that doesn’t clip along is the Prodigals video, but for good reason, it is the longest video because it is the longest parable. However, the authors nail the point about that Jesus was making.

Overall this is an excellent curriculum piece. I have not used the two session approach for the videos but opted for one setting with the video up front. This does compress the discussion time depending on your group setting. My only complaint in the videos is that there is some superfluous content in several that adds minutes to the video but not much to the story. This is a minor complaint.

Also, I’m still waiting for volume 2…but don’t expect that too soon. Check this series out for your groups, especially if you’re working with 20s and 30s who are discussion focused and desire high quality, well developed curriculum pieces. In every scenario group attendance maintained with the anticipation of each coming week.

Finally, check out everything Compass has to offer. They’ve diversified their approach since this initial release and have some great content for families, homeschoolers, and regular classroom stuff. I don’t necessarily agree with all their points in the various videos, but the content is well presented. Though it isn’t in stores yet, their video series for learning Klingon will certainly help us prepare for our new alien overlords. I for one welcome our new Klingon overlords, and would likely to remind them that I, a trusted minister and counselor, can be trusted to round up others for their Klingon work farms. But seriously, check out their other stuff.

Have you used Modern Parables? What did you think? How has this kind of content been helpful or unhelpful for your groups?

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Resource Review: RightNow Media

One of the post conversations I’m hoping to provide through ProEcclesia is a weekly resource review of a curriculum or content piece which I have used or evaluated. Please check out the gallery below and see my review which follows.

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Resource Name:  RightNow Media

URL: www.rightnowmedia.org

In Short: RightNow Media provides video based groups content from leading communicators through a web-based delivery system for groups and individuals along with leadership and training events.

Cost:  Depending on size of the church, it can be a bit pricey.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars, excellent resource

Review:

Since I’ve been out of seminary and in full-time ministry the category of video based small groups and teaching curriculum has exploded. I remember going to Christianbook.com as a college minister in my first church and seeking out video content for my media based college students. The selections, at the time, were slim and way too many were still offered on VHS. (I didn’t graduate from seminary that long ago.)

As we began developing and distributing groups across college campuses in Atlanta, we recognized quickly that bringing fresh, cutting edge video curriculum was difficult. YouTube and Vimeo were in their infancy and there weren’t good options to push content through secure channels on our website…not to mention the legality issues of doing this. We ended up having a weekly resource collection and distribution point which worked okay, but it wasn’t ideal. As I moved into young professionals and life groups ministry at another church this challenge increased as we pushed our groups into homes away from our campus.

Then, about a year or two ago, I discovered a resource called RightNow Media and our staff decided to join up with them. Since then our experience has been outstanding.

By partnering with publishers, conferences, and media outlets, RightNow Media has been able to deliver a web based video site that will bring leading communicators and world class video content into the homes, rooms, and lives of your group members. Since I’ve been using RightNow they have updated their video library about three times, each time adding substantial content.

In RightNow you can search videos based on your: stage of life, Bible study type, topic, what is most recent, what is most popular, group type, and so forth. You can search videos based on communicator or title as well.

The video content includes videos from: Andy Stanley, Matt Chandler, Dave Ramsey, Francis Chan, Drs Les and Leslie Parrott, Margaret Feinberg, and many others. These are excellent communicators. There are also videos from conferences like Catalyst, Verge, Send, The Nines, etc. As RightNow is set up it is providing outstanding content for a church and its members. The videos and content provided are safe evangelical resources that won’t provide any significant theological or philosophical challenges for most evangelical churches. I’ve been impressed with how RightNow has kept this content within theological boundaries.

Added to this video experience are customizable leadership training sessions. This is an interface where a leader can link in (from YouTube, Vimeo, or other video sites) or use existing RightNow content to develop short leadership training sessions for staff and leadership as well as group members. This has been a great addition that I’ve been able to use to continue to develop and train up leaders. Honestly, if the only piece that was included was the leadership library and this customizable training tool, the whole site would be worth it.

Finally, adding new users and administrators is pretty easy. Sometimes the emails get snagged by spam folders for different providers, but that hasn’t been as big an issue lately. This morning I received an email update that owners (the master admin for the church) can go in and remove content if it doesn’t work for you church. For many  leaders who have a pulse on the content going out to our people, because they will view it as being endorsed by their church, this is an important tool.

Okay, that is my basic review. I’ve probably left some holes and missed some stuff. Please note: I am not a paid promoter of RightNow (I pay them actually) nor have I benefited by receiving a discount or free resources from them. This is an objective review from a groups leader in a local church.

So what do you think? What questions do you have about RightNow?

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