One of my responsibilities is to oversee the doctrinal direction and teaching of our church. A way this evidences itself is through evaluating Bible studies and books for our small groups. I’m reminded of Paul’s admonition to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:16, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” While some church leaders might feel what curriculum their discipleship groups use is more of a free-for-all, we feel responsible to add a level of pastoral discernment over the materials which pass into the hands of our people. Frankly, in the outworking of this process, we approve much more material than we reject. Mostly this is due to the solid theological makeup of our small group leaders. However, every so often we kindly ask a group leader to find a different study than the one they’ve submitted to us for consideration.
So, how can one decide if a book or study is good for their group even though you’re not 100% crazy about it? Here are a few questions you might want to ask:
#1: Does this study conflict with Christian essentials or our church distinctives?
If the study in question challenges half of the Apostles’ Creed, it’s probably good not to recommend it for your small group. I would also add a warning concerning your church’s distinctives. For example, what does your church believe about baptism? It probably isn’t helpful to give your group a study on the merits of infant baptism if your church feels deeply that baptism is only for professing believers. Or if the study promotes a different position on the eternal security of the believer than the one your church’s elders hold, then it very well may not be a study your small group should do. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t individually get books that don’t challenge what you believe from time to time. I think they can help us better know what we believe. J.P. Moreland’s once wrote, “If all you do is read simple books or those that emphasize stories or practical application, you’ll never learn to think for yourself as a mature Christian, nor will you develop a trained mind.”[ref]Love Your God With All Your Mind, 112.[/ref] However, when it comes to selecting a book to study for your small group, I think it best to find studies that don’t call into question orthodox Christian thought or your church’s unique distinctives.
#2: Do you disagree with what the book says or simply the way it says it?
I ran across a Bible study the other day where the author’s writing felt a tad insensitive and abrasive. However, one’s perception of how an author communicates is a different topic than what the author says. It’s one thing to say a book is bad because it is too direct or not direct enough for your tastes, it’s completely another thing to say that the author’s content is wrong. Let me be clear, you can still believe a book to be a bad choice because it so poorly communicates that readers won’t be able to value the good content within it. Still, it helps to be clear on exactly why you disagree with it. Is this really about substance or simply style? If it’s only because you wished the author took a different approach but on the whole believe the content has merit, you might reconsider using it. But if the book consistently presents unbiblical ideas or bad theology, then it’s time to choose a different study.
#3: Is the bulk of the book redeeming enough to merit a nuanced recommendation?
In evaluating another study I found several places where teachings were tied to the Scriptures in a very shoddy way. It was clear Bible verses were forced into paragraphs as textual support to justify the principles being presented. A simple contextual reading would lead the reader to see the author was stretching it at best and completely missing it at worst. The unfortunate thing was that, in this specific study, overall the principles were good. They just needed different (and better) Scriptural support. Now, was this enough to reject it as a study, or could you recommend it to a group provided you tell them about the study’s deficiencies? That’s the million dollar question! No book or study is perfect. You’re going to find things you probably disagree with. The question is will this study do more harm than good? Here’s a tip: If a Bible study or book would take three pages single-spaced (with footnotes) of forewarning in order for you to feel comfortable giving it to your small group, don’t do it. But if the study would richly bless a group if only it were nuanced here or there, you might consider pursuing it. It’s not unusual for me to give green light a small group study provided I inform the leaders of what they need to be aware of in it.
#4: Is my group spiritual mature enough to engage this study?
Part of maturing spiritually is developing the ability to discern. It’s having the biblical and theological foundation whereby you can “chew the meat and spit out the bones” of what you see, read, and hear. For those who can discern well, the gamut of studies to consider widens. However, for those who may be younger in the faith and are somewhat limited in their knowledge of the Scriptures, it would be wise to find a study with no real points of contention within it. This serves best those in your group who have yet to become well-acquainted with biblical doctrines. Studies that require heavy lifting in the discernment department may often leave the young Christian confused and frustrated. This demands that we should take into account the spiritual maturity of the group when facing with a study you feel “iffy” about. You must use your discernment on behalf of those who have yet to develop theirs. Listen, we shepherd our groups just as much by what we don’t give them as by what we do give them.
*By the way, this should go for most every study because there are few studies people agree with 100% 😉