Video Bible studies have become popular among many small groups. These include anything from the study’s author teaching the full lesson, to a short devotional type commentary from the author, to a local pastor creating a video to accompany his or her church’s small groups. Leaders and small-group pastors seem to love these, and with good reason. They exponentially reduce the leader’s prep time and uncertainty. Plus, they add authority to the teaching and uniformity to a church’s small-group strategy when groups are doing the same video Bible study.
But I remain unconvinced. Before you use a video Bible study, consider the risks and disadvantages.
They contribute to a celebrity culture in the church.
Video Bible studies implicitly teach that only people with a “name,” book contract, or title can teach. In this way, they contribute to a celebrity mentality where the majority of people in the church don't believe they have anything worthy to say about the Bible.
One of the assets of small-group ministries is that they encourage the church to be the church. By this I mean that lay leaders are equipped and given an opportunity to do the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:12). This effectively counters the celebrity or expert status of the pastor who teaches from the pulpit every week by reminding every believer to minister.
But when a small group uses a video Bible study, the teacher becomes another layer of celebrity, suggesting that he or she is more important and qualified than the lay leader, and perhaps more important than the pastor. I’ve listened to the awe in the voices of leaders and participants who eagerly tell me who teaches their video Bible study. While popular teachers like Beth Moore and John Ortberg are good teachers, they form an unhealthy following of fans. When I hear someone trying to impress me with who's teaching their video Bible study, I usually ask if they have anyone in their church capable of teaching or leading. I would much rather be taught by a fallible, teachable local man or woman than some distant icon.
They set up the teacher as an icon.
These popular authors and teachers featured in our video Bible studies are so distant from us, it can appear that they're living perfect lives. Of course this isn't true, but because they are distant, unknowable people put on a pedestal with perfect hair and makeup, we forget that they, too, are fallible people on the journey. Sure, they often tell self-deprecating stories, but do we really believe they have morning breath?
Unfortunately, we begin to believe that to be where they are, they must be perfect teachers with perfect homes, families, gardens, and cars. But how many icons have we seen fall? It almost seems to go with the territory. Then the teacher's fans are left in shock as their perfect picture crumbles before their eyes.
I want to know the people leading and teaching in my small group. I want to know they are just as human, just as fallible, as I am. And as a leader, I want to be known because being known keeps me accountable and honest. I can’t teach something that is contrary to my lifestyle because my group members will find me out. That keeps me honest.
They discourage lay leaders from developing leadership gifts.
Paul always stressed local leadership in the churches he mentored. He helped them get established, but quickly turned leadership over to the locals. In Ephesians 4:11–12, he noted that the role of the main leadership (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers) is to equip God’s people. Ideally, local leaders equip local leaders who in turn equip other local leaders. And the result is that the church, the body of Christ, is built up. Sure, the local leaders may not be as seamless as a video teacher with unlimited scripting and editing. But as a person leads, he or she becomes more skilled and ever more useful to the body of Christ.
I've seen this in myself: I started as a table leader, graduated to teaching leader, and eventually began writing Bible studies. In the process, I developed gifts I never realized I had. That would not have happened had our leaders outsourced the teaching to video Bible studies.
They stunt local leaders' growth.
I understand the temptation of providing a "just press play" curriculum to leaders. I'm as busy as the next person, and using a video Bible study means much less preparation. The result, though, is leaders who don’t know the Word for themselves because they've never had to study it for themselves. Kenneth Berding recently wrote in Biola magazine about the crisis of biblical literacy. He says we have a famine of biblical knowledge in our churches today, and he blames it on distractions, misplaced priorities, unwarranted overconfidence, and the pretext of being too busy. When we allow our small-group leaders to depend on videos rather than their own sweat equity, we do them a disservice. The group, the local church, and indeed, the body of Christ, all suffer. We need to encourage our lay leaders to study and learn directly from the Bible. It may not always be easy, but nothing worthwhile is.
They separate teaching from facilitating.
I prefer a Bible study guide that doesn’t require a teaching segment, and, therefore, doesn’t require the leader to be a teacher. This opens leadership to more people with a variety of gifts. Almost any Christian with a little maturity can facilitate a discussion, but not everyone is a good teacher.
There are many Bible studies available today that require a little study and preparation from the members. Then the leader’s primary role is to facilitate a lively discussion and keep things on track. They don’t have to carry the whole load, and the members of the group learn from one another. They learn to discern truth from error. They learn to hear and evaluate a variety of opinions on a passage. Facilitating is the key to learning together rather than learning from a single person.
A video Bible study, even if done well, is not turnkey. The lay leader still needs to watch the video in advance and decide where to take the discussion. But what if the teaching contains something that is not in sync with the local church? Then the local leader has to change, edit, adapt, and punt. Why not skip that altogether and allow the local leader to facilitate a good discussion?
They minimize sensitivity to what the Spirit is saying to the local church.
When publishers mass produce video Bible studies, they're inevitably generic. They must appeal to all portions of the country—and even beyond. Of course, the Spirit certainly has messages that we all need to hear. But sometimes the Spirit has a unique message for a local area or congregation. When a church becomes dependent on national icons to do their teaching for them, the message becomes homogenized. But consider John’s messages to the seven churches in Revelation. Each church was different, so each message was uniquely tailored to that church. It's important for local pastors and leaders to stay sensitive to what the Spirit is saying to their church, and consistently using canned studies diminishes that sensitivity.
Locally developed video studies can create too much control.
Many churches today are developing their own video Bible studies. These are often done by the pastor or small-group pastor to bring uniformity to the small groups within the church. It’s understandable that church leaders would want to have a level of control over the message going out to their groups, however, it’s easy to move from a reasonable amount of control to total control—and that’s not healthy. Pastors need to provide adequate training and oversight for their lay leaders, and then trust them to do the job they’ve been trained to do. Church leaders must trust the Holy Spirit to communicate the message he wants communicated.
I realize that many people think I'm unrealistic. But if we don’t call people to maturity in our small groups, where will it happen? And if we can’t encourage our leaders to become mature enough to lead, why do we think a video will accomplish this for our group members? I definitely see the draw of video Bible studies. I simply want more for the church as we seek to make mature disciples in our groups.
—Pat Sikora is author of Why Didn't You Warn Me: How to Deal with Challenging Group Members; copyright 2014 by Christianity Today.