Imagine that you are an adult Bible study teacher in a local church, a layman without access to a personal theological library. Imagine it’s a Saturday afternoon and you’re working on a lesson and need help, so you turn to the greatest library available at your fingertips: the Internet.
Type in a query – for example, who is the “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thessalonians 2? – and your screen will quickly fill up with many links to websites. Typically, nine out of 10 of these links will be to very conservative, often Calvinist, websites.
If you’re looking for moderate to progressive theological viewpoints, you’ll have to dig deeper, and even then you might not find any. The reality of the moment is that Christian conservatives, and especially Calvinists, have cornered the market for free Bible helps on the Internet. And that has implications for how lay leaders and even some pastors shape their teaching across Christianity.
But why is this so?
The answer is multi-layered, but it starts with something called Search Engine Optimization. This is an industry in its own right that focuses on helping content providers get their links to appear at the top of Google search results. (Full disclosure: BNG also uses an SEO manager to help promote our content.)
SEO managers use keywords — a built-in language that search engines look for to quickly answer your questions — to help push their clients to the top of search results. Most of the time, if you don’t appear in the top 10 of Google results, your content won’t be accessible. Of course you want to be in the top 20.
There are also other ways to improve your rankings with paid promotions, but the main thing search bots are looking for is relevance. This includes how often the content has been viewed, the number of interactions other readers have with it, the number of links to other sources it contains, and the number of relevant words in it .
Christian curators have worked hard to position their content for easy access online; moderate and progressive Christians did not. There are economic and institutional reasons for this, but the reality is that content must be visible on the Internet to be found on the Internet.
The dominant players
Groups such as The Gospel Coalition, Desiring God and Got Questions, as well as individual pastors such as John MacArthur are big players in internet content. They have produced a lot of content that is available for free online, and as a result, their content appears at the top of most searches. They also promote their content to their followers, which has the effect of making their content appear higher in search results.
The Gospel Coalition, also known as TGC, is a major player in this market. It describes itself as “a community of evangelical churches in the Reformed tradition deeply committed to renewing our faith in the gospel of Christ and reforming our ministry practices to conform fully to Scripture”. The TGC website offers a rich range of editorial content, Bible helps, videos, sermons and more. All for free.
Another major player is Got Questions, which describes its mission as seeking to “glorify the Lord Jesus Christ by providing biblical, applicable, and timely answers to spiritually-related questions through an Internet presence.” He continues: “We are Christians, Protestants, Evangelicals, theologically conservative and non-denominational. We see ourselves as a para-church ministry, coming alongside the church to help people find answers to their questions related to spirituality.
The Got Questions website says its staff answered 681,518 Bible questions — all searchable online. Free.
Additionally, Internet searches for the Bible often help find sites that specialize in providing various Bible translations, sometimes with links to interpretive materials. A number of sites, such as Bible Hub and Bible Gateway, offer this content. Due to copyright laws, most of the commentary available on these sites is from older works that are in the common domain.
It’s not that the curators are the only ones producing Bible studies and Bible helps online; it’s just that they are better at making these resources available online for free.
The State of the Christian Publishing Industry
And that brings us to the Christian publishing industry – which has been in economic freefall for the past few decades.
Most Christian publishers need to sell their products, not give them away for free online. They want to sell you their program, their books, their videos. They must sell you their content because that’s the only way for them to survive. So even when their content appears online, it is most often behind a paywall.
This means two important things: their paid content does not appear as frequently in search results, and fewer people access their content, which also lowers their ranking in search results.
This online reality mirrors what was already true in the Christian curriculum publishing industry. Simply put, conservative churches were more likely to use a common curriculum for small group Bible studies, while more progressive churches – if they offer small group Bible studies – are more likely to opt for a buffet approach where individual classes or teachers choose their own materials.
And like everything else, the pandemic has changed the market for curriculum – but for the worse. Even traditional curriculum publishers like Southern Baptists’ Lifeway Christian Resources — a powerhouse in the business — have seen their sales plummet. And Lifeway quickly moved on to offering more online content, more downloadable content, more free content. Lifeway also lost millions of dollars in 2020.
Smaller publishers — even smaller faith-based publishers — have also struggled to adapt to the pandemic, as many Bible study classes have stopped meeting in person or changed their approach to learning.
A veteran’s perspective
David Cassady has spent most of his career in the Christian publishing industry. He is now president of the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky, where he handles the academic side, but always with an eye on serving local congregations.
“My doctorate has focused on curriculum development, and I have been part of nearly every curriculum resource developed in our Moderate Baptist pool over the past 30 years,” he said. he explains. And he loves talking about it: “How to provide quality resources that value scholarship and speak to progressive religious values.”
Cassady was the first employee hired by Smyth & Helwys when it began producing programs for Moderate Baptist churches in 1992, and worked there for 15 years. He remains committed to the program published by Good Faith Media and to a progressive online resource called Faithelement, produced by Faithlab. It’s new content for church leaders posted online every week — what Cassady calls a “resolutely progressive theological resource for local church groups that values scholarship.”
“It’s behind a paywall, because the audience is too small to do an ad-supported approach (believe me, I tried),” Cassady explained. “It follows the lectionary and uses various forms of media to make it easier for leaders to deliver better content and process.”
But the company operates with few means.
The same is arguably true for other online publishers of moderate to progressive content.
“How congregations do education is likely key to whether we can make progress when it comes to women in ministry, issues of racial justice, Christian nationalism, misinformation, cultural relevance and general dysfunction that haunts many congregations today.”
“Adult Christian education has been much more prominent in evangelical churches, which tend to be more conservative,” Cassady said. For example, the congregations of the Presbyterian Churches of the United States, the United Methodist Church and the Disciples of Christ “are not known to have much adult education in their programming,” he added. “This leads to insufficient demand among more progressive audiences for such resources.”
And in the world of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and Alliance of Baptists congregations – heirs to a more robust Southern Baptist Convention adult education tradition – “education has been left to individual teachers to guide” , Cassady noted. “Although many have good intentions, the truth is that seminary-trained staff are in a much better position to evaluate educational resources and content, but they hate doing it. The polarization that has swept our culture means disagreements over content/resources turn into ideological battles, and I suspect it’s just not worth it.
Anyone who’s ever tried to market anything to local congregations — whether it’s curriculum, supplies, or partnerships — knows there are gatekeepers involved. The first custodian is usually the one who sits in the office of the church and receives general mail and e-mail. Then there are pastors and other staff who have their own interests.
Thus, an already tight market for Bible study curriculum and resources is also difficult to break into.
As difficult as this task is, there are real implications for what is taught in a church’s small group Bible studies, as well as from the pulpit.
“How congregations do education is probably critical to whether we can make progress on women in ministry, issues of racial justice, Christian nationalism, misinformation, cultural relevance and dysfunction. general that haunts many congregations today,” Cassady said.
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