This post will contain reflections both on the recently released Philippians study guide and the series of which it is a part. I generally write such reflections after each book my company releases. So be warned—there are products discussed here!
When I first created this blog I was the only author in the participatory study series. Making a book series grow and sell usually requires a great vision pursued relentlessly. This series, on the other hand, has grown and substantially improved its original vision.
When I first wrote To the Hebrews: A Participatory Study Guide and Revelation: A Participatory Study Guide, I didn’t feel any great optimism that I could break into a very competitive market. People write Bible study guides all the time. Quality varies dramatically, and often the best sellers are those written by people with famous names.
What I wanted was a system that brought together biblical scholarship, spiritual disciplines, accessibility to lay people, and a somewhat ecumenical approach. I must specify that my view of ecumenism is not homogenization, but rather a willingness to engage in respectful give and take and especially to look at multiple traditions when choosing sources and study materials.
I wrote those two books myself, and I had an upcoming class in mind with each one. You can see by the design of the books that this was early in my own publishing experience. From the point of view of developing the company, I needed titles. With the process we use, I can produce study guides for my own use quite economically. My thought was that if these guides sold successfully it would be great, but I wouldn’t count on it, and I would put my efforts into finding authors with manuscripts of their own, not ones following a plan I had designed.
In the event, not only have I taught from them myself more times than expected, but I’ve seen them sell quite a few more copies than I had thought possible. No, they aren’t threatening to be on anyone’s best seller lists, but they have definitely exceeded my initial expectations.
A few years after I had released those first two guides Geoffrey Lentz approached me with a study outline from the book of Luke. Geoffrey had invited me to teach one of his classes from my guide to Hebrews, and he liked the outline of the method, but also the proposed freedom for working within the framework. I liked his outline and his idea, and the result was The Gospel According to Saint Luke: A Participatory Study Guide.
Geoffrey really rounded out the idea of the series by improving the presentation and tying the method more closely with lectio divina. He at first proposed including both a discussion of lectio divina and the introduction to the method that I had produced, but once I looked at his connections, I suggested we work together to combine the two. Participatory study and lectio divina are not identical; participatory study provides more of an emphasis on resources and critical questions, yet the two work together very well.
Once I saw the completed study guide to Luke, I knew immediately that if I could find any more authors for the series, I would present that volume as the guide to how we would structure study guides.
After Luke, Geoffrey and I got together and wrote Learning and Living Scripture: An Introduction to the Participatory Study Method. In that book, Geoffrey’s more pastoral concern and my more technical emphasis combine and lay out the method along with exercises.
Since then we’ve introduced Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide, by Bob Cornwall and most recently Philippians: A Participatory Study Guide by Bruce Epperly. Each new author has brought something unexpected to the method and to the particular book they present. I don’t want to describe one book or another as “best.” (I do plan to revise my two volumes to incorporate some features in layout and presentation learned from later volumes.)
I had wondered just how well someone could take the basic framework and yet use their own gifts and emphases in producing an effective guide. I couldn’t have been more pleased when I read the following sentence in Bruce Epperly’s preface to Philippians: “Henry provided a vision for this study and gave me permission to work out the details in a way congruent with my gifts as a pastor, teacher, and spiritual guide.”
This was not so much pleasing as a pat on the back, though I admit to being delighted when my work is appreciated. More than that, it indicates that someone whose gifts differ dramatically from my own was able to exercise those gifts within this framework and produce what is truly an exceptional study guide. I’ve gotten some comments from people who wonder about one statement or another. Bruce is a progressive theologian and an adventurous theological writer. But nobody has said it doesn’t challenge them to press boldly on toward the mark.
I look at the way the series is developing—and there are several more volumes either in progress or in preliminary negotiations—and I’m truly amazed. I wish I could say I envisioned the quality of the people who would submit proposals for inclusion in the series, almost all of them with doctoral degrees and considerable experience teaching. I wish I could say I’d envisioned what’s happening to the series—but I’m delighted that the result is better than I ever imagined.
I encourage you to take a look at this latest study guide. Not only will it challenge you to take a more serious look at the content of Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, it will challenge you to take what you learn seriously and apply it in your own spiritual life. Each lesson starts by asking you to open yourself to the Spirit in some way and concludes by challenging you to carry what the Spirit has done out of the church or classroom and out into the world.
I have been very pleased to publish every book I have published since I started Energion Publications, and I don’t want to take anything away from those books. Yet my heart is in getting the people in our church pews, not to mention those who rarely show up there, to learn the joy of exploring the scriptures while listening to the Spirit. Thus Philippians: A Participatory Study Guide will always have a special place in my heart. It does an extraordinary job of accomplishing that mission.
There are review and evaluation copies of all the participatory study guides available, If you’re interested, e-mail me with the reason you want one, and I’ll take care of it.