QUICK HIT: In Jesus Is, Judah Smith adapts his bestselling book into a mediocre small group series. The six aspects of the book are broken into eight sessions in the video series, and the average video lesson only runs 4-6 minutes. Couple this with not an abundance of listed discussion questions and there’s frankly just not a lot of material to work with.
First things first: Judah Smith looks like Clark Kent. I mean, there’s not been a guy since Christopher Reeve to look more like Clark Kent than Judah Smith. This has nothing to do with the review, but it was a constant background thought in my head. Judah is also the hipsteriest of pastors in a way that puts worship leaders to shame. Though he is from Seattle, so maybe that explains it. Again, nothing really do to with the review.
But now onward to more serious thoughts. Jesus Is ______ was first published by Thomas Nelson in 2013 and was quickly followed up by this small group series. The book took six different aspects of Jesus:
- Jesus is your friend.
- Jesus is grace.
- Jesus is the point.
- Jesus is happy.
- Jesus is here.
I’m not sure who made the decision to restructure the small group series into an eight week thing, but it really messed with the entire product. First of all, I understand that not all small group participants will have read the book, but the group leader most certainly should and it’s reasonable to expect similar content. In Jesus Is_______, the eight weeks are split into:
- Scandalous Grace
- Friend of Sinners
- With You Always
- Alive Together
- Accusers and Advocates
- Count the Ways
- With Us and For Us
- Live Like You’re Righteous
See the disconnect? The chapter structure looks like it tries to follow the book’s hook of a unique title, but ends up just giving up halfway through…which is pretty much what happens across the board.
So now you’ve got a small group series that’s disjointed and disconnected from its source material. Okay, you can make it work if the video content is solid. After a ten minute long first session, the video length drops dramatically, so that the rest of the videos average in the 4-6 minute range. Once you consider the stylistic intros and outros, there’s just not a lot of content. It’s ridiculous to pay for a video series and then there not really be a video series. (And for any asking, my personal sweet spot for a video series is in the 20 minute range, with a break in the middle for discussion).
In terms of content, I’m going to talk more about the participant’s guide than the videos, as it’s more substantive. Each lesson has in the range of 4-7 discussion questions. Frankly, if you’re going to do a five minute video, you need to do more than just offer a few questions. There’s no icebreaker questions, no suggestions for group activities, just the questions. I do appreciate that, in the leader’s guide, they do take space to answer some of the questions that have an objective true/false answer (as compared to experience-based questions).
The highlight of the participant’s guide is that each lesson has five days worth of devotional material between lessons. This is easily the most developed part of the series and, if I was forced to run this series in my church, I’d be pulling from that material and adapting it to a small group context to fill the time and fill the lesson with substance.
Last word on Judah’s style. He’s young, he’s hipster, he tries way too hard to be culturally relevant. It’s a great thing at times, and other times he seems like an over the top parody of himself. He’s more toned down here than in the book and it’s something I can overlook, but older audiences probably aren’t going to gravitate toward his style.
And that leaves me wondering who exactly the target audience for this lesson actually is. Not “adult” small groups. He just doesn’t fit that style. But not youth or 20-somethings, either, because the written material and leadership material doesn’t have any of the extras (icebreaker games, activities, etc.) that make great young people material. Jesus Is_______ is just all-around awkward. It doesn’t fit in with anything, not even its source material. A shame, because the book isn’t half-bad.