Rainer: ‘Reader discernment tags’ scuttled; efforts to increase Bible literacy prioritized

WILLIAMSBURG?Information urging the purchasers of some books sold by LifeWay Christian Resources to read those books “with discernment” will no longer be distributed in the company’s books stores, according to President Thom Rainer. The practice began two years ago and facilitated the stocking of controversial titles such as “The Shack.” LifeWay will continue selling such books.

Speaking to the annual gathering of the Association of State Baptist Papers, LifeWay Christian Resources President Thom Rainer said, “The bottom line is there was hardly any interest in [the discernment tags]. We had very few customers asking for further information and at times it was a little confusing.”

Authored by William P. Young and released in 2007, the bestseller was removed from LifeWay’s shelves in 2008 to allow for further review after it received criticism. When it was re-introduced, Texas pastor Randy White of First Baptist Church of Katy urged LifeWay trustees to reconsider.

Among White’s concerns were a perceived “mocking of the complete nature of Scripture,” the incarnation of God the Father and God the Holy Spirit as women, a flippant attitude toward the role of the Holy Spirit, crude language attributed to the persons of God, and an unbiblical explanation of Christ’s incarnation and sin sacrifice.

At that time, LifeWay officials defended their decision, telling the TEXAN, “The overwhelming number of Southern Baptists like the book and expect us to carry it in our stores.”

As fiction, LifeWay’s communication director said the book should be evaluated by different standards than a doctrinal or theological work, an argument to which Rainer alluded in his Feb. 16 report to editors.

Previously, readers received “informational bookmarks” anecdotally referred to as “read with discernment” tags. They advised using “extra discernment” because of The Shack’s “thought-provoking nature,” and directed customers to a book on the Trinity and a basic introduction to Christian doctrine for further study.

“That was put in those books in which good Southern Baptists are in disagreement on both sides of the argument about whether we should carry the book,” Rainer told editors meeting in Williamsburg. “We thought that would be a helpful way to say these are the issues out there,” he explained, adding that the insert directed them to information about the pros and cons of the book.

“At times it was a little confusing,” Rainer said, adding that readers assumed they should be discerning about all books. “Because of the lack of interest we said we’re going to discontinue” the policy.

Asked by TEXAN Editor Gary Ledbetter whether the decision meant LifeWay would no longer carry books like “The Shack,” Rainer said, “No sir, just no ‘read with discernment.’ If you read the top 100 Christian books you’ll see a lot of books we don’t carry; some of those that would be of a more controversial nature.” He restated his point by saying, “So removing the RWD doesn’t mean that book is no longer carried.”

Georgia Christian Index Managing Editor Joe Westbury asked if LifeWay has a litmus test for print materials, novels, books and Bible studies, whether it be the beliefs of average Southern Baptists or the Baptist Faith and Message doctrinal statement.

“We will not go contrary to the Baptist Faith and Message,” Rainer said, while adding that stores might include books written by authors of a different denomination, such as a Presbyterian who would hold to a different view of baptism.

“The only exceptions are academic and reference [materials], and some would say fiction books if you would hold fiction to that as well. But as a rule the Baptist Faith and Message represents the broad parameters.”

Asked whether LifeWay has a minimal standard for fiction, Rainer said, “Since books go under individual review it would be hard for me to come up with the guidelines. We are looking at books that are acceptable by broader evangelical doctrine, not contrary to the Baptist Faith and Message. That would include fiction books, but there would be some who would differ on whether that book does or not.

Rainer was asked by one editor to describe how LifeWay fulfills its assignment as a church health provider. “I don’t want to get the method ultimately confused with the goal,” he said. “The goal is to make disciples and provide resources to make disciples.”

Citing a study called “The Shape of Faith to Come,” Rainer said researcher Brad Waggoner, now the executive vice president, found one stream running through spiritual maturation, disciple-making and seeing people become more like Christ?the regular reading of the Word of God.

“That was an affirmation of what we do, so the issue is how are we going to provide the Bible study materials that are the best resources to accompany the really best resource which is the Word of God?”

Rainer said it involves “more digital and less paper,” a variety of choices in Bible reading plans, and a greater emphasis on personal Bible study in addition to group study. The newly launched “Read the Bible for Life,” a whole-church approach to greater biblical literacy, is a step in that direction, he said.

Written by George Guthrie, the nine-week study “equips individuals and churches to better understand the Bible by introducing readers to its history, genres, interpretation, and proper application to transform lives through reading and studying God’s Word,” according to promotional material. DVD interviews feature noted Bible scholars Clint Arnold, Craig Blomberg, Darrell Bock, Michael Card, Scott Duvall, Daniel Hays, David Howard, Andreas Kostenberger, Douglas Moo, Gary Smith, Mark Strauss and Bruce Waltke.

“We’re encouraging churches to have their people in group studies and individually?whatever we can do to get people to lean into the Word of God,” Rainer said.

He also expressed enthusiasm for “Courageous,” the next movie from Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., to be released Sept. 30. While it focuses on fatherhood, it also is “a family movie [relaying] a clear gospel presentation,” said Rainer, noting that LifeWay’s ties with the Sherwood movie will include two trade books as well as curriculum resources.

Another new partnership is with David Platt of Birmingham, Ala., whose book, “Radical,” reached bestseller status. An inaugural simulcast of “Secret Church” open to churches as well as home groups is scheduled for Good Friday, April 22. The pastor of the Church at Brook Hills typically teaches the in-depth Bible study and a focus on the persecuted church in various regions of the world, attracting an audience of 4,000 from 6 p.m. to midnight on some Fridays.

Asked about “brand loyalty” among Southern Baptists for LifeWay’s Holman Christian Standard Bible and the newly released HCSB Study Bible, Rainer said, “We are encouraged, but still challenged” with HCHB’s share of the Bible market at about 5 percent.

“It’s still a relatively small share. However, the good news is that market penetration has been pretty quick for a newer translation,” Rainer added. Response to the study Bible is meeting or slightly exceeding expectations, he said.

With declining denominational loyalty, Rainer acknowledged, “We can count on only a small percentage of [Southern Baptist] churches to purchase [LifeWay products] just because we are LifeWay,” he said.

One positive result of the decline in brand loyalty, Rainer noted, is that it can “help make us better” by forcing new efforts to strengthen its product line, such as a yet-to-be-released curriculum to provide added depth in Bible study.

Rainer said LifeWay’s Transformational Churc

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