In August 2015 I got to spend a day at The Bible Project’s studios in Portland, Oregon. I wrote an essay describing that experience and if you are looking for an introductory read on The Bible Project, I recommend starting there. During my visit I had the great pleasure of interviewing Tim Mackie, pastor of Door of Hope church, professor at Western Seminary, and co-creator of The Bible Project. We talked for over 45 minutes and only some of that made it into the essay. The entire conversation was so insightful I’m publishing the whole thing, edited for clarity, so that other fans of the project can listen in and learn with me.
Because it’s a long interview, I’ve divided it into 6 sections: Tim’s Journey and the Story of the Bible Project, Portland’s Unique Church Landscape, Doctrinal Balance and Discipling Artists, The Visual Approach of Their Videos and Their Intended Context, What’s Next for The Bible Project, and Bi-vocational Ministry and Other Advice. I’m very thankful for Tim’s interest in my questions and his time. I hope you find his responses as clarifying and encouraging as I have.
1. Tim’s Journey and the Story of the Bible Project
A lot of it is wrapped up in my story. I grew up in East Portland, just a mile away from here. I became a Christian through an outreach ministry to skateboarders. A church had built a skatepark in its backlot and people could come and skate, paying $2 and skating for the whole night. It would be open from 6-9 p.m., but they’d close the park down at 8:30 p.m. and one of the staff would give a Jesus talk. If you wanted to skate the second half of the night, you would have to sit through the talk. It was cool, everybody respected it. So I went to that for years and years through my teens, and then became a Christian when I was almost 20.
I got involved, started teaching Bible studies for the junior high, and I was like “I don’t know what I’m talking about.” So across the street is the largest Christian college here in the city, called Multnomah University, at the time Multnomah Bible College. Jon and I met there. I started going to school and became a Bible geek. I fell in love with all things Bible.
That’s where you met Jon.
That’s right. I was interning at the skate ministry and so was Jon. We lived at the intern house and that’s how our friendship began. Then I went to Western Seminary here in Portland, and from there shipped off to the Midwest to do a PhD in Hebrew at the University of Wisconsin. My Hebrew teacher at Multnomah had gone there to head the program. It was a great, great program.
Was it a Masters and a PhD?
That’s right, a combined degree, 7 years. And I loved it. I loved it and learned a lot. I had a year in Jerusalem studying at the Hebrew University there.
Is that where a lot of your Hebrew and Jewish elements comes in?
Yes. I was fluent in reading Hebrew by the time I went, but for me this was a whole journey of discovering Jesus’ Jewish identity. I just fell in love with Hebrew scriptures and… the whole deal. I’m just a Bible Geek! No two ways about it.
But as I was finishing my degree, about 2 years prior to finishing I started doing student teaching at the university, teaching classes. And I… didn’t like it.
Yeah! I didn’t like the environment. I loved the university environment but I found that the students I was teaching just didn’t care. The courses were required Judaism or religion classes. And I realized that for me, the Bible is a living thing and the whole point about why I care about this thing is the way that it shapes people and communities for the Kingdom of God.
So I thought, “Okay. That was a good learning experience. I’m going to finish the degree and then figure out a way to bridge my passion for the Bible and learning the Bible as an artifact of history, but also as a living Word to God’s people. I need to find a way to bridge those two worlds." So I stayed in Wisconsin and came on staff as a pastor of the church we were attending. I just began by teaching Sunday school classes, and then started tutoring the senior pastor Hebrew! He wanted to resurrect his Hebrew, and then he invited me to start preaching. That came pretty naturally and then they brought me on as a pastor.
We moved back to Portland 4 years ago, because my family is here and my wife Jessica’s family is in Seattle. I came back to Portland with a 3/4 time role at Door of Hope. It was a young, 2 year old church that was meeting about two blocks from where I grew up.
It has since moved locations. When I arrived, I was their second pastor. I wanted an experience of what it’s like to be at the ground floor of a church. I wondered, is any of that church leader guy in me? And I discovered that it’s not. (Laughs.) I’m definitely a teacher and I love being an elder, but as far as actually building teams and running a church… I kind of suck at it. But that’s okay! You learn by failing and doing.
And it’s great that you can have a context where you can excel without doing that.
Yes, that’s exactly right. So when I moved back I thought, “All right. I’m either going to be at Door of Hope and then I’ll teach adjunct at Western Seminary,” which is my alma matter so I have relationships there. That just came out naturally.
Then Jon and I were hanging out (this was back in Wisconsin when I was planning to move back to Portland) and he pitched me this idea.
Because he had been making all kinds of videos. “What if we did some Bible theology videos?”
So we started meeting a morning a week in the Fall of 2012.
Wow. So this goes back much further.
Yeah! And so we worked on Genesis and Heaven and Earth for a year and a half, before we even started making them.
Were you just developing it?
We were working on the script. Trying to figure it out. We recorded all kinds of stuff, but they were all 20 minutes long. But at a certain point we got some money and threw it at developing storyboards for Genesis Part 1.
Through the church or… ?
Yes, actually we did. Door of Hope has a creative non-profit arm for music called Deeper Well.
I love their stuff!
Yeah, Josh Garrels has done some stuff through them. So we just put it under Deeper Well as “creative video”. Then we just sat and we worked. We were also trying to think of the crowd funding idea and how to build all of that. It was a slow build!
Yeah! But it sounds like you built the groundwork to make the visual style and the form of communication consistent, so you had that in place before you were ready to go.
Yup, that’s true. We were developing the style, everything, and then we just launched the videos and it’s just gained momentum from there.
Yeah! It’s been really fun to watch it. So the way my life’s set up now: I just started half time at The Bible Project back in in April. So it’s new! Prior to that, Door of Hope’s basically been letting me donate a day a week for the last two years.
Okay. So it was under their budget essentially.
Yes. So just in the last couple months have I shifted to part time at Door of Hope and part time here.
2. Portland’s Unique Church Landscape
I don’t know if this is just a perception that is wrong, but the reason I came to Portland is actually because there is so much creative, gospel, truthful, stuff happening here.
I love the arts, but I find so many creative, faith-based institutions tend to get slippery on the doctrine. But I think of Humble Beast, which I’m visiting tomorrow…
Cool, those guys are great!
…I think of Josh Garrels and I think of you guys, your church, and The Bible Project… and I don’t think Portland! I’ve always thought of Portland as this West Coast, spiritually vacant place. So, what is it, do you see a common thread tying this together?
Hmm, yeah that’s interesting…
Is it the healthy churches?
For sure. To be honest, I think it is a huge piece of it. It’s that Door of Hope is one of a network of churches planted in the core of Portland during the last decade… well more than a decade. Jon’s church, ever since he stepped away from being a pastor, has been Imago Dei, right up the street, which started in 2000. And it was something significant. It was part of a new wave of younger, more innovative church planters who were really trying to engage the culture of the city.
Okay! Where did that spark from? Was it a Tim Keller thing, were all these churches reformed?
No no! It’s very… I mean, it just happened! Rick McKinley planted the church. Rick is adjunct at Multnomah University and Seminary. He runs the D.min of their cultural engagement and church planting program.
Where is Multnomah in terms of their theology?
It’s an orthodox evangelical school. Within the reformed tradition but classic, not neo-reformed. Same as Western Seminary. Western is a very centrist seminary,.
And is Trinity Church of Portland, Art Azurdia’s church, based out of Western?
It’s not. They meet at Western and they use their building. And the guy who started it is also professor there, but it doesn’t represent Western or anything.
Right, got it. The first time I attended my church in Calgary was for a conference and it was Art who was preaching.
Then about two years later I started going to that church full time. When I started digging into Humble Beast I realized “hey, I know this guy!”
So that’s one church.
That’s one. But there’s been a whole wave of these churches. It’s really… it’s unique! I think it’s something the Spirit is doing here in Portland. There’s A New Wave, Door of Hope, a church called Bridgetown, Bread and Wine, Evergreen, Theophilus… I could probably name about a dozen, in size ranging from large to medium to small. But there is a collegiality. All of us pastors, we either all went to school together or know each other, from skate church or…
So there is a commonality there.
Yes! We are all friends. And among all of us there’s a common focus on discipling people who are engaging, through their careers, the culture of the city. And so, 15 to 10 years in…
You start to see fruit.
… you see the fruit of that and it’s through a business like Epipheo or Sincerely Turman or Humble Beast. I mean the coffee industry in Portland is riddled with really, really committed followers of Jesus.
Among the main, significant roasters there is a core that are owned or managed by Christians. It’s really interesting. Same with the creative industry.
So it’s really about the Gospel taking root…
Yeah, I think it’s a movement of the Church.
And then another unique thing is that Luis Palau, who’s a Latin American evangelist (something of a Billy Graham to the developing world), has his headquarters based here in West Portland. His son, Kevin Palau, rallied and became kind of a a spokesman on behalf of the local churches of Portland and approached the Mayor about how the churches can serve the city.
Oh I heard about this! Redeemer City to City had an interview with him.
That’s right! So that guy, Kevin, has became kind of this convener of the churches of the wider Portland area. And so there’s been a lot of the churches teaming up. So there has just been all these things creating this sense of the Church of Portland that I think is unique. One of the fruits of that is that in Portland there’s a lot happening in the tech, creative, arts, and communication areas. It is a city filled with lots of Christians who are a part of the unique thing that’s happening here. So stuff happens!
Really! I think it’s kind of unique. So those are all of the various pieces. Josh Garrels is a good example. They moved here because they wanted to become part of Door of Hope and to make this their home base.
Okay, so they heard of the church.
Yes! I forget exactly, they told me the story. They were going to move here, or to Seattle, or to somewhere in the South - because of family. They had been to Door of Hope and felt that this is where they were supposed to land. Now he’s an elder at Door of Hope! God is doing cool stuff in his life and there is lots of… There’s probably a million things that we can’t even think of that are also happening.
It’s neat to see the fruit of that Gospel work that is going forth, even in Canada where I am. I’ve been broken by Humble Beast’s music during very dark moments. Same with Josh Garrels. His music has been there at the right time and you can see the fruit of that.
Right! So there you go. As much as I can put in a nutshell that would be part of my response. I really think it’s fruit of the 'Capital C Church' here in Portland.
3. Doctrinal Balance and Discipling Artists
There are two aspects of that I’m curious about. One is: when you have this greater community of churches, how do they keep their distinctions while still being unified? Were there any sacrifices that were made or things they had to watch for? And then on a similar note, I think of Door of Hope and just the amount of artists that are based there — which has an effect that I feel when I visit. The music is outstanding, the visuals are beautiful, there’s great coffee. But there is also a depth there. I was listening to the song they played on Sunday towards the end and I loved it so I looked up the artist’s music.
Oh, he is insane.
His lyrics are beautiful!
He is a modern John Newton or Isaac Watts.
He reminds me of Indelible Grace’s music.
He is so good. Yes.
I find it very tricky for people who love the arts to maintain their orthodoxy. It’s often a very slippery slope.
But your church seems to be maintaining it with their artists. So I’m curious; how do you maintain unity in the churches, what sacrifices are made, and then how do you maintain a unity of doctrine and arts as a church?
Well, I can only speak for Door of Hope. Imago has a really big emphasis on discipling artists as a part of their ministry.
Okay, so they are actually discipling them!
Yes, Paul Ramey is their Pastor of Worship Arts, but really he sees his role as the pastor of the artists in their community.
Hmm, so there’s respect. An artist would feel the encouragement, but also be corrected.
Yes. So for every church it’s different.
At Door of Hope, everything for us revolves around what we call the four pillars and everything we do filters through those. The first one is Gospel, specifically of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the Spirt being this central thing. We don’t have many doctrinal distinctive other than classical orthodoxy, We’ve had to make certain distinctions as we go, just around how to operate as a church and leadership stuff. But this approach is true of many these newer wave of churches. We have a real classic evangelical centrist position theologically.
What happens when contentious issues come up, maybe the role of women in the church?
Our elders came around it, we weighed it all, made a majority decision, formed a paper, and then some people left the church. It’s all just typical church stuff.
But that’s different than your question around artists maintaining their orthodoxy…
Sorry, those are really two separate questions. I should have split them up but they were formed together!
No, I hear that. I think that… A healthy church that really is centred around Jesus is always going to call everyone in the community to that centre.
To be discipled.
Yeah. Now, I don’t have any illusions that the majority of artists in Portland are even remotely interested in Jesus.
Even though we have a lot at Door of Hope, it’s just a tiny sample.
But I think of Image Journal (who I respect in many ways). I’m not saying they are not believers, but they don’t have that solid weight and I think discipleship maybe is what comes in.
Yes. Well, I think it just depends. In terms of what’s happened at Door of Hope with our emphasis on music, it has been a really unique thing. It comes out of the guy who planted the church, Josh White. He’s the other main teaching pastor and he is a musician, so that’s been his thing.
And also if he wasn’t a pastor his other career would be interior design, so he's got a thing for aesthetics and design, and it shows, and it’s awesome! He was meant to plant a church in Portland. It was just perfect.
Of course. He is part and parcel of Portland’s culture.
4. The Visual Approach of Their Videos and Their Intended Context
I have another question that I’ve been wrestling with as I look at your materials at The Bible Project. Something that my church talks a lot about is that as Christians and Evangelicals, we are people of the Word. The Word is what unites us and the Word is our life. So something that my pastor brings up is how many offshoots in Christianity become quite image centred. You look at Eastern Orthodox streams or even Catholics. And so, coming out of the Reformation, we are people of the Word, even in our Jewish roots.
So then, think of how our culture used to be word centred (think of the majority of our past’s media and entertainment). But today I would say that about 80% of our media is visual. Our culture communicates in a more visual style. I think that’s one of the secrets to The Bible Project is that you communicate that way too.
Do you see a conflict there? How do you maintain a Word-centredness while using a visual language?
That’s a good question.
We’re not trying to replace people’s experience with the Scriptures. I think we are trying to provide a tool that makes them coherent, understandable, and approachable. If anything, one of my goals for the videos is that someone watching them goes, “Oh, I want to go read the book of Genesis!” But at the same time, the Scriptures are united to living church communities that are themselves being shaped by the Scriptures too, so there is that ecclesial element of encountering Scripture within the web of relationships of other disciples.
How do your videos point to that?
We want to make them accessible and easy and that churches would want to adopt and use.
Okay. So even if you are throwing them up on YouTube for some guy to find all by himself, the intent is for communities to use them.
Totally. They are getting airtime in churches all over the planet. It’s really cool!
I’m a huge fan of people not trying reading the Bible on their own. I think you can do so, but we only stand to be enriched and helped when we read them in community. So I think the videos are a way of reading the Bible in community and helping give people tools. Nothing replaces a community of disciples learning to follow Jesus, immersing themselves in the scriptures, and being a people of the scriptures. That’s an irreplaceable factor.
It comes back to discipleship, just like with the artists.
Yes, that’s exactly right. So in that sense, we are creating a tool that helps people do what is the most important thing, but it’s also a form of outreach.
Oh yes. An amazing form of outreach!
We are trying not to use any Christian lingo in order to make it understandable to anybody.
So you’re not using lingo. What are other approaches that are in the back of your head when you plan these videos that give them such broad culture speak?
Well it’s just… I use the words that I would use to explain it. Laughs. And again, part of that’s my story. I didn’t grow up with the Bible. I was a young adult really encountering this as new world and was really, really thrown by it. I loved Jesus, but the Bible was challenging for me! So I had to reconcile myself to it and work with it and I ended up finding it beautiful and amazing.
Challenging in its approach or challenging in its implications?
Oh, challenging in its content! And like why… what is this?
So you’re having that experience at the back of your head as you are planning and teaching.
Yes, just my own journey. What do I do with sacrifice and atonement? What is going on here? How I explain it to myself, alongside everything I’ve learned and read, is then what makes it into the videos. I’m making the videos partly for myself, to use! Or they come from materials I worked out in classes I taught that I’m now putting into videos. And then Jon helps, because he's got that gift of making things concise and boiling it down. So he’s another layer where theological jargon gets removed to make it just very approachable.
When you’re doing a video, whether it’s a theme video or a book video, do you have a certain audience in mind? The other half of that question is when you look at the whole scope of The Bible Project, is there an overarching Gospel or message you are trying to communicate?
I think it depends. Book videos are trying to unpack each book by its own literary design, themes, and message, and then how it fits in to the overarching story. And so that is just what it is. Hence, we don’t mention Jesus unless he is mentioned in the book. I am bringing out a lot of the messianic themes. We haven't yet done that many Old Testament books in the sketchbook series, but when we do that it will become more clear. But even for the Passover video, we bring out elements like the cross and blood dripping down, so those kinds of things.
And the theme videos?
For the theme videos, that’s where the action is. Every one is structured as we run it through the biblical narrative, so the prophets are pointing forward to the messianic kingdom and Jesus’ realization of that kingdom is the pivot. In every video, that’s the pivot. So in as much as the story of the Bible is the story of the Gospel, then yes, every video is unpacking the Gospel from these different angles, as sub-themes throughout the Bible. Those are fun because they are synthetic, big synthesis projects. Whether people realize it or not, we are trying to reframe how the people think about the story of the Bible, how this includes, well… everything! The Bible is pretty encompassing. It is training that will mess with your mind. So those are really fun. To put those concepts into accessible language, I know it is really helpful for me.
5. What’s Next for The Bible Project
I’m thinking about how The Bible Project came together and I see God’s hand at work through the right people, with the right background, at the right time. I see how the church provided a financial and pastoral influence on it. Then obviously, there is the huge stage of planning and just putting a lot of hard work and thought and being very deliberate about it. And now we have the crowd funding element keeping it alive. So when you look at what’s going on here, if you had unlimited resources, time, people, and money, what else would you do? What other potential is there for churches and the body of Christ to do stuff that your doing?
Well, yes, that’s a good question. Right now I’m still a deer in the headlights for what we need to get done by next September!
Is that the deadline?
For this phase of the project, yes. We’ve broken it up; we are going to do every book of the Bible in the sketchbook style by next Fall. We’re going to crank out a theme video every month and a half, we have all those lined up. And then we’re prototyping — actually this week we launched the design phase — a series we are going to do on how to study the bible. It will be a 15 part series with skills in reading different the literary genres, that kind of thing. It think it will be awesome! So, once that phase is done… I mean, we have a lifetime of theme videos we could make. So we’ll just keep turning out those. I want to do a series on the history and the making of the Bible — the cannon, the manuscripts, stuff like that, it’s a big interest of mine. And then Jon wants to do a Holy Land series where we do a hybrid of animation and onsite filming, going to different places.
My dream would be that the channel has just hours and hours and hours of content that is free, that someone could walk away with. Another phase of it would be, not that I want to do this, but creating experiences with the videos and shaping it into a curriculum that is free. Like a free online seminary education. And then that is paired up with the translation phases that Ken has his mind around. Making it all available for free! So that a seminary in, say, Kenya, that doesn’t have a huge library but the videos could be available in Swahili, and they could take pastors through it. You know what I mean? They could read through the Bible in one year, while working through the videos with the interactive materials we would create.
How does that change culturally?
Oh that’s a great question and I have no idea. Laughs. But, I’ve thought about that.
But you’re keeping it pretty… it’s just the text.
Sure. But even the way that I would think about doing it is shaped by the fact that I grew up here. And the questions that I think need answering aren’t necessarily the questions that a Kenyan Christian would need answering. And so… I don’t know the answer to that one. I’m just making them. Narrative is a universal language, there is something there that is universal. And the Bible is universal that way. But there’s probably lots of how we are framing itthat would feel very Western to, say, a Chinese christian.
Yet it is the story of the Bible. When you look at guys like the folks in EE-TAOW, where they go off to some culture and they learn the culture, but they still tell the narrative of the Bible.
Right, tell the story. Yes, EE-TAOW! I remember that.
6. Bi-vocational Ministry and Other Advice
Well, thanks so much.
Yeah, Daniel. I think my biggest encouragement is, if biblical theological education is exciting to you, just go for it, man. It’s so fun. And I think the other piece is that if teaching is your passion, the way to get better at it is just to do it, especially if you are given opportunities. I remember when I would teach anything. I would teach a Sunday School class with 8 people in a church in Vancouver if I could get the chance. Doing so also forced me to develop materials. When you can start developing materials, over time you you can morph and adapt and grow and pretty soon you realize, “Holy cow, I could teach a class with this!”
And in fact, that’s where the materials you are using now came from.
Right. Very little of the content for any of our videos are being made from scratch. It’s almost always adapting something that I’ve done, perhaps a sermon series.
Which keeps the workload a little easer.
That’s true. It’s also born out of its context, which is in the church.
And you know that it is going to work in terms of teaching.
I don’t know if you’re seeing it here in your context of Portland but something that I’ve seen at Calvary Grace, my church in Calgary, is that a lot of the staff are bi-vocational. And it’s something that I actually really appreciate, having come from a church that wasn’t at all. Because these guys aren’t in the office all day, talking to Christians. They know the trials of life and the struggles.
My life is very different now than I thought it would have been four years ago. I thought I would have had an English liberal arts degree under my belt, but that’s very expensive now especially with the dollar changing. Now I’ve been working in technology for a while; I’m learning what work is and how to appreciate it, I’m learning about the culture more, and so I’m very thankful for what God done. But also thinking, how I can build skills? Would you see that bi-vocational approach continuing?
That’s interesting. I think it depends on the context. There is just a basic reality to the fact that if you can give more time to thing, then it will benefit from the more time you give to it. But a lot of it is built up in the philosophy of ministry and mission that a particular church would have. So if the value is that we want the personal lives of even our pastoral staff to be as woven into the community… But you have to compensate for that in some way. Because somebody’s got do stuff to make the church operate, even at the basic level. But I think there’s something to it.
For example, the way we’ve done it at Door of Hope is that, myself, Josh, and Evan, we all have significant creative projects on the side, or for me now, half of my job. These projects keep us engaged in our areas of interest. For example, Evan has a band that is quite successful here in Portland and he tours regularly. He just fits that into his life. He’s full time at the church, but built into that he can take off these weeks and a lot of show time. And half of the people he pulls into his band are musicians in the church, so it’s all connected. There is a value of weaving your life into the culture of the city, but having it overlap with the culture of the church, as opposed to being very separatist or distinct. So that’s another way to do it. Find a way for vocation to overlap inside and outside the church. I think it just depends. I think by-vocational, in many setting, works because of its financial stability! It’s easier to float a church financially that doesn’t need full time employees.
So then in closing, having had this chat, do you have any recommendations in terms of how to do school? Would you do a communications degree at the local place and then do Bible?
I don’t have lot’s of great advice. Everyone is different, depending on the season of life. The game is changing where you can gain skill-sets in lots of different ways outside of the traditional university system, and then if you have job experience and relationships… But there is something in biblical theological education that is irreplaceable; where you have a season of life where you just focus and you get to be be around folks who have done that for a long time. That is rad. It was such a privilege to sit with some of the professors that I did and work with them. That is something that is unique that you can’t get from online courses.
It’s that community we talked about. The discipleship.
It’s been really encouraging to hear your story. God led you down this path and he will do it again, just in different ways.
That’s exactly right.