Scriptures Shaping Community: A Visit to The Bible Project

Many of the topics I discussed with Tim Mackie did not make it into this final essay.  I've published the full transcript of that fascinating interview here

I arrive at Door of Hope church in northeast Portland shortly after its first service begins at 8 a.m. As I open the red doors I hear an upbeat rendition of one of my favourite hymns: ‘On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand.’ A six piece band plays with simple precision and although the congregation has the clothing styles and facial hair one would expect from Portland,  I’m surprised at the diversity of ages. Tim Mackie preaches, but his conversational style is more akin to teaching. As he walks us through a passage from Matthew, his care for the congregation and what he is expounding is obvious. As he tells me later “the Bible is a living thing and the whole point about why I care about it is the way it shapes people and communities for the Kingdom of God.”

And shape people it does. As I listen, my preconceived way of thinking is confronted by the teachings of Jesus. After Tim concludes his message the band plays a song written by a member of the congregation. I’m challenged and comforted by the lyrics, “oh Love that breaks all sinful bonds, please conquer more of me.” I leave, encouraged to trust Jesus as I face my uncertain future, and the second of three services begins. The building is packed and the congregation is asked to give up any extra chairs in order to accommodate the people who are still arriving.

 
Tim preaching from Matthew 16: 1-12; "Oh you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourself that fact that you have no bread?"

Tim preaching from Matthew 16: 1-12; "Oh you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourself that fact that you have no bread?"

 

Door of Hope is one of the reasons I’ve come to Portland. I heard about the church through its music (Josh Garrels is one of the elders) and through Tim Mackie’s work at The Bible Project. The Bible Project is a series of crowd-funded videos that offer animated explanations of the books of the Bible. They are beautifully presented, clear to understand, and use a form of communication that is open to anyone, regardless of your religious or cultural background. I’m eager to learn more about the creation of these videos. I’m also intrigued by the number of ministries in Portland that embrace creativity as way of sharing biblical truth; so I arrange a visit with the other half of The Bible Project, Jon Collins

Jon invites to me to visit Sincerely Truman, a communications consulting company that The Bible Project is based out of. Their building is located across the river from downtown Portland, in a former industrial neighbourhood that includes Stumptown Coffee’s headquarters. The space breathes creativity and collaboration, from the endless sketch-filled whiteboards, to the bar featuring local brews and three Chemex's working in rotation. 

 
Sincerely Truman, an open office filled with tables rather than desks and where couches are as ubiquitous as sketch-filled whiteboards.

Sincerely Truman, an open office filled with tables rather than desks and where couches are as ubiquitous as sketch-filled whiteboards.

 

Jon originally wanted to be a pastor before realizing that he was too young for the job. Putting his communications degree and storytelling skills to use, he co-founded Epipheo, a company that produces videos that “reveal epiphanies to people”. Out of Epipheo Sincerely Truman was born. Jon describes his strength as “distilling information.” He learns everything he can about a client (a local brewing company or a charity dedicated to diagnosing blindness), clarifying the details into a package his team will use to create everything from the company’s logo to their website. 

Jon and Tim became friends while interning together during university. Tim, a self professed Bible geek, was studying Hebrew and taking any opportunity he could to teach — Sunday School, student classes in university, even a series of self-produced videos featuring him and a whiteboard explaining the literary structure of each book of the Bible.  It was while Tim was working on his Ph.D. that Jon, who had built his career around making videos, pitched an idea: “What if we did some Bible videos together?” When Tim returned to Portland to pastor Door of Hope, he and Jon started meeting once a week. It took a year and a half of those meetings to flesh out the scripts, develop a visual style, and decide on the crowd funding model. Door of Hope’s donated one day a week from Tim’s schedule, providing initial support until the crowd-funding model gained momentum upon the launch of their first video.

 
Tim and Jon plan the outline for the yet to be released Proverbs video, part of their Read Scripture series of videos.

Tim and Jon plan the outline for the yet to be released Proverbs video, part of their Read Scripture series of videos.

 

Tim arrives. He and Jon sit down in a restaurant style booth that provide the perfect spot to brainstorm and they work on the outline for an upcoming video on the Book of Proverbs. Tim already has a script in place and a rough outline for what will become the finished video. The two spend almost an hour together fine tuning and clarifying the outline. Watching this process, it becomes clear why they make such a good team. Tim is prepared with a script and a sheet of paper filled with a rough outline, well equipped in his knowledge of how to read and understand this book. As Tim walked through his plan for the video he would ask Jon to clarify the best ways to visualize the information on the page. The finished product was much clearer following their collaboration. It was also a pleasure to see how interested Jon was in having his understanding of the Bible strengthened through these conversations, which is also apparent when you listen to their podcast

It takes several drafts before arriving at final poster used in the video. An example what such a poster looks like when finished can be found here.

It takes several drafts before arriving at final poster used in the video. An example what such a poster looks like when finished can be found here.

Unlike many arts and faith organizations, folks at The Bible Project, along with other Portland creatives like Humble Beast and Josh Garrels, are faithful to their art while being truthful to the Gospel. A common element seems to be their location in Portland, which surprises me. My experience on the rest of the West Coast has left me with the impression of a creative but spiritually vacant region. I ask Tim why Portland is different and if there is a common thread tying these ministries together. As he ponders the question I remember my experience at Door of Hope yesterday. “Is it something to do with the healthy churches?”

“For sure.” he answers. “To be honest, it is a huge piece of it. Door of Hope is one of a network of churches planted in the core of Portland during the last decade and a half. It was something significant, part of a new wave of younger, more innovative church planters who were really trying to engage the culture of the city.” He names about a dozen churches of various sizes and denominations, describing the collegiality and friendship amongst the pastors. “Among all of us there is a common focus on discipling people who are engaging the culture of the city with their careers. And so 15 years in, you see the fruit of that through a business like Epipheo or Sincerely Truman, or a ministry like Humble Beast.” This even applies to Portland’s thriving coffee scene. “The coffee industry in Portland is riddled with really, really committed followers of Jesus. Among the main roasters there is a core that are owned or managed by Christians.”

We then make our way downstairs into the basement of Sincerely Truman and into The Bible Project's headquarters. One wall consists of a giant whiteboard where a complex timeline of video titles, assignments (“Record, Illustrate, Edit, Launch”), and schedules are organized. A row of desks house a team of about 9 people, all of whom are quietly working. The walls are covered with posters from the Sketchbook series, frames from films like Song of the Sea that are inspiring the project’s style, and bookshelves filled with Bible commentaries.  Tim pulls up a chair next to Mac, a storyboard artist, and together they begin illustrating the Proverbs video. I chat with several members of the team. Robert, the art director, tells me about his work maintaining a constant style amongst all the projects. Kayla, an animator, shares some of the influences for upcoming videos. Guy, who’s working on visual effects, tells me about his journey prior to joining The Bible Project and his experience with the churches in Portland. I even chat with Jon’s mum, who is volunteering her time by helping send out posters to monthly sponsors. 

 
Tim and Jon now bring the video's outline to Mac, who does a rough sketch before polishing it up and sending it to the animators.

Tim and Jon now bring the video's outline to Mac, who does a rough sketch before polishing it up and sending it to the animators.

 

“You need to find a way for your vocation to overlap both inside and outside the church” Tim tells me. “The way we’ve done it at Door of Hope is that we all have significant creative projects on the side to keep us engaged in our areas of interest. So [our worship pastor] Evan has a band that is quite successful here in Portland. He tours regularly and just fits that into his life while being full time at the church. 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.” I’m seeing an example of this principle as Sincerely Truman, a secular company, parents this very Christian endeavour. 

What’s the future for the project? Plans are in place for a series explaining how to read the various literary types of the Bible. Tim wants to tackle the making of the biblical cannon and the history of the book. Jon’s dreaming of a Holy Land tour in a hybrid of animation and onsite footage. Ultimately, their vision is that The Bible Project’s YouTube’s channel becomes a centre for learning with hours upon hours of free content for anyone who wants a Bible education.

 
A partial view of The Bible Project's headquarters. Turning around, one would see the desks of the animators along with more shelves of books.

A partial view of The Bible Project's headquarters. Turning around, one would see the desks of the animators along with more shelves of books.

 

I wonder if their visual approach will pull viewers away from the word-centred faith of the Bible. “We’re not trying to replace people’s experience with the Scriptures” Tim explains. “We areproviding a tool that makes them coherent, understandable, and approachable. If anything, one of my goals for the videos is that someone watching them will come away thinking “now I want 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, — encountering Scripture within the web of relationships with other disciples.” In fact they regularly hear from churches from around the world who are using the videos as tools for doing just that — hence the study guides the team are producing.

The afternoon is getting late. Before leaving, I thank Jon, Tim, and the rest of the team, Tim says “I hope this visit has been invigorating.” Indeed it has. I’ve seen a healthy, gospel centred church bearing fruit in its community through ordinary discipleship. Out of that fruit is born a ministry of creativity; men and women using their skills in both the church and the world. Their ministry, one video view at a time, is impacting lives around the world; even my own life in Calgary, Alberta. Perhaps there is hope for my city too. I leave encouraged and renewed in my calling to be faithful at home amongst my church and in my community.