What happens when two self-proclaimed skater kids from Portland, Oregon get saved? No, this is not the set up for a joke’s punchline but it’s literally the origin for a budding media ministry in the Pacific Northwest.
Tim Mackie and Jonathan Collins did actually find faith in Christ through a skateboard ministry. But from there, things got interesting. Tim ended up getting a doctoral degree, moved to Israel and learned Hebrew. Jon, on the other hand, realized after college that he had a gift for taking complex information and distilling it into simple, easy to understand information. This led him to NASA, then Google, and eventually Apple where he tackled projects like how to explain the confusing concept of “putting things in the cloud” in a way that that made sense to everyone.
Then one day, Tim and Jon ran into each other at a barbecue and hatched the idea to create engaging videos that explained … wait for it … The Bible. They called this idea The Bible Project. The duo created their first two videos in 2014 and put them online for free. Less than five years later, they have produced more than 130 “explainer” videos that have generated more than 100 million views in over 200 countries. Their hope is to inspire the next generation to explore the Bible through visual storytelling and technology.
I recently spoke to Mike McDonald, The Bible Project’s Director of Strategy to discuss why animation is so critical in fostering Bible literacy, what a typical Bible Project video looks like, and how they stumbled into reaching a badly needed segment of people with God’s Word.
Mile high view question to start … what is the purpose and mission of The Bible Project?
Our actual mission statement is we want to people to experience the Bible as one unified story that leads to Jesus. That’s kind of the heartbeat of everything that we do. We make five to seven minute “explainer” videos. We’ve done one for every single book of the Bible and then a lot of different theme and word studies. But really every single one of the videos, what we’re trying to do is drive people into being able to actually read their Bible and experience it. For guys like me and many of the other guys here, we often read the Bible and sometimes leave either confused or frustrated. I feel like I don’t know enough or even know how to approach it.
And so we’re just trying to help people actually do that well. It’s not a supplement. I think a lot of people sometimes wonder if our videos are a supplement to reading. I think if you watch them you will get more excited and more encouraged to read your Bible when you watch a video but not replace it. Tim Mackie and Jon Collins do an incredible job of creating some context and understanding for how to actually approach each of those books.
As you mentioned, you have chosen to produce all of your videos as animated “explainer” featurettes. Why do you think animation is the best way to reach audiences with the Bible?
There are a few different reasons. One of them is we’re just such visual learners. We’ve experienced this with a newer generation that’s just consuming media from a visual standpoint. Animation allowed us to create something that also would last a long time. Many of our videos that we made five years ago get as many views today as they did then when we first put them out. There’s an evergreen, long lasting appeal to them. You and I could go watch Toy Story and still find it good today from a visual experience. Also, from a learning standpoint we also do them in other languages. They are not just in English. So we actually do re-animation, translation, and voiceovers … all that kind of stuff.
And so in the way that we do all of our videos, when you watch them in Spanish, it feels and looks like somebody in South America made that for you. It’s built around their context and their language and you don’t think it’s just this American thing that was dubbed over into a different language.
With that said, what does a typical Bible Project video look like? How is it structured and what can viewers expect to see?
We have two major types of videos. One would be our overview videos. We have one for every book of the Bible — Genesis to Revelation. They have a, a certain sketching style. There is a theologian kind of talking through each one of the books. So if you’re doing a Bible read through or you’re about to do a small group on a certain book or a certain topic, they’re really great for understanding context. Context is huge for us. All the other videos that are theme videos, word studies … those are done in kind of more of like a Pixar-esque feel to them.
In addition to your animated videos, you also produce a podcast for your videos. What can you tell me about the podcast?
The podcast is one of those funny ones where we never expected it to be what it is today. When John and Tim would get together to write a script for one of our videos, they would sit down and Tim would show up with whatever he’s going to teach. I want to teach John about justice. And John would come with questions and they would sit for an hour, two hours or eight hours until John had that epiphany moment where he would say, ‘Tim, I think I understand what you’re trying to say.’ And that’s how the scripts would get written. Well, at one point we just started pressing record so that it was easier to go back and remember what was all said and talked about. So when they go to write the script, they’ve got that. After doing this for a while we thought we should just invite people into this. It’s almost like a little behind the scenes conversation about how these videos are getting made. It’s definitely a deep dive. And so we would have a five-minute video on justice but we might have three hours of podcast content where Tim’s really talking through different Scriptures in different places and where these ideas came from. The podcasts really do line up with our videos. How we actually get our video content is from our podcast.
Who is your target audience for your videos? I see that you just launched a free digital devotional series for Moms.
I would say they’re very similar to what I had mentioned earlier about the Toy Story analogy. Meaning that, if kids go and watch Toy Story, they’re going to get about 50% of the jokes. They’ll find it good. They’ll be entertained. They’ll love it. But as you get older, if you and I go and watch it, we’re going to get more of it. We’re going to understand more of it. I would say our videos are very much in that realm. The mass majority, of our viewers, just because YouTube is our primary vehicle for distribution, is that they skew toward 18 to 35 year old males.
This is wild in the Christian world because that’s often the age group and gender that is the hardest to reach. It’s the age group that most churches are trying to figure out. How do we reach these 18 to 35 year old males? Our videos, just because we happen to use YouTube as a platform and the way that we make them with a cadence and animation, everything else happened just to skew that way. That’s not to say that we don’t have tons of females watching them or we don’t have older or younger audiences. We definitely have a wide variety of folks that are watching our stuff.
It’s fascinating to see that whether you planned to or not, you’re tapping into a badly needed segment of people in the 18 to 35 year old male age group. As you have mentioned, that people group is a hard audience to reach. It’s very interesting in how that all came together for you.
Yeah, it’s definitely by grace. It was not a plan, but it’s very rare. We feel very thankful for what has happened. It’s funny, if you ask what’s your strategy to reach 18 to 35 year old males I will tell you that we don’t have one. If you asked me what my strategy is to reach Moms, I actually have one because they’re not necessarily always going on YouTube to get their content.
After people see one of your animated videos from The Bible Project or listened to one of your podcasts, what would you like them to take away from the viewing or listening experience?
I think context and community. I think sharing the videos, not because we need more views or want more views, but there is something about if you and I watch one of these videos together or you watched on your own, there’s conversation that ends up happening. For us, the Bible is meant to be experienced in context and in community. We see that even in the Scriptures. Learning is always meant to be done in context and in community. And so if somebody would watch one of our videos, share it with a friend, and then have a conversation around it, that would be the best-case scenario.
I think our stuff is really made well for even small groups, families, or missional communities. The stories I get of families calling or emailing saying, ‘We sit down every Saturday or Sunday with our kids and watch one of your videos; it creates such great conversation that we’re talking for hours about the Bible which we’d never been able to do with our kids before.’ It always felt like you needed to almost have something prepared or you need to know more than you actually do. And I think what we do is create a lot of permission to ask questions. Questions are totally okay. They’re great. You don’t need to feel like you don’t have enough information. They create a very safe place to have a conversation.
Watch an “explainer” video from The Bible Project on the Gospel of John: