Some people consider “business” and “ministry” to be incompatible – opposites, even. Business, they say, is inherently self-seeking, while ministry seeks the good of others. While this can sometimes be true, it is not always true. Many business ventures are, to be honest, entirely selfishly motivated. Somebody somewhere just wants to make a buck. These ventures often fail, though, because truly selfish people have a hard time meeting the needs of their customers. Most good businesses, in fact, display the characteristics of ministries. They strive to meet the needs of others. They put their customers first. Good businesses, just like ministries, are in the business of solving problems – of serving.
Big Idea was just such a business. I wanted Big Idea to profit so we could continue to do good. But my motivation in starting Big Idea wasn’t to profit. My motivation was to solve a problem I had identified – the problem of Hollywood media and the impact it was having on kids. (Okay, it was a BIG problem to tackle. I was ambitious.)
So… if you’ve read my book, you know how that story ended. Wipe out. Bankruptcy court… wailing and gnashing of teeth. I ended up sitting alone in Wheaton, IL, saying, “Good heavens – what just happened?” After about six months of calming down, resting up and focusing on God (again, read the book), I stood up and wondered aloud, “So NOW what do I do?” And after a while, God really impressed upon me that I wasn’t finished yet. That there were more problems to solve – that everything that had happened to me through Big Idea and VeggieTales was, perhaps, preparation for what was going to happen next.
Before you start a business and/or ministry (and the two can actually be the same venture, as was the case with Big Idea Productions and now with Jellyfish), you need to have a clear sense of purpose – of mission. You need a burden. I don’t mean that in the negative sense – not a burden that will weigh you down and turn your hair grey from stress and worry, no, I mean ‘burden” in the sense of God laying something on your heart. You could have a burden for the homeless or a burden for single moms or a burden for indigenous peoples in Western Australia or… you get the idea. My burden is for kids.
Secondly, you need to have a clear sense of your gifting. How has God wired you? What can you do better than almost anyone else you know? My primary gifts are in storytelling, creative use of technology, and, ignoring for the moment a certain bankruptcy, business strategy. So I’m looking at the world and I’m looking for the intersection of my burden (for kids) and my gifting (that other stuff). And in that intersection I will find the seed of my ministry. My unique contribution to a hurting world.
So after the bankruptcy of Big Idea Productions I spent a lot of time looking at the world and praying. And after a period of months, it was clear that God had laid on my heart two problems that needed solving. Two problems that, it appeared, perfectly matched my gifting. Suddenly, I knew what I was supposed to do next.
So what are they? What are the two problems that are driving all our work here at Jellyfish Labs? Today I’ll describe the first one:
In a nutshell, Christians in North America are failing. We’re failing to positively engage our culture. We’re failing to raise new generations of Christians who know their faith and what it means to live it out in our society. For reasons having a great deal to do with the perceived moral decline of America in the 1960s, culminating with the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, we have come through a generation of Christian leaders who made it their primary focus to organize conservative Christians as a voting block. Political activism has been the rallying cry of the church for the last 30 years. As a result, we conservative Christians managed to remake congress, reshape the Supreme Court, and elect a President. Twice. We have engaged our culture in a war. (We call it “the culture war.”) And we have won many victories.
But there has been a price for this political focus. Today, 80% of non-Christians in America have a negative view of Christianity. When asked what word first sprang to mind when the term “Evangelical Christian” was mentioned, the number one answer from young adults in America was not “loving” or “self-sacrificing,” but rather, “homophobic.”
For an entire generation of Americans, Christians have become defined by what we are against. By what we hate. By whom we oppose. Jesus’ call that we would be known “by our love” has been lost in our generation. Even more concerningly, this 30 year focus has left us very clear on how we are supposed to vote, but very unclear on how we are supposed to live. And the results are striking. Conservative Christians in America divorce at the same rate as the general population. We use internet porn at the same rate as the general population. We long for the same houses, the same cars, the same vacations. We are, research has shown, statistically identical.
We hail a film like “The Passion of the Christ,” calling it “the biggest evangelism opportunity in 2000 years.” And our neighbors watch the film, drawn by the celebrity of the filmmaker and, most likely, pure curiosity. And while the story engages them, when they leave the theater and look at us – the Christians down the street – they see we are no happier than they are. We’re pursuing the same materialistic fixes. Going just as deeply into debt to inflate our lifestyle. “Whatever they got from following this Jesus doesn’t seem to do any good. They’re no happier than we are.”
So an amazing film about Jesus attracts everyone’s interest, and, research will later show, accomplishes nothing. Why? Because the world doesn’t learn about God by watching Christian movies. The world learns about God by watching Christians. And we Christians are failing to show the world the love of God. We've failed to make an invisible God visible. We’ve shown them cranky Christians. Politically-savvy Christians. Market-driven Christians. Ambitous Christians. What we haven’t shown them, are loving Christians. And since Jesus said they would “know you by your love,” I think it’s safe to say the world doesn’t know what a Christian is. And sometimes I suspect we don’t either.
One half of all adult Protestants can’t define the word “grace,” a concept that was pretty central to the Protestant Reformation. “For by grace are we saved through faith….” So here’s a question: How exactly are we supposed to live out God’s saving grace in front of a watching world if we can’t even define the term? George Gallup, the pollster who discovered this and many other points of ignorance within the American church, concluded that most pastors have no idea how little many American Christians know about their faith. It isn’t that we know what we should do and are refusing to do it – it’s that we really don’t have a clue.
So… what do we do about this? We need an education. We need to know our faith, and the demands it makes on our lives. We need to understand what we believe, and how those beliefs should manifest themselves every day of the week, in every arena of our lives. We should know the incredible gift we’ve been given – what we’ve been “saved” from and the amazing life we have access to – so we can joyously live this truth in front of the world. So they’ll say, “Oh – so that’s what this is about. Is there room in there for me?”
So where do we start? With our kids. “Of course you’d say that! You make children’s media!” No, wait. Hear me out. I’m a middle-aged Christian. (It’s true – I am.) I was raised in the church. Am I going to raise my hand and say, “Hi, I’m ignorant about my faith – please teach me”? No, I’m not. Because that would be really embarrassing. I grew up in church! Of course I know my faith! But wait… my kids. Do I want them to learn what it really means to be a Christian? Absolutely. I mean – they don't know yet! They’re kids! Is 20 minutes of Sunday School a week really teaching them everything they need to know about their faith? Of course not. And frankly, I’m not sure I’m such a hot teacher either. I could really use some help with this – for the sake of my kids.
And so it plays out in millions of Christian homes across the country… “We want to teach you more about your faith.” “No thank you, I'm a grown-up. I already know it.” “Okay… We want to help you teach your kids more about your faith.” “Wonderful! Come right in!”
The key to raising a generation of Christians who know what it means to live the Gospel in front of the eyes of a watching world is to work WITH parents to teach kids. The opportunity lies with the next generation. (Though, quite frankly, a lot of grown-ups will learn a thing or two along the way, if our experience with VeggieTales taught us anything.)
So there is the first problem we are hoping to help solve: North American Christians are – through no fault of their own – failing to live the Gospel. Our proposed solution is to help raise a generation that knows their faith, and knows how to live it.
That’s problem #1. Next I’ll explain problem #2.