So we need a platform. A means of interacting with hundreds of thousands or even millions of kids on a daily basis – introducing new characters, stories and storytellers and reinforcing the values and lessons Christian parents desire for their kids but find too often missing from popular media. What we need, really, is a sort of Christian Nickelodeon or Disney Channel.
This was my thought about three years ago. I had come through Big Idea’s bankruptcy and had spent a few months ‘calming down’. Learning to rest in God. Letting go of the personal ambition that had driven me to distraction my entire adult life. (If you’ve read my book, you know what I’m talking about.) I wrote a couple of children’s books. It was peaceful. Calm. Nice. I wondered what children’s book God wanted me to write next.
And then I started to look around at the world – at the “state of things,” if you will. I noticed this dire need for some sort of Christian platform for kids. Sort of like a, well, a Christian Nickelodeon. And my first thought was, “It’s a good thing all I do is write children’s books now, cuz that would be a ton of work.”
But this burden on my heart wouldn’t go away. Kids really needed something like this. And so did all these budding young Christian filmmakers. And because of my experience with VeggieTales, my relationships in the business, and my modicum of celebrity (just enough to get me free publicity when I start something new), it seemed I was probably the most likely candidate to attempt such an effort. I mean, if I didn’t give it a shot, who would?
It confused me, because it felt like God had spent the prior year ridding me of my need to do anything big. I was now ready to just write a few children’s books – to do “little” things. It didn’t make sense. “I’m all about ‘little ideas’ now – why are you giving me another BIG one?” I wondered.
And then I felt, fairly distinctly, God saying something to me: “I wanted you to be willing to do nothing big. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to give you anything big to do.”
Oh my. That was unexpected. So… letting go of your ambition, “dying” to your own “big ideas,” doesn’t necessarily mean that God won’t ask you to do something big. It just means, perhaps, that you’re finally humble enough to hold it loosely – to let whatever God has for you next be God’s thing, not yours. Perhaps the willingness to be small, in fact, is a prerequisite to being used by God to do something, well, un-small.
So I tried to adjust to the thought that God might be calling me to address some rather big issues. And that’s what I’ve been working on for nearly three years now. Actually, in some ways, I’ve been working on it much longer than that. I first felt the need to develop a way to interact with kids on a daily basis way back in 1998, at the peak of VeggieTales success. This led to conversations with the brand-new Pax TV network about programming their Saturday morning, with the hope that we could expand to a daily presence for kids. That plan never came to pass, but some of the ideas I had back then for how we could interact with kids daily are still with me today, and are now a part of this new idea.
“So… you’re going to launch a cable network?!?” No. I’m not. (At least not right now.) That was my first thought, though. “I need to launch a cable network!” But if you look into the reality of what it takes to launch a cable network, of the resources required, well, you probably don’t want to launch a cable network. Launching a cable network for kids in today’s market could require $100 million or more, just for starters. We need to launch something that can start much, much smaller.
Three reasons: First of all, bringing in massive amounts of capital means bringing in money people. (Investment bankers, private equity folks, etc.) And bringing in money people means, regardless of your original mission, your venture is now primarily about money. There is no faster way to compromise an altruistic mission than by raising a tremendous amount of capital for its launch. There really isn’t a good way to bring in significant start-up capital for something that is supposed to be ministry first.
Secondly, even if we could come up with the $100 million or so we’d need to launch our “Christian Nickelodeon,” the Christian creative community isn’t yet capable of supplying it with programming. Christian radio works because there is lots of good Christian music. We’ve been making Christian music for, oh, about 2000 years now, and we’re pretty darn good at it. We have not been making Christian children’s TV shows for 2000 years, and it shows. The group of people capable of producing the sorts of shows we would need at the quality we would need them to be is very, very small. So whatever we launch can only grow as fast as the Christian creative community can develop. This is why benefiting all those kids in Christian film schools is so important.
And thirdly, as I get older, I have become convinced of something kind of interesting. I think God likes to start things small. A couple of people in a garage… eleven guys in an upper room… two kids in a dorm room or a church basement. We humans, of course, want to launch things that are huge and impressive right out of the gate. With casts of thousands and the attention of the whole world… immediately. Now. But as exciting as it is to be “impressive,” God calls us to be “unimpressive.” To walk humbly with our God. And attempting to launch something big requires, I’ve noticed first-hand, hyperbole. Exaggeration. “Look at us! Look what we’ve put together! It’s huge! We’re going to change the world!”
Successfully launching something big requires getting and holding the attention of a massive number of people. Given human nature, the best way to hold the attention of the masses is by making grand statements that are wildly impressive and, most often, wildly exaggerated. Statements about “saving the world” and “changing everything.” Statements that are, I strongly suspect, the opposite of “walking humbly with our God.”
In other words, walking humbly with God does not generate the kind of press coverage needed to launch something huge. I felt this tension almost constantly while speaking on behalf of Big Idea. It was my responsibility to get folks “fired up” – to inspire them to join our cause in massive numbers. In particular, I needed to say things that the press would consider newsworthy. And afterwards, a little conversation would happen in my head that went something like this: “I think I’m exaggerating a little.”
“Yes, but it’s necessary. This project is huge – we have a lot riding on this. The kids need it.”
“Yes, but… I’m exaggerating.”
“It’s for a good cause. That makes it okay.”
And suddenly, the ends justify the means. I’m resorting to hype and spin and marketing-speak, just like a Hollywood press agent. But it’s okay, because it’s for God. In fact, he NEEDS me to do this – to hype his projects.
Except that he doesn’t.
God doesn’t need us to hype him or spin him. God, in fact, doesn’t need us to do anything. He WANTS us to do something, though. What is it? To walk humbly with him.
So one of my founding goals for Jellyfish Labs is that “We will not hype.” We will not “spin.” We will not exaggerate for the purpose of generating headlines. And most (if not all) of our projects will start very small. We will plant seeds, and God will grow them. They will become exactly as “big and impressive” as God wants them to be – in his timing.
So… we’re launching a tiny platform. A “micro-Nickelodeon.” The “world’s smallest TV network.” (How’s that for ‘newsworthy’?) It will start small and unimpressive, and the world probably won’t even notice it exists. And then, if it should eventually grow into something large, we will be very hard-pressed to say “Look what we have done!” Our beginnings will have been so inauspiciously humble, the only possible reaction to whatever success or growth we might achieve will be to say, “Look what God has done.” (Can I get an “Amen?”)
So stay tuned, because over the next few weeks I’m going to reveal to you the cutest little TV network you’ve ever seen… something really not-very-impressive and not-very-newsworthy. (How’s that for “un-hype?”) But I’m convinced it is exactly what God wants me to pour my heart into.