‘The Bible Project’ Making the Bible Accessible for the Next Generation

“This is going to be a very long conversation.”

The Bible Project’s latest podcast series starts with those words by Jon Collins, followed quickly by Dr. Tim Mackie’s wry chuckling. For the Bible Project to preemptively call something a long conversation is saying something indeed, seeing as previous series on the podcast have lasted six to 20 hours. Collins flips through the papers in his hands, sounding both amused and preemptively tired.

“When we did the God conversation—which turned into a 20-episode podcast—it was about 40 pages of notes,” Collins says. “And here, in my hand, are 41 pages of notes on the Sabbath.”

Mackie, the author of the short novel in Collins’ hands, chimes in excitedly: “I started reading and writing and collecting notes a couple of months ago. … I’ve learned so much as I’ve been preparing for this conversation.”

“Our office whiteboards are just filled with your Beautiful Mind notes all over the place,” Collins says.

“Pretty much I’ve just been living and breathing, reading and rereading the Torah over and over again. I’ve just been noticing and collecting all these observations,” Mackie says, and then begins describing the significance of the number seven and its relation to Sabbath. But this theology chat between two friends is not a dry discussion held in the back room of a seminary, but rather the central focus of one of the most popular Christian podcasts and cseries on the planet.

The Bible Project, which debuted in May 2014, features Mackie and Collins, two friends passionate about presenting the Bible as a unified story using beautiful art. Along with Mike McDonald—The Bible Project’s director of strategic relationships—they run the Bible Project as basically a small animation studio, entirely funded by patrons’ donations. Those donations give them the ability to share everything they produce free of charge.

They produce quite a lot. To date, the Bible Project has created 140 videos in English, with plans to continue releasing 18-20 new videos every year for the foreseeable future. More than 700 videos have been translated into 21 different languages, with localization teams on the ground worldwide. The Bible Project also has a podcast series, basically a behind-the-scenes peek at the conversations Mackie and Collins have while creating the videos’ content. (Mackie often acts as the scholar, breaking down complex Greek and Hebrew concepts, while Collins asks questions and organizes Mackie’s ideas in structures and metaphors a layman can digest.) The podcast gets more than 1 million downloads per month. This year, the organization will launch new projects, including seminary-level classes you can attend from home (at no cost) and partnerships with Cru, Compassion International, Young Life and Alpha USA. Mackie even has ideas for expanding into the virtual reality space.

No one involved in the Bible Project imagined it would grow so large. In a retrospective video posted Dec. 2, Mackie and Collins explain that the organization started with a simple idea.

“When we started the Bible Project five years ago, we actually didn’t have a grand vision of what it could become,” Mackie says. “We had an idea that the Bible’s hard to understand—at least for us and a lot of other people—so let’s make it easier to understand using cartoons we’ll put up on the internet.”

“Let’s make these really beautiful [and] explain the Bible really well so they are of a lot of value,” Collins says.

“But we want to give them away for free to everybody,” Mackie says.

“So that meant we thought it would just be a side gig, and we would use freelancers as money came in,” Collins says. “We’d make videos slowly. But we had no idea how supportive and enthusiastic [viewers] would be about this project.”

Meet the Team

The team’s passion to share the Word of God around the world stems from its leaders’ own life-changing encounters with the Bible. McDonald was raised Bahai but became a believer in Jesus Christ at 19 after a missionary to Turkey gave him a Bible.

“I read through Matthew that night,” McDonald says. “I didn’t have language for it at that point, but that was when I decided, ‘This is the guy that I’m going to follow.’ So for me, even my coming to faith was through the Scriptures. It wasn’t through somebody telling stories or going to church on Sunday or even hearing it through an evangelist. It was sitting down with the Gospel of Matthew, reading it cover to cover in four hours, and going, ‘Wow, Jesus is Lord. That is huge. I think this is obviously what’s going to shape and change my life.'”

Mackie grew up in Portland, Oregon, but always resented being taken to church by his parents. He was more interested in the free-spirited skateboarding lifestyle and saw the church as an embodiment of “the man” he was rebelling against. But that changed when he discovered a local ministry, SkateChurch, which sponsored and ran a local skate park. (The organization has been reaching Portland-area skateboarders for Christ for more than 30 years.) Every week, he’d come to skate and hear a short message about Jesus. Eventually the gospel worked its way into his heart, and by age 20, he was following Jesus. He started attending the nearby Multnomah Bible College.

“I had a couple friends [who] had all gone to SkateChurch,” Mackie explained during a 2018 podcast with Preston Sprinkle. “We all became Christians around the same time, started following Jesus, and so we signed up for classes together. A number of us went overseas within a year. We went and spent a summer in the jungle with [Wycliffe] Bible Translators—you know, like super, super intense. I came back and was like, ‘I want to follow Jesus. I want to do whatever.’ So I signed up for Greek, naturally. … I became a Bible nerd. I got hooked.”

Mackie got his Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible and Jewish studies at the University of Wisconsin, only to realize he had little interest in becoming a university professor. He started teaching classes on biblical theology at Blackhawk Church in Middleton, Wisconsin. When he moved back to Portland, he got a job teaching part-time at Western Seminary and also served as teaching pastor at Door of Hope Church. He soon reconnected with Collins—a friend from his time at Multnomah—who had since started two digital communication companies that specialized in creating animated explainer videos for organizations like Google, P&G and Nike.

As Mackie explains it to Sprinkle, Collins was the first one to pitch the Bible Project: “[John] pitched the idea to me of, ‘Hey, I make these videos. You’re a Bible nerd. We’re friends. Let’s make some videos and see what happens.’ So it was really truly like just kind of a harebrained idea. We spent a year and a half—just [as] a side project—making the first two videos.”

The rest is history. When the Bible Project began expanding and going global, Mackie and Collins reached out to McDonald—who attended church with Collins at Imago Dei Community. McDonald had run a nonprofit called Hear the Cry focused on international justice and compassion work for 10 years and, in his words, “was ready to hand that off … and do the next season.” He was excited to use his international experience to help the Bible Project go worldwide.

The Bible Project has moved twice—from a basement to the back office of a web development shop to its current base of operations, a shared office with Imago Dei Community. In 2016, Collins left his other businesses to work full-time on the Bible Project. Today McDonald describes the operation as a combination between a pastoral ministry and an animation studio.

“John ran two major, large studios here in Portland doing explainer videos,” McDonald says. “… He was able to bring [those systems] with him. Having a staff of 70-80 people at some of those agencies, he learned in the for-profit model how to run a business, and then was able to bring that over, which was very helpful when it comes to the animators and illustrators and everything else. And then Tim was a pastor and a teacher. So you’ve got this whole pastoral feel to the office as well.”

In the retrospective video, Collins says all of this growth has only been made possible by supporters: “We keep growing because we’re doing more than just making videos. We believe the Bible is brilliant, literary genius, and [using] visuals and animation, you can bring that to life in new ways.”

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SOURCE: Charisma News