Flannel – the ministry name is a throwback to the flannelgraph (a board covered with fabric that cutout characters can stick to) that Sunday School teachers often used to tell stories. But dumping the fuzzy board, Flannel is using the power of film to tell the world of Jesus in new and creative ways.
After a successful run with “NOOMA,” a series of short films featuring Pastor Rob Bell of Grand Rapids, Mich., Flannel is rolling out a new series called “BASIC.” The first three short films have already been released and they feature Southern California Pastor Francis Chan getting back to the basics of who God is, what it means to follow Jesus, the power of the Holy Spirit that so many Christians neglect, and what it means to be a church.
The Christian Post recently spoke with Steve Carr, executive director of Flannel, about the new series, frustrations with the church today, and upcoming projects.
CP: When did production for “BASIC” start?
Carr: Production started in October of 2009. It was actually when we started filming. I met Francis probably in February.
CP: So this was before the big announcement he made – that he was leaving his church?
Carr: When I first met Francis … I emailed him out of the blue. I had not even read Crazy Love yet. I had seen some stuff with him on Youtube and some people had suggested that we check him out. So it was interesting.
Flannel, we’re a ministry. Our mission is to tell the world the way of Jesus in new and creative ways. We do that through film. It started with the “NOOMA” series. And it’s always been our plan to really serve as a catalyst for good communicators, unique communicators who share in their desire to tell people about Jesus. We started with “NOOMA” and the success of that kind of took us by surprise.
We looked at dozens of people and we had kind of a list of criteria of what we were looking for. So I sent Francis an email and he agreed to meet. We just hit it off as soon as I met him. One of the things on our criteria list was, high on the list, was authenticity. Is the person real? Do they really live the lives they’re telling us and I can tell you without question, Francis is the real deal. He’s a special guy.
CP: So this was planned for or did the “BASIC" series just evolve out of a conversation with him?
Carr: It evolved. What was planned for and is still planned for is for us to have a roster of speakers with different ways of communicating different things to say so we were looking for a speaker and we found Francis. The series itself is quite different than “NOOMA.” “NOOMA” is kind of random. There’s 24 of them and there’s no order, different topics. But with “BASIC,” the way the series came together was purely out of discussions with Francis. And really what we try to do with any of our speakers actually is really get to know them and try to listen to them and try to figure out together what is it that God wants them to say through our media to our audience.
The series itself evolved with Francis and it came out of his own history – successfully building Cornerstone, right out of school almost, developing it into this very what, we would call, successful church. Lots of people came. But you know as the church grew, they were about to expand again physically, the facilities. And Francis – and this was all at the same time we were beginning our work with him – the more he looked at it and thought about it, he got together with his elders and really asked the question “why are we expanding again? It’s great that people want to come here but …” You know it kind of bothered him that people would drive 60 or 70 miles to hear him speak. He looked at it and thought, that’s nice, I hope it’s worthwhile that they come, but that’s not church. Church is not we’re going to get together once a week and sit and sing some songs and hear a great speaker and then go home. That’s not church. It all came out of his own personal reflection on what church is, what he was doing with his church. So the series is really a reflection of what’s on Francis’ heart.
CP: He talked about some of the frustrations he has with the church. Do you share the same frustrations?
Carr: When Flannel, when our ministry started up about 10 years ago, the whole exploration of what to do and do something in film, some of our people actually met with some folks from MTV, I think it was Gabe Lyons. It was the same time Gabe and Dave [Kinnaman] were working on UnChristian, great book. So that kind of exploring what’s going on in church culture. And we were seeing the same thing – and that is, that people weren’t interested in church. Younger people, particularly, are leaving church and they’re not coming back. So as part of that process and talking to MTV, what we found out was … they actually do surveys with their audience from time and time and at that time, one of the biggest life issues, areas of interest, among their viewers was spirituality. You ask them the same question though and call it Christianity instead of spirituality, it goes down from like sixty something percent to one percent. So where in the world is this big disconnect?
So Gabe and Dave set out to explore why. And all we were trying to do is to find a way to connect. Francis, of course, is seeing the same thing. It goes even further with Francis because what bothers Francis, I believe, is the fact that in our culture, in particular, there’s millions and millions of people who consider themselves Christian and yet they don’t look really any different than anybody else. That’s a concern.
What we’re doing with the “BASIC” series … let me put it this way. “NOOMA" is really kind of introductory. “NOOMA” is the beginning of a discussion. We have kind of a tagline we use with “NOOMA,” and that is “We don’t claim to have all the answers but we do claim to start the discussion.” And they’re really great discussion starters. And it turns out that it actually works for any age. We got a call from a senior group – not senior in high school – like 65-year-old people. Someone sent us an e-mail complimenting us on “NOOMA” and telling us a story about this one old guy in their class who’s been coming for years. They never heard him say a word. We showed one “NOOMA” and we couldn’t shut the guy up. He just opened up.
“BASIC” goes to the next step. “BASIC” is aimed right at the person that would consider themselves a follower of Jesus but they’re saying church isn’t really working for me. If I could describe the message of “BASIC” in three words I would say it’s “We are church.” And the message we’re giving to younger people and anybody who views it is they kind of go together – Jesus and the church were meant to go together. And if you consider yourself a Christian, you can’t say I’m a Christian but I don’t do church. We’re trying to encourage, inspire people to change their lives, to take responsibility. If it’s not working, let’s figure out how to make it work better.
CP: This is a three-part series?
Carr: No, it’s seven. We’re a very small not-for-profit so it takes us a while to get these things completed. We completed the first three. But it’s a seven-part series. “NOOMA” is kind of random. But this series is not random. They kind of build on each other. We intentionally structured this thing to address the one issue that was on Francis’ heart and to not allow what happened with “NOOMA” – there’s 24 and then you’re thinking about what’s 25 and 26. You got to keep going. With this one, we’re doing the seven and that’s it. Of course, if Francis wanted to do something new, obviously we would talk to him about that. we really want it to just live on its own and serve its purpose and if it happens to be successful we’ll just keep it going.
So the first three films are about the trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Fear God, Follow Jesus, and Holy Spirit. The reason it starts with those three … when we began discussing with Francis, OK, we get it, church is what God’s put on your heart. What is it we want to say about church? It took a number of conversations, we were saying where does it start? And Francis makes this remark, Scripture says the beginning of all wisdom is the fear of the Lord so I’d probably start there. Just spilling his heart on this. It kind of came together that the idea would be if we’re church, if we’re supposed to be living together as church and representing to the world what our Savior looks like, then can we at least agree on a few things about who this God is that we’re talking about because one of the frustrations we share is that church today, and I’m using broad generalizations, in our culture has turned into something where it’s more about fanfare, entertainment, seeing how many people we can get to come and less about really talking about who this God is.
Our first film with Francis is called “Fear God” and I just love it because it’s so countercultural. You’re going to start with fear God? That’s kind of old-school. We don’t even talk about the fear of the Lord anymore or if we do it’s awe. We have great awe. No, Francis looks at things pretty simply and as he goes through Scripture, it talks about the fear of the Lord hundreds of times and when anyone in Scripture ever saw God they either fainted or died. This isn’t awe. It’s way past that. This is the Creator of the universe here. This is fear and trembling which is so old-school. But the beautiful message here is that also in Scripture, once you reach that perspective – you’re God and I’m not – the very next thing that happens is then God says “fear not, for I am now with you.” So it’s this beautiful life-changing message that’s wrapped up in an old-school kind of way of looking at things.
The visuals in “Fear God” are spectacular. There’s this girl – the allegory in the film – who’s in this white room. She’s going through her own fear experience. What happens is the room begins filling with water. And it appears she’s drowning. We’re really trying to hammer home the message we’re actually talking about fear here.
The next film, “Follow Jesus,” is really a hard-hitting film. It happens in a similar room. A young man has this obvious straight and narrow red path to a door and he takes every door except that. The message there, Francis’ words are so compelling. Francis has a way of delivering a really hard message, maybe a message you don’t want to hear, and when he’s done, for some reason you’re left saying thanks man, I really needed that. His delivery is just beautiful.
The third film “Holy Spirit” explores this amazing power that the first century church had. Jesus told his disciples I’m going to leave you now but don’t worry someone better is coming. They’re standing there saying wait a minute we just ditched our whole lives, we’ve been following you for three years and now you’re saying you’re leaving? Something better is coming? This is something that again in the church today, if I can generalize again, we tend to forget the amazing power of the Holy Spirit. Or when it’s talked about people are almost uncomfortable – are you some kind of charismatic? The point is, here we are, we live in this world where we can get everything, we can get the answer to any question just by googling it, within 10 seconds you’re as smart as anybody. And yet we in the church sometimes are left feeling like, we can’t change the world. We don’t think we can accomplish anything. And yet we have that same Holy Spirit that the early church did.
So the first three films … set the stage for who is this God that together as church we’re following. And then the remaining films come right out of Acts 2 where it’s explained the purpose of the church. Primarily, according to Acts 2, the church is there for fellowship, teaching, prayer and communion. Those are the four building blocks of the church. In films four through seven we explore those one at a time and really look at what is church for? This comes out of Francis saying to us, if I was to start over today and build a church here’s what any young pastor could tell you: I need a great kids program, I need a great sound system, I need a really good band. And then you look at Scripture and you say I don’t see any of that. Where did that come from?
Our hope with the series is to inspire people to really be the church that’s explained in Scripture whether that be through their current church – how do we constantly seek to be the church that God has called us to be – or maybe it inspires people to say I don’t need a megachurch, we can do our own church, we got this neighborhood here, these families here, why don’t we try to live the lives that they lived in the first century church.
CP: The “NOOMA” series involves only Rob Bell?
Carr: Yes. We plan to add other “NOOMA” speakers down the road. We will be adding to [the series]. We do have two new series in production right now. One is called “Ed’s Story.” It’s a story about Ed Dobson, who is a pastor here in the Grand Rapids area. About nine years ago Ed was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease. Usually when you’re diagnosed with that you have two years. It’s a degenerative disease that surrenders your muscles useless. Your body kind of shuts down. It’s a horrible disease. What’s amazing about “Ed’s Story” is we’re exploring lessons that Ed has learned since being diagnosed. He’s still alive. We’re going to [explore the lessons] in a much different way than “NOOMA” or “BASIC.” “Ed’s Story” is really the validation. “NOOMA” is the beginning of a discussion. “BASIC” is some serious teaching about what that means (to be a Christ follower). And “Ed’s Story” is the validation – here’s what your heart looks like if you live this life. So we’re going to see some beautiful lessons from Ed – things like don’t worry about tomorrow. I just went through this with my sister. She was dying and I am sharing with her different stuff we’re talking about with Ed. This stuff is real. And it’s beautiful.
“Ed’s Story” is going to be really different. It’s going to be raw and honest and beautiful all at the same time. That comes out in June.
We’re working on a series with Mike Foster. He just came out with a book called Gracenomics. He’s a guy out of Southern California who, I would call him a pastor to pastors. He just has such an encouraging spirit to him. He’s a really interesting guy. Mike’s issue that God’s given him is all about grace and how we as believers have been given this amazing gift that we don’t deserve called grace and yet a lot of time we’re really stingy about sharing that grace with others like people in the church who fall. That’s going to be an interesting series.
We have another one coming out that we’re beginning work on in January. I can’t tell you her name yet but it’s a woman. It’s directed at women and it’s all about what does it mean to be a woman that’s a Christ follower. It centers around lies that women believe and the freedom that results when you willing to … live a biblical worldview in your life. We’re really looking to do something that will be helpful to women. We found with our “NOOMA” series that our audience is largely male. We’re not exactly sure why. Maybe men just like to learn visually.
CP: You got a lot on your plate there.
Carr: We have a lot on our plate. We’re excited about it. We’re first and foremost a ministry. The “NOOMA” series has done well, we don’t take credit for that, we really try to be honoring to God. We really try to make films and communicate in a way that’s honoring. We do things a little bit differently. We make films that from a creative point of view are done with excellence. We spend a lot of money making them. This goes back to our roots … there’s some Christian films out there… it really bothers us … something that’s just poorly done … but somehow it’s good enough because it’s Christian. We hate that. Ours should be better. We try to make things that are very very high level. We have a weird business model – we do sell product obviously but we’re not-for-profit and a lot of what pays for these films is donations, people that get our vision. We’re able to make films you probably couldn’t make if all you were trying to do was make a video curriculum.
With “NOOMA” artistically, creatively, we set the bar really high. With “BASIC,” the number one thing is that people are really relating to them, love the teaching, but we also love the fact that people are telling us that creatively these things are blowing “NOOMA” away.
What happens in this series, these films build on each other. In film one, you meet the first character. In film two, you meet a second character. In film three, we’re going to meet a third character who is in a very similar looking room. It’s the first time we’ve used effects – special effects. Francis talks about when the Holy Spirit came it sounded like a great wind, well this room just blows into a million pieces. And the room lands in the desert. We filmed it up in Corona (CA) which is just the most unusual landscape you’ve ever seen. They filmed “Planet of the Apes” and a lot of westerns there. It’s a really interesting looking country with really vast horizons. As the series progresses, the first three characters we met were sort of on parallel journeys. These rooms they were in all land in the desert and the characters meet each other. And what we’re going to see in four through seven is see these characters actually become church. They’re going to journey from the desert to their destination which is heaven, which of course was filmed on the beach in Malibu, Calif. So we’re going to see the characters in fellowship. It means more than … the potluck you had in the fellowship hall. That’s not what Scripture had in mind. Fellowship really means these people lived their lives together. And teaching, … prayer… and communion.
It’s going to be fun to watch.
There’s a number of things that explain why these films work. It’s a combination of things. People are used to learning obviously in our culture through media. And we try to deliver that and in a way that’s just as excellent as the best thing they could see on TV or at a theater.
CP: Just to get an idea of how popular your “NOOMA” series was, do you have a number in terms of distribution or how many sold?
Carr: There’s a little over 2.5 million “NOOMAS” in the world. They’re actually all over the world, which surprises us. We do surveys about every other year, and we found that – this is consistent – that 99 percent of people that buy a “NOOMA” recommend it to a friend; 71 percent show their “NOOMA” to nonbelievers. So they’re very heavily used for evangelism. I think because they’re so well done they’re just easy and non-threatening to share, just enjoyable to watch. But the thing that we’re most proud of isn’t the 2.5 million that are out there, …the part that means most to us is the 58 percent of people that watch them make a life-changing decision. I don’t mean necessarily they come to the altar but they watch one … like forgiveness and they forgive the person they haven’t talked to in two years. They actually apply the lesson of the film.