Baptist pastor Art A. Ayris wants to convey God's stories creatively and effectively, especially to a culture that knows so little about God's Word. So he started a company that transforms Scripture into comics with titles like The Beginning, Exodus, Babylon, and The Revelation.
Ayris, executive pastor of First Baptist Church, Leesburg, Fla., and president of Kingstone Media Group, sat down with The Christian Post to talk about his unique ministry that utilizes media – books, movies, and Christian comic books – aimed at youth.
CP: How did you come up with the idea for Kingstone Media Group?
Ayris: Really the idea came about several years ago. My wife worked in TV, and I was behind the scenes. Fasting and prayer were an important part of my life. Several years ago I felt God telling me to get involved in film and I thought, "Oh this must be the devil." I did a 40-day fast and afterwards God dramatically indicated this is the direction to head.
I didn't plan to do a comic company, but I did research in the secular market and saw this was a huge need with kids. We want to always be informed with the Bible. Barnes & Noble and other bookstores have tripled their graphic novel sections. We feel it's important also to have great product informed by biblical worldview with top artists from Marvel and Image.
The story of Babylon won the best TV movie in Hollywood's Next Success Screenwriting Contest. WB wanted it, but they passed. Even though they passed, we know we were on the right track. We plan to release 30-35 comics by this year.
We also have a sci-fi series written by Dr. Marvin Olasky. We have gifted writers on the team. Just what Marvel accomplished in the general market we want to experience. We have comics and film here in Kingstone – they are the hottest mediums in the secular market. We think they will be hot here.
CP: How many comics do you have now?
Ayris: We have about 10. By the end of the year, we will release about 30-35.
It's very time intensive, even a great team can only do a page a day.
Some are standalone comics. We have one about a Baptist pastor on the Titanic that's standalone. We also have the book of Revelation as a comic book.
Some of them are serialized like 2048; that will become a graphic novel. The story of Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon, that will be serialized as a graphic novel.
We are working on another one, about how we got the Bible. It's pictorial and deals with what the trustworthy process was that God delivered this reliable document to us.
One of the interesting things is that after 9/11 not many were reading the report, but one publisher took that, and it did well as a graphic novel.
Basically we are telling stories from a biblical worldview that we hope are entertaining and impact people. There is so much biblical illiteracy in the country where people really don't know God's word. There is an outreach element. I am a pastor.
When we were making this movie "The Touch," four people were led to Christ. There was a waitress my wife and I led to Christ. Another was an actress who wanted a position, who did casting in the studio in our church. Four hundred tried out and 1,000 tried out for headshots. This lady wanted to get a role. She didn't get a role but we ended up sharing Christ with her, and she received. She came to my office crying, and I led her to Christ. And then this Jewish person involved in the production could be led to Christ. Working in media there are opportunities; it's a two edged sword.
CP: Speaking about your media productions, I also heard that your other book, Sudan, you also wanted to put into production. How is that going?
Ayris: That's why I'm meeting with Publishers Weekly this week. A lot of our products are for the faith market, and a lot of them are framed for the wider audience. Sudan is an example. We have a seven-book agreement with this writer; she's based in the UK. I had written the screenplay and it placed in three LA screenwriting competitions, and production company auctioned it – these were big name companies. We got it back; now there is a big film fund, and we are going into development with that fund
All our films are cinematic novels translatable to film. For example one of our books, Homegrown, is about the 70s when Kentucky became marijuana capital, dealing with that. Some people think they are too realistic, but we are trying to tell an informed story, a good story, an accurate story, and one informed from a biblical worldview. That's really what we do.
CP: You mentioned that other believers may have a problem with it, so what kind of obstacles or controversies have you encountered from other Christian groups or individuals?
Ayris: Not too many, maybe some people haven't verbalized it, but maybe they think we dumbed down the Bible to put it into comic book form. No one said that but I sense that. There was someone who had a problem with it being too graphic, there was a creation scene, and we are changing that. In The Touch, a movie dealing with rape and molestation, there is a scene in topless bar. It just shows legs, dancing on a table, some think that's offensive. We want to tell the truth, we don't want to position sin as a wonderful thing. We want to point out that there is sin, and there are really bad consequences because of sin. It's art, there are controversies in art, but primarily we want to tell good stories and make good product.
CP: And what would you say is your main target audience? Does each novel and each book have a different type of audience?
Ayris: That's a good question. Our target audience is age 10-25, but the comments we have been getting back from our comics are really strong. There was a guy who came to our Christmas outreach, when we gave out the comics, he said I got to get this comic! My 3-year-old continues reading the comic and read the pages off. Younger kids like all the bright vibrant colors and things, but the visual content really has impacted with people. There are some people who buy them because they are comic purists, they like comics, and some Christians who buy them. In The Revelation, we tried to come up with evangelical orthodox interpretation, but what we are trying to say is not only God is reliable, but with the scriptures, the bottom line is we are trying to tell every biblical story in detail. But there are also some other things we are trying to develop into, like motion pictures and some others.
CP: For those who are watching who have not heard of Kingstone Media and all the books that you have and the graphic novels, can you share a little bit about each one? I know you already mentioned some like Babylon.
Ayris: One of the things we did is work with a homeschool ministry out of Tennessee called No Greater Joy. They also created some comics we liked, and we licensed them with Kingstone. Basically we had a Bible conference, and I heard a story about this Baptist pastor, when the Titanic was going down, people were really selfish, but he gave the lifeboat to the unsaved. He went around saying women, children and unsaved go to the lifeboat first. When the Titanic was tilting up he was in the water, he was one of the ones who jumped overboard; 1,500 people jumped over and of 1,500 in the water, six people survived. One of them who did shared years later how he came to faith, he was hanging onto the wooden bar, and the pastor said, "Are you saved?" He said, "No." And the pastor said, "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved." A wave took him away and a few waves later another wave brought him back over and he asked, "Are you saved yet? Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved." Then he stood up and said I am the last convert of John Harper.
2048 is a comic with research about cloning. Basically it deals with society and where were are going with no Biblical morals. Where we are going as society. It's sci-fi. I wont' give it away.
For Babylon, we have a great artist. Here is a story about Nebachudnezzar, and it's amazing how God has a person there who is Jewish to work with. That speaks of our culture.
There's a TV company in LA and PBS, they've got a production related to the Bible. They are coming to us to market that in the faith based market. We have a hardback comic book coming out called The history of Christianity. It's coming out this year. Got one artist doing a series called The Christ, another called The Lion of God about the Apostle Paul.
CP: What is your personal favorite out of all of these?
Ayris: I have never been asked that! That's a tough one. Probably this [Sudan novel]. I wrote this. Prose is not my strong suit, I'm more towards screenwriting and comics. That's why I'm meeting with Publishers Weekly. This is a true story from Christianity Today. I read this article on a plane about Islamic guerillas slaying Christians. A farmer, he came back to his house and they had burned down his house and taken his wife and daughter and sold them as slaves. He came back and liquidated everything, he marched forth, he only had enough to buy back wife and not daughter. She was about to be circumcised and given to a 40-year-old man. A Christian aid agency came in and redeemed her. It's a political thriller. A production company came onto our board, and it's going to production.
Our comics and books are kind of like railroader tracks. We are telling the stories graphically, then they can go to film and television. That's expensive. Now we are just concentrating on great art and great stories.
CP: How can Christian media companies close the gap between Christian and secular media. There is a great gap; how can we do it?
Ayris: That is a great question, I have never been asked that.
This could be controversial, but I believe we have to make great product and tell honest stories. I think that maybe Kingstone is a little different than others. For faith, I don't know how well we will do in a Christian market. We are going into the trade market with Sudan and Homegrown, and Atlantis and 2048. Some are more general. We are going to MegaCon and Comic-Con. I think you need great product. If you come to our church, everything says, "wow." We try to do things first class for the Lord. Which is the second thing, you have to be adequately capitalized. There are great Christian filmmakers and artists but it has to be capitalized. We felt it's advantageous to do this as a for profit company because it involves so much capital.
I think it was C.S. Lewis, he said imagination is an organ of meaning. I can tell you, since I was here I saw Broadway. As a believer I can see where non-Christians are scratching and drawing to find meaning. They don't even know it. I believe Blaise Pascal and of course what Scripture said that God has put a space in their heart, unfortunately we are trying to chase after people and tell them God has the truth. I think you have to have capital. I think Christians should build a monument to Philip Anschutz, he financed the Narnia series and more. And you've got to have a well run operation, good leadership and management like any other thing. Basically you have to tell honest stories. As for other things, believers we are vessels of the truth. We bear the true truth. We have the truth encapsulated in God's word, in our lives. Your lives don't have to be train wrecks. God has so much purpose and meaning. The art we try to do beautifully, the stories we try to do beautifully, it doesn't mean they are going to be saccharine. Sometimes there is heartache and murder, but that's the good news of the gospel to me, in all the brokenness God's grace shining through. I hope when this is all done, and we stand before the Lord, people say, yeah we saw God's grace in that.
Whether you are Christian in ministry or work for the WB I hope you live with integrity.
I hope in our lives we minister to people and work for people. That is for Christ, serving people.
Kind of like we say about our movie, if a church is caring for broken people it will never lack for an audience. That's how I think we can bridge the gap, and most importantly bring a biblical worldview to culture and bring truth in a palatable way to people.
CP: How did starting this media company affect your role as a pastor? How do you balance your time?
Ayris: Everyone asks me that! Well you know the Lord. I'm really big about people doing what they are good at. When I try to recruit other leaders and train other leaders I try to find out where their passions are and what they are gifted at. Mine is administration and finance. Leadership and finances are gifted for me. It works with a church and media company. Our church, like a lot of churches, has gone a little backwards on the finance even though God has been faithful. We will continue to see it prosper and grow. I am trying to have it lessen and spend more time on the media. Lifeway Publishing, other people, WB media, other people, basically I try to identify other people that are doing well and have strong prayer time to see what we can do.
CP: Where do you see Kingstone Media Group five years from now?
Ayris: I have to be honest about that right?
By the end of this year, we will release 30-35 comics. By 2011, about 75 comics more. Some are graphic novels.
Then will be our second phase of growth. We are 75 percent capitalized, we sold 75 percent of our stock. After selling the last part of it, once we finish this and get all lines of production, the ones who are going to invest in this, the "Sudan" film, the next plan is an about $30,000,000 picture, "Lion of God," based on the graphic novel. Just like Marvel is successful in their market, we want to be successful in our market and hold up the Word of life. And other people, we want to tell them the wonderful news. This medium is a great way to tell people, and the comments we are getting are astounding. It's really humbling. There's someone who bought The Revelation and sent it to a juvenile facility.
Our movie we signed with a secular distributor in LA, they sold rights to the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium. I got an email from someone there, she was abused and said she could never talk about it. I got her the Gospel of John to the church there. In Australia there was a person who said I could never talk about it. That person was part of a cult. It's amazing, Sat-7, they translated it to Arabic and Farsi.
In five years, already we have comics going into Spanish and Arabic. Our Spanish distribution is going very well. We want to have many languages. 10 percent of our company stock is in The Bible Film Project; we take these to minority languages where they can't afford it. But if we are successful in our "Sudan" film we plan to make a biblical epic.
CP: And just in closing maybe you have something you would like to share with us? Anything we didn't cover?
Ayris: The main thing I would say to people is just be faithful to God right where you are.
We've had incredible press. At our church, someone from the Wall Street Journal is coming down. The ABC affiliate in Orlando has been there a couple times. We are buying a hotel to transform to take care of homeless families. We've had incredible publicity locally and nationally. Good Morning America came down, about Hurricane Katrina, they came down. We were talking, they said that's a weird combination, pastor and screenwriter, but the truth is that media has a big impact. Some great people David Nixon, Dallas Jenkins, there's people doing incredible jobs, great witnesses for the Lord.
One of the things that we want to do, we want to really tell God's stories. Some of those are contemporary, and some are in the past. We want to tell God's stories and very effectively. The Bible talks about vain imagination. We think there is also sanctified imagination. We can be creative and honor the Lord in that creativity.