Phil Vischer and his “VeggieTales” changed the landscape of Christian media for kids. Now, he’s working on the next big thing with “JellyTelly.” Phil was gracious enough to grant me this interview. You can learn more about Phil on his blog, biography on Wikipedia, and IMBD listing.
My questions are in bold and his answers are in plain text. Feel free to leave a comment to show your appreciation for Phil.
I’ve read several positive reports about your session at the Conspire conference 2008. In a few words can you sum up what you were saying?
I spoke at the Willow Creek children’s ministry conference back in 2005, and for the first time told the story in detail of the rise and fall of my ministry, Big Idea Productions, and the lessons God taught me through the process of watching a dream die. That message resonated so deeply with people that it became the basis for my book, Me, Myself & Bob (2007, Thomas Nelson). In a nutshell, I was examining our culture of Evangelical ambition and workaholism – the intense drive that leads so many of us to burnout, disenchantment, or worse. It was a call back to the simplicity of a walk with God, of listening and following his will on a daily basis, of letting go of our own dreams and ambitions and responding instead to the simple call of his heart. I wrote in the book that I had been drinking a dangerous cocktail – a mix of the Gospel, the Protestant work ethic, and the American Dream. “If you commit your life to Christ your work for him will be a huge success and all your dreams will come true.”
Well, that’s a lie. We aren’t called to lives of great success, great impact, great ambition. We’re called to lives of obedience. Lives of humility. Lives of waiting on God, listening to God, walking with God. That’s where we find our joy – not in our dreams of numerical success, in our relationships with God. I realized I had made the work I was doing for God more important to me than my relationship with God. And as I have been traveling and speaking, I have discovered that I wasn’t alone.
So earlier this year I was invited to speak at Willow Creek once again, and realized it was time to continue the conversation – to answer the question, “So… once we’ve let go of our dreams and ambitions, once we’ve put all that down – died to it, if you will – then what? What does ministry look like when it isn’t driven by our goals? Our dreams? How do we work for God for the long-term without letting our old ambitions get in the way again? How, then, shall we live?”
That’s the question I needed to answer for myself, and that’s the topic I dove into at Willow Creek this year. I don’t want to even attempt to “summarize” my conclusions in a line or two, because I really couldn’t do it justice. I may need to write another book to tell the story of what happened to me AFTER I fell down, rolled around moaning for a while, then got back up and started quietly, humbly, listening to God. It’s a good story – but I can’t tell it in a paragraph.
What limitations do you see with the edutainment (entertain + educate) approach to children’s ministry?
It is very hard – nearly impossible I would say – to lead a child to a meaningful spiritual experience through entertainment. With animation and music I can engage a child, make them laugh, possibly make them think about something in a new way, but I can’t love them. I can’t hug them. I can’t get them to slow down and listen quietly for God’s whispers. Person-to-person storytelling is very powerful because the storyteller can read his or her audience and respond accordingly. And person-to-person contact is, by far, the best way to share God’s love. There is no “electronic” replacement for a hug. A loving look. A caring smile. Nothing I can put up on a screen can replace what a leader can do in a room with a child. Nothing can even come close.
In your opinion, what is the ideal relationship between Christian parenting and Christian media?
My goal has always been to be a parent’s ally. Back-up. Support. To make a parent’s job a little easier by reinforcing the work their already doing, instead of undermining or belittling it, as so much media has done in the last 30 years. Good Christian media can and should be a wonderful support for Christian parents.
In my mind, one early hope for Christian media for kids was to counter balance all the negative influences from secular media. Do you think that has happened over the last 20 years?
Christian kids media hasn’t even come close to counter balancing the influence of secular media. To make matters worse, Christian kids media is now in decline, largely for economic reasons I’ve described in detail on my website (www.philvischer.com). With VeggieTales, I felt like we were just getting started – just beginning to chip away at the problem. What I’m trying to do now, post-VeggieTales, is pick up that trail and continue doing what God called me to do. (Without, of course, all the personal ambition and accompanying stress that hastened the premature demise of Big Idea Productions.)
What is JellyTelly and what are some ways it could help children’s ministries and Christian parents?
JellyTelly is our attempt to pick up the trail we began with VeggieTales. It’s our answer to the question, “If VeggieTales was a great way to minister to kids and families over the last 15 years, how are we going to do it over the next 15 years?” In a nutshell, JellyTelly is an internet-based kids TV network, targeting Christian families. A tiny little Nickelodeon, where kids can spend time every day watching “mini-shows” (2-8 minute TV shows about science, nature, the books of the Bible, the work of the Church around the world, etc.) and play fun, safe online games. It’s sort of a cross between a kids gaming site like Club Penguin or Webkinz, and a high-quality, premium TV service like, say, HBO. But all for the purpose of helping parents raise the next generation of Christians. (You can learn more about it at www.philvischer.com if you’re interested.)
What advice would you have for a little church with zero budget that wanted to be more relevant for kids in the media/information age?
Focus on the things you can do that Nickelodeon and Disney can’t. You can tell a story – with eye contact and audience participation. You can hug. You can take kids on adventures outside – parks, pools, etc. You can make things together. Never assume that because kids sit in front of a screen at home, they should sit in front of a screen at church. Get up and move around. Sing. Years from now, those kids won’t remember what shows they watched or what video games they played. But they’ll remember the church worker that loved them.
What is one word of encouragement you would give to everyday children’s ministry volunteers?
A smiling face and ready hug is worth more than a 50″ plasma and an X-Box. Never forget that.