Interview with creator of Christian vs Christ-follower videos

Last week I was looking through Gizmodo and came across a post about a "Christian version" of the Apple computer "Get a Mac" ads. Being that Gizmodo is about gadgets I was obviously curious to see what this was about. From there I was directed to ThinkChristian.net where they had three of the four videos posted. The videos on Think Christian were attributed to Community Christian Church in Chicago. Over the course of the next several days I had several friends send me links to these videos. My friend Ray told me that a guy we used to work with was actually behind these videos so I emailed Tom Greever, my former coworker and the current Media Arts Director at Community Christian Church. He agreed to an interview and I've posted it in full below.

With all the comments I've read and due to the now controversial nature of these videos it seemed important to hear what the church's original intent for these videos were. Tom addressed my questions with a level of openness I wasn't expecting and I appreciated that. He also provided some context for the videos and provided a link to the actual sermons that supported each of these videos.

I've also been fascinated by the viral effect of these videos. A coworker commented to me that he thinks these videos may be the first Christian viral videos in the online video era we're now in. He might be right. The first video has almost 132,000 views as of tonight. It's an interesting thing to see play out and I think it's going to cause churches to consider a broader perspective when they post videos online. According to Tom, that's actually one of the things he's learned from this.

Here's the full interview:

What's your role at the church and what level of responsibility did you have with the Christian vs. Christ follower video?
I am the Media Arts Director, which means I’m the primary video guy. Basically, anything that shows up on a projector screen at our (currently) eight Chicagoland locations I am in some way responsible for.

As for these videos, our Creative Arts Team came up with the idea together. We meet every week to plan our services about 8 weeks before they run, so this idea was just one of many we had for consideration. Because of the cultural impact the Mac/PC commercials has had, we thought this was the best framework to communicate our message.

I shot and edited them start to finish. Elic (the Christ-follower character) did most of the writing with his brother Eric (the Christian character). My friend Mark assisted me on the shoot and recorded the song. But ultimately, the whole process is collaborative.

What was the original intent of the videos?
To understand our intent, you have to understand our audience and the context in which the videos were originally shown. Our services are geared mostly to newcomers: people who have never been to church or who have not been in a long time. That’s who we have in mind when we plan our services. That’s not to say believers don’t have a place, that’s another conversation altogether. But when we plan our services, we are constantly asking, “If someone is here for the first time, are they going to get it? How do we reach the person that may know nothing about ‘doing church’?”

As for the context, each video was a ‘sermon roll-in’ for our “Christian No More” series. That is, they introduced the teaching pastor. So the content of each video connects directly to the teaching for that particular week. The “Christian No More” series was our attempt to open the discussion on what it means to be a Christian: let’s get the stereotypes out on the table and separate what Jesus calls us to do from our own misguided intentions.

That said, our intent with the videos was to play on extreme stereotypes of Christians and compare them to a ‘Christ-follower’ who doesn’t fit in the mold of those stereotypes. Our audiences could immediately identify with the Mac/PC commercials and it is a great platform for comparing two similar (but different) things. The very fact that they mimic the Mac/PC commercials alone is funny and a lot of other people are doing the same thing on the web.

Did you expect they could be so viral?
Yes and no. We hoped that eventually something we did would make a splash. Eric created his YouTube account (bramsvan) after seeing YouTube really take off this past year. And like any artist, we’re proud of our work and like showing it. But of course, we had no way of predicting that this would be the one to cause such a stir. We have other great videos we’re making and a lot that we haven’t posted yet, so I hope the buzz that’s been generated from these videos will expand our web audience.

What kind of feedback are you getting from people seeing them?
There’s no doubt the response has been mixed. I’ll quote Eric from his blog, “Christians are mad, Christians are sad, Christians are happy, Christians are laughing. And don't get me started on the Christ-followers!”

There are so many people talking about it that it’s impossible to keep tally. But from what I’ve seen, Jews and Atheists really seem to like them… Christians are more divided. A lot of people like them and some are offended. But I think most of the negative responses boil down to misunderstanding, incorrect assumptions, or just being uncomfortable with a conversation about what we Christians look like to the rest of the world. But honestly, if Jews and Atheists like them, then I think we hit the mark… We’re not trying to reach Christians. We want to start a conversation with people that don’t have a relationship with Jesus. And if these videos make them stop and think, or blog, or attend church for the first time then we’ve done what we intended to do. Everyone carries their own baggage into the scenario when they watch these videos. It just so happens that the same baggage that would cause an atheist to say, “Wow, finally a church that realizes how I see them.” causes a Christian to knee-jerk with “Those guys are just being mean…”

What's been the biggest surprise with all of the discussion these videos have generated?
I’m surprised at how many Christians have made assumptions about what we were trying to do, and in effect, assuming the worst about our intentions. People assume that this is an ad for our church, or that we’re creating an ‘us vs. them’ scenario where our church is better than yours. Even the assumption that we (as in, Community Christian Church) represent the Christ-follower is wrong. But without a doubt the silliest assumption I’ve seen is that we are actually attempting to remove the word Christian from our vocabulary or somehow create a new ‘sect’ called Christ-follower. The name of our church is Community Christian Church! Gimme a break.

And honestly, I thought stuff like having to wear a suit to church or Jesus bumper stickers was so 1990s that the sheer ridiculousness of the character would be almost unreachable in today’s culture. It’s like those Geico commercials where the caveman is offended, but they didn’t mean anything by it because they didn’t even realize that cavemen still existed. We figured it was an old conversation and therefore ‘safe’ to poke at. But even if it is an old conversation, people that haven’t been to church in 20 years don’t realize how churches have changed. For most of our attenders, not being expected to wear a suit or only listen to Christian music is a breath of fresh air.

The other thing that surprised me was the people that came to our defense. We have largely avoided the conversation on the web because there was no need for us to get involved. Our opinions are biased. So it was a strange thing to throw this benign video out into the world and let it grow up all on its own. We didn’t have to say a word. Other people stepped in and said everything we would have said.

Will you create videos with a viral intent in the future?
Not really, and we didn’t create these videos with viral intent. We create videos that communicate a message to our particular audience in our particular cultural context. And then we share them because we think they’re fun. If some of our future videos become popular on YouTube, that’s great… but they will never be written or shot or edited with viral video in mind.

The challenge for people who intend to make viral video is you can’t assume to know what’s going to be popular on the web. I’ll be surprised if more than a handful of people are able to pull it off. Videos don’t become viral because they’re advertisements, they become advertisements because they’re viral and I don’t think you can reverse engineer that. Setting out to create viral video is almost the antithesis of what the ‘viral video’ movement is: regular people having fun and sharing their stuff and who knows who might become a new internet star.

At the same time, I can’t help but be influenced by what has become our ‘new audience’ on the web. The truth is that we shot all four of them back-to-back one Wednesday morning in about 3 hours. We didn’t pour over the scripts with a theological fine-toothed comb and I spent maybe 8 hours editing them. Had I known ‘this would be the one’ I might have put a little more into it. It forces me to be a better artist if my work is under a microscope by a larger audience.

What have you learned from all of this?
I’ve learned that people really care about how Christians are perceived, which is funny since some people on the web have said that (assuming CCC represents the Christ-follower) we care too much about how the world perceives us. Yet, their very defense of themselves or our videos and the passion with which blog tells me that this is really something to wrestle with. Perhaps we should make more. Perhaps we should push the envelope even further.

An experience like this makes me stop and re-think what we actually intended to communicate. There’s a fair amount of questioning that goes on even in my head about what we did. Someone will post a comment and I’ll question myself, “Did we really say that?” But that’s what makes this art: it’s never finished, the message is never fully decided on. Personally, I love it. I’ve loved the discussion and I’m proud to be have been a part of it.


Joe Suh said...

Great interview! Thanks for tracking the team down. I first found these from the delicious popular homepage. It blew my mind that Christian content was the item of the day at delicious...

Anonymous said...

I found this interview very enlightening regarding their motives for creating the video. I also found Mr. Greever's statements to be full of contradictions and hollow post-modern church catchphrases.

So, they wanted to "reach" people who aren't Christians. With what do they want to reach them? Entertainment? Comedy? Confirmation of a stereotype, which by it's very nature is untrue?

The message is clear, even above his denials. The "Christ-follower" is hip and cool and oh-so Starbucks. See, I'm not like those dorky Christians.

Give me a break Mr. Greever. You're pandering to an audience, not sharing the Gospel. While entertaining, the message your church gives is powerless to save.

So I ask you again, with what are you trying to "reach" them?

Tom Greever said...

Hi everydaymommy. Maybe I can answer your questions…

I would be interested in knowing what contradictions you see in my interview. Not that I think they aren’t there… it’s just that I don’t have the opportunity to look at my interview with an outsider’s perspective and so it’s more difficult for me to see stuff like that. Maybe if you tell me what you see, I can either laugh at myself or try to clear them up (probably both!)…

You asked (twice) with what we hope to reach people who aren’t Christians. Entertainment? Yes. Comedy? Yes. Confirmation of an untrue stereotype? My answer: Huh? How can we confirm a stereotype that isn’t true? Are stereotypes untrue? Certainly, stereotypes are usually exaggerations… and they often also only represent a smaller portion of the population. But untrue? Stereotypes are not untrue. If what we parodied were untrue, it would not be funny or offensive. If it did not somehow represent even a small population, it would not have gotten a single comment/blog/link, etc….

So is the Christ-follower hip, cool, and oh-so Starbucks? Sure (if that’s the way you see him), because people that are hip, cool, and oh-so Starbucks need Jesus too. And they won’t be reached by the dorky Christian. Is there anything wrong (or un-Christlike) with being hip, cool, and oh-so Starbucks? It’s not: “See, I'm not like those dorky Christians” [remember, not us vs. them] – instead, it’s “See, Christians aren’t dorky like that guy” –or what’s more appropriate to our audience: “You don’t have to be dorky to be a Christian.”

As sad and difficult as it is to say, a lot of non-Christians think Christians are pretty dorky. (Actually, I’m probably a pretty dorky Christian most of the time.) So if we can laugh about how dorky we are/can be… that appeals to people that would otherwise be put-off by our dorky-ness.

Pandering to an audience? Yes, though I might prefer to say engaging an audience. Please remember that you are not our audience. It would be like a 30-year old saying that a preteen-Disney show is bad because it has grade-B acting and obvious plot development… It’s not meant for a 30 year-old, but the preteens love it.

Sharing the gospel? With these particular videos alone, not necessarily. It was intended to start a conversation, to introduce an idea, but it was never a start-to-finish theology. But overall, our mission at Community Christian Church is to help people find their way back to God. These videos are only one piece of that mission.

You said: “the message your church gives is powerless to save” – you’re right: there is nothing we can do or say to save anyone. If we had produced the best documentary on the life of Christ, even that message would be powerless to save. Salvation is between one person and God. No movie, video, sermon, or song will ever save someone. We only intended to get people thinking about what it means to be a Christian. I think we did just that.

I have to admit that I’m mostly disappointed in what appears to be an attack from you. Your language, your adjectives… You seem to be (from your comments and your blog) a Christian and a mom (the highest calling!) – So it’s disappointing to me that you would take the time to publicly try to discredit our work… especially when (as far as I know) you have no knowledge/relationship/or first-hand information about what we do as a church. Maybe you do, maybe I’m off base here… I’m just guessing.

But what I mean is: a post like yours only reinforces [to non-Christians] that Christians are dorky… I’m not saying that you are a dork, but your language suggests that ‘we just can’t get along’ – While I welcome criticism of our work [it makes us better, makes sure we are/are not on track, and boy you should have seen the article in a St. Louis paper recently!], I would have appreciated a little more tactfulness. That’s all.

Ok, you might be the only person I’ll extend this to… but I would enjoy continuing this conversation with you directly by email: tomgreever@communitychristian.org -- Cheerio! - Tom

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