The Promise of Christmas: Rod and Root of Jesse

[2nd and last part in a series called “The Promise of Christmas” that looks at less well known prophecies about Jesus’ birth.]

When is the last time a small child ran up to the manger in your local nativity scene and exclaimed, “Look, dad, it’s the rod that came from the stem of Jesse!”?

I’m guessing it doesn’t happen very often. In Isaiah 11 we find this prophecy about the coming of the Messiah:

“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” Is 11:1 ESV

rodstumpThe KJV says “rod” from the “stem” of Jesse. The word for stem is “geza” and it means stump. The rod or shoot is a sapling. You may have been walking in the woods and seen a stump of a tree that has been cut down. Sometimes, from that stump, new trees will spring up.

In it’s most basic sense, the prophecy is fulfilled in the genealogy of Jesus, found in the first chapter of Matthew.

Matt 1:6
“and Jesse the father of King David.”

Also see Acts 13.

Acts 13:22-23
“After removing Saul, he made David their king. God testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’ From this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised.”

Jesse was father of King David. Jesus was a descendant from the line of David.

But what does it mean? A new tree springing from the stump of an old tree? To understand it, we need to look back at how Israel got its first king.

In 1 Samuel 8 Israel demanded a king. It had never been part of God’s plan for them to have a king. At the end of the time of judges, the elders of Israel complained to Samuel that his children were not fit to be judges. They took bribes and perverted justice. So they rejected the judges and asked for a king. One of the reasons given was so they can be “like other nations” even though Israel was never supposed to be like other nations.

After Saul, it was David who became king. He was the greatest king Israel would ever have. But the monarchy that came through Jesse failed. By the end of Solomon’s reign, things were going downhill fast. Israel split, and Rehoboam ruled Judah like a dictator, and the Northern kingdom never had another godly king. A little over 700 years before Christ’s birth, the Northern Kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians. Around 600 years before Christ, Judah fell to the Babylonians.

2 Kings 24 records how Jesse’s tree was cut down, leaving a stump. God protected a remnant, and from this remaining part of Israel, Jesus comes.

Why is it a stump? We know that’s what did happen, but why? Why not from a healthy tree? Why was the kingdom of David’s line destined to fall?

Part of the reason is because the Law leads to death. People are imperfect, and we cannot live the life required of us without Christ. Paul talks about this in Romans 7:

Romans 7:10-11
” I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death. For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death.”

So is the Law bad? Paul answers this as well in the same chapter. and ends up describing the war within ourselves, as sin and holiness fight.

Romans 7:21-25
” So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

No matter what happened to Israel as a nation, humanity would always need a savior. Not just Israel, but all of humanity. Imagine what would have happened if the kingdom of Israel had stood. The Messiah would have come, and literally been born into the earthly throne of David. Jesus Christ isn’t the king of Israel, he is the King of Kings and Lord of all. (Revelation 17:14) His purpose isn’t to rule and earthly kingdom, but to make a way for humanity to be reconciled to God.

Look later in Isaiah 11:

Is 11:10- 12
” In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious. In that day the Lord will reach out his hand a second time to reclaim the surviving remnant of his people from Assyria, from Lower Egypt, from Upper Egypt, from Cush,from Elam, from Babylonia, from Hamath and from the islands of the Mediterranean. He will raise a banner for the nations and gather the exiles of Israel; he will assemble the scattered people of Judah from the four quarters of the earth.”

The Messiah is also the root of Jesse. Jesus was born a man in the line of David, Jesse’s son, but he has always existed, and as Col 1:16 reminds us, Jesus created all things, including Jesse and his line of descendants. Revelation 22:16 also shows Jesus referring to himself as the root and offspring of David, Jesse’s son.

In verse 11 of Isaiah 11 the Lord reclaims his Remnant. It’s through the work of the Messiah that the people of Israel can be reclaimed. The Hebrew word for “reclaim” can also be translated “redeem”. It refers to something you pay for, or get in exchange for labor or payment. Jesus Christ is the redeemer.

From this rod of Jesse, a branch that bears fruit. Think about the cycle of plant life. Seeds grow into a plant, the plant reaches maturity and fruit is produced. Within that fruit are more seeds. It’s the beginning of new life.

The Old Covenant, the Promise of Christmas, the Promise made to Abraham, matures in the coming of Christ. And in him are the seeds of new life, the New Covenant.

The Law is the measuring stick that lets us know we have sinned. Because the Law exists, we know we need a savior. The Law shows us the no earthly kingdom can succeed in fulfilling the purpose of Christ’s coming. It is not through allegiance to Israel or a king on earth that salvation comes. Jesus is a different kind of king.

Make no mistake, the coming of Christ seals the fate of those who refuse to follow God. It is the fulcrum upon which everyone will be judged.

Matthew 25:31-33
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. The people of every nation will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right but the goats on his left.”

And he is judging the people of every nation, not just one. God didn’t plan for Israel to need a King, but they wanted one. They didn’t understand God’s plan. Centuries later when the Messiah finally came, most of Israel didn’t recognize him because he did not come as an earthly King, but as a spiritual one. The wise men went to Herod first because kings are never born in smelly stables. His birth doesn’t make sense if we expect him to be an earthly king.

Why was there a sapling from the stump of Jesse? What is the purpose of Christ’s coming?

Luke 19:10 says it plainly-
” For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost”

It is this action that fulfills the promise we talked about in the first part of this series. It is his nature that enables him to do the work, and accomplish his purpose. No one else could do it.

The Messiah is not an earthly king, he does not act like we expect kings to act. This king came to earth in a manger, in a smelly stable. His kingdom will not pass away, but will endure for ever and ever.

The King of Kings humbled himself:

Philippians 2:8
“And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!”

The King of Kings- who will sit on his throne and judge us all, the greatest of all rulers, through out time- humbled himself, and did the work that only he could do. Fulfilling the promise made to Abraham, he made a way back to a right relationship with God. Only he is the root and the rod of Jesse.

Merry Christmas indeed.

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The Promise of Christmas: Seed of Abraham and Isaac

manger-hero-980x380[This post is more ministry than media related, but I hope you will enjoy it.]

If you have been around church at Christmas time you always hear about the virgin birth, and being born in Bethlehem, etc… But when was the last time you heard some one point to the manager and exclaim, “Look, it’s Isaac’s seed!” It’s not often that churches focus on prophecies that describe Jesus as the Seed of Abraham, Seed of Isaac, and Jesus being the way that all nations would be blessed through Abraham.

To be honest, normally when I think about biblical prophecies surrounding Jesus, whether from birth or life, I normally focus on the part where Jesus fulfilling them helps to prove he was who he said he was, and is who we believe him to be. But, while the prophecies do that, they are made for a reason, and in a time period. They have meaning and context. They have significance that spans eternity . I thought it would be interesting to see what the significance of some of these other, less well known Christmas prophecies were.

1. Seed of Abraham.

I will keep My covenant between Me and you, and your future offspring throughout their generations, as an everlasting covenant to be your God and the God of your offspring after you.  And to you and your future offspring I will give the land where you are residing—all the land of Canaan—as an eternal possession, and I will be their God.” Genesis 17:7-8
 In blessing I will bless you, and in multiplying I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore, and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed… Genesis 22:17-18

On the surface, this prophecy is fulfilled in the 1st chapter of Matthew that records the genealogy of Christ, and lists Abraham as an ancestor. Galatians 3 goes further:

Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say “and to seeds,” as though referring to many, but referring to one, and to your seed who is Christ. And I say this: The law, which came 430 years later, does not revoke a covenant that was previously ratified by God and cancel the promise.  For if the inheritance is from the law, it is no longer from the promise; but God granted it to Abraham through the promise. Why then was the law given? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise was made would come. Gal 3:16-19a

This was a promise made by God to Abraham. A promise made before the Law was given. God is establishing the Covenant here. This is the Old Covenant in the Bible. He promises to multiply Abraham’s descendants, and he promises that a seed from Abraham would bless all the nations of the earth.

In many ways the Bible is the story of how God kept this promise to Abraham.

Before this, there was no Israel, no Jewish religion. Abraham didn’t join an existing organization. He heard God’s voice, and responded. Through this man’s line of descendants God eventually brought Jesus Christ into the world. Jesus, who truly blesses every nation by offering a way back into relationship with God. It is the Seed of Abraham that fulfills God’s promise.

2. Seed of Isaac.

“Then God said, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. Genesis 17:19

Again,  Matthew 1 provides the surface fulfillment of this prophecy.

At first I didn’t think much about this. It seemed like a simple continuation of the promise God had made to Abraham. God promised Abraham would have descendants like the stars. That promise is continued through Isaac. Then I remembered that Abraham had another son…

He first had a child called Ishmael through Sarah’s servant Hagar. But God was clearly saying that it was through Isaac, not Ishmael, that the covenant continued. Paul wrote in Romans about this:

It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” In other words, it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring For this was how the promise was stated: “At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son.” Romans 9:6-9

Though Abraham’s “ill conceived” (bad dad joke) son had his blood, Ishmael was not the line from which God would bring the Messiah. For the very first time, God is saying that it is not blood that maintains the covenant. It’s not simply a physical thing. There is something more to the promise.

(On a side note, Abraham and Sarah did not trust God, and tried to do things their own way. Then when God worked according to his own timing and Isaac was born, they cast out Hagar and Ishmael. Islam, one of the fastest growing religions in the world, claims the seed of Ishmael. They reference Genesis 21 where God said he would make a nation out of Hagar’s child, and trace their start back to Abraham’s first born son. What if Abraham and Sarah had fully trusted God? Would Islam still exist? Or if it did, would it be a different sort of faith? Those are questions we can’t answer. But we do know that sometimes our decisions can have impact for generations.)

Why is this prophecy important? This is the first time we see that the relationship with God is not tied to the physical blood in our bodies. Romans specifically says it’s not about “physical descent”. Not every person with Abraham’s blood is included in the “promise”. And conversely, as we see in the New Covenant, the promise given to Abraham is not limited to just Jews. Jesus. who is the Seed of Isaac, makes a way for people to be included in the Promise, regardless of blood.

3. Blessing to all nations.

Referenced in Genesis 22, but earlier mentioned here:

Then the Lord said, “Should I hide what I am about to do from Abraham?  Abraham is to become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him so that he will command his children and his house after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just. This is how the Lord will fulfill to Abraham what He promised him.” Genesis 18:17-19

The book of Acts records how this was fulfilled:

 You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your ancestors, saying to Abraham, And all the families of the earth will be blessed through your offspring. God raised up His Servant and sent Him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your evil ways.  Acts 3:25-26

This prophecy happens right in the middle of the Sodom and Gomorrah story. God wants to tell Abraham what he is about to do to those sin filled cities. Both the Genesis and Galatians passages reference the behavior of those who will come after Abraham. How will the promise be kept? The children of Abraham will follow God’s ways. How will nations be blessed? Each person will turn from their evil ways. And in Genesis 18 God is about to wipe out two cities to make sure this happens.

We look at this through the glasses of a modern history where Jesus has already come and changed the world. It offends our sensibilities to think that anyone could just decree such death, but God is the only being that has the right to do it. God is the judge of who lives and who dies. He can judge everyone because of who he is. Even so, God relented when Abraham asked him to spare the cities if he could find just 10 righteous men. But there weren’t even 10 righteous men.

So why did God do this? Because Sodom and Gomorrah were sinful. But also, because God wanted to keep Abraham and his children on the right path. God obviously doesn’t destroy every haven of sin in the world. Look at Chapter 19. Lot had already begun to slip away, moving from the outskirts of the city to being a city leader. Later in the chapter, the influence of Lot raising his family there can be seen when his own daughters chose to get their father drunk, after the fall of Sodom and death of their mother, and lay with him (so they could bear children), rather than trust God would provide.

Throughout history God has taken extraordinary measures to preserve Israel until the birth of Christ. God protected his people, the line of Abraham, the descendants of Isaac. Even in exile, there was always a remnant. Why? Because through this line the salvation of the entire world comes. The entire world, all nations. Not just Israel, not just those tied to Abraham by blood. But all nations will be blessed by the promise God made to Abraham.

God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, and protected Abraham’s descendants throughout history, so that they could keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, and the promise would be fulfilled.

ALL the nations of the earth. Jesus is for all, the GOSPEL is for all.This is the first time we see that God desires that every person in every nation be reconciled to God. This is only a prophecy related to Jesus birth because it is through Jesus that all have the opportunity to be saved, to be blessed. All families of the earth can be blessed if they will turn from their evil ways.

How serious is the “All” ? Christ’s return will not happen until all nations have heard.

Matt 24:14″This good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed in all the world as a testimony to all nations. And then the end will come.

So here are these 3 prophecies, all tied together. All made thousands of years ago. Look at the progression:

  1. The fulfillment of the great promise God made to Abraham is the coming of Jesus Christ. (The Seed of Abraham)

  2. Being part of the promise God made is not tied to a physical relationship (bloodline), it is a spiritual state. (The Seed of Isaac)

  3. All people can be a part of the promise God made to Abraham through the work of Jesus Christ, if you will turn from your evil ways. (All nations will be blessed)

Has God kept his promise to Abraham?

There are 2.2 Billion Christians in the world today. There have been billions who have come before now. As that kids song says, father Abraham truly did have many sons. But there are more “nations”, more people-groups to be reached.

Are you a part of the promise? I’m not asking if you’re Jewish, or a member of a church. That’s not what the Bible says is required to be a part of the promise:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. Gal 3:26-29

The only determining factor: Do you belong to Christ?

How can we be part of this blessing? Belong to Christ. That happens by acknowledging that your sin has separated you from God, and that there’s nothing you can do to fix that relationship. But, if you believe that God sent the Seed of Abraham and Isaac down through the centuries of time to make a way back to himself, through his son Jesus Christ, and you are willing to accept that and turn away from your evil ways as described in Acts 3, then you can be a part of the promise, you can belong to Christ.

3 prophecies made thousands of years ago, foretelling the coming of Christ, and the fulfillment of a promise God made to Abraham. And we can be blessed, and be a part of it.

The Quality Ramp

rampHave you ever watched something you did several years ago and cringed at how bad it was?

I had this experience recently. When the pilot episode of my show became available on Amazon Prime, I watched it with my family. Ug. That was hard to do.

It wasn’t the worst video I’d ever seen. I mean, the story was basically solid. The core structure worked OK. But the lines, it’s obvious this was one of my first scripts. I kept having the actors tell the plot instead of show the plot. (Really, this is a problem in many of the episodes of the series…)

We didn’t know what we were doing. Production quality was subpar. I mean, I knew how to run a camera, but I’d never shot a dramatic scene. I’d read a book, so I knew to get coverage with a master, some over the shoulders and close ups. We had some decent (for the time) equipment, but not nearly enough lighting tools. I think we had about 3 lights, with varying color temps. We had a Sennheiser 816 shotgun, a really long microphone, and a couple of lav mics. Many times the shotgun was just too far away from the source, capturing quiet dialogue and loud room noise. I spent way too much time in post trying to fix it. And of course, it didn’t get fixed. And many of our actors were first timers. Or they had stage experience with no film experience. In post, I was in love with every line. I don’t think I cut any of them.

There were so many ways it could have been better. But the end result was still a decent story that set up a 10 episode series. A series that won awards, not because it was amazing, but because there weren’t many people even trying to do anything like it back then. A series that dealt with real issues facing Christians today. Something, that even now-3 years later- is still being seen.

I knew even back then that the quality wasn’t very good. I almost didn’t release it. I actually went and watched the first attempts of other filmmakers, and compared my work to theirs. I realized two things:

1, Everyone has room for improvement, and some successful filmmakers started out as bad as I was.

2, If you wait until you’re an expert to do anything, you’ll never do anything. You have to start where you are, and work to improve.

It’s the 2nd point that’s the most important.

How did a volunteer cast and crew spend under $9000 to produce an award winning 10 episode series that was shown on 4 different networks (JCTV, NRB, Parables, The Walk), tons of different local channels, satellite around the world, translated into another language in Romania, is still available on the internet and now a VOD streaming platform? We didn’t know we couldn’t.

I know people who are smart, talented and have an amazing idea just waiting to be produced. And that idea just keeps waiting. But part of the point of independent film is the freedom to try to make your idea. You don’t have to wait for a big studio to come by. And if you are a filmmaker who has never made a film, then you’re caught in a Catch 22- You won’t make your film because you want it to be good, but no studio will help you make your film because you’ve never made a good one.

For Christian TV producers, there is no hope (at this point) of ever getting the funding to make your episodic, dramatic show from one of the religious networks. Thats not how the model works. They exist because content creators (namely preaching/teaching/talk shows) buy time from them. They do not pay to have programs produced, and they normally do not pay for existing programs. There are exceptions, but generally this is the rule. So the chance of getting your grand episodic idea funded through a big Christians network is just about zero. You can get your show on the air for free, but even if they give you any money, it won’t be enough to cover the cost of production.
If you want to see your idea become reality, you are going to have to do it. You’re at the bottom, and you have to start moving forward to move up in quality.

That means starting with your script idea and writing it, even if it is horrible. And then keep writing and writing, and creating and creating. Read, learn, study. Get better. improve. Shoot short films. Do projects. Create, and try and keep trying. and keep improving. One day you’ll look back and go, wow, those first things I did were awful. But if you never did your terrible projects, you wouldn’t be able to do your better ones now.

Everyone starts at the bottom of the quality ramp, and if you want to get better you have to keep moving forward.

Releasing Your Episodic Content on Amazon Video/ Amazon Prime

IMG_7243My low budget Christian sitcom Peculiar is now available on Amazon Video! (also my short film BRKN, if you’re interested.)

Since the first episodes started broadcasting in late 2012, I have wanted to see the show available on a major streaming service. Until recently the best (only?) route was to hire an aggregator to try to place your content in iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and anywhere else with a VOD distribution pipeline. Most of those were several hundred dollars up front, no promises. A few would try to place your content for a percentage of what you might make off views/sales.

I’ve never tried to cash in on Peculiar. It wasn’t a huge financial success. Not only did I not have several hundred dollars to spend on this, I didn’t expect to make back any investment that large.  But I do want this series to be available to as many people as possible. After my amicable split with my traditional distributor, I contacted one of the percentage based aggregators. He replied honestly, and not surprisingly, that he felt he could place my show on Amazon, but nowhere else. But I would need to rework the closed caption files. At that time, costs of captioning was a huge hurdle.  I did find a way to get the content onto Amazon Video myself. But, the files would be Standard Definition, not HD. and I could not submit episodic content. I actually questioned an Amazon Create Space representative pretty hard about why this was the case. I never received a satisfactory answer. Any episode I uploaded to Amazon would be low resolution and would stand alone. The only way to get Amazon to group all of the episodes from your series together was to use an aggregator. So I tabled the idea.

Enter Amazon Video Direct. (AVD)

In May of 2016 Amazon announced it’s new service.  Open “to any video creator, the e-commerce giant will compete head-to-head with Google’s YouTube for video-ad dollars and views as well as other big Internet video distributors like Facebook and Vimeo.”  What that boils down to is a way for independent content creators to upload their video creations to Amazon and make them available through the streaming site. You can upload any short, feature, series, documentary… anything, and make it available to Amazon’s streaming audience. The company shares revenue for purchases and pays similar to Youtube for free Prime streaming. You could even set up a subscription service through AVD, but I don’t know much about that.

So, how do you use it?

  1. Got Content? First, of course you need content that you have permission to, or own the rights to distribute in this manner. I don’t yet know how content ID is going to work, but you can bet that like Youtube, computers will be scanning this library to find copyright violations.

  2. Set up your account. You will need to add your bank and tax information before you can publish your content.

  3. Prep your content. AVD supports Pro Res 422, MPEG-2, and h.264 (in certain wrappers. h.264 in a QT .mov wrapper is not supported.). I uploaded my files in a Quicktime Pro Res 422 file. These files are huge. But they are also pretty much lossless, when compared to the MPEG2 or h.264 formats. Plus I had my series stored in this format. But upload speed is critical. Try to find a commercial connection you can use. It would take me days to upload just one file if I tried to do this at home. If you have 5.1 surround audio, then you will need to use either the MPEG 2 or h.264 file format.

  4. Prep Your captions. You must have closed captioning. Period. The end. Luckily, there are quite a few ways to get captions for your content. You can pay, but if you use Adobe Premiere CC, you can create them inside the editor. I already had .scc files from when my show was broadcast. But they were 608, roll up captions, and timed for a 28:30 show with 2:00 breaks. Adobe CC imported them like a champ, and allowed me to make edits as needed. I exported the 608 captions to a “sidecar” .scc file and we were good to go. AVD can take 608 or the much nicer 708 captions. Both can be created in Adobe CC. This is the single biggest hurdle for publishing videos on AVD. I gave up on a 708 caption file I created myself for a standalone short film, and I am still having issues with their process. I have only been able to get an .scc 608 caption file to work for content with a 29.97 fps, so far. Even 608 captions for 24p content with an .xml caption file have been rejected. [Update: In the end a 608.srt file worked with 24p content. In my experience 2 file types that Premiere can create that work with AVD: 30fps can use .scc 608, 24fps can use .srt 608.]

  5. Prep Your Graphics. Before you can publish your videos, you need a graphics package. This is what Amazon shows people when they look for your content. There are key graphics and a background graphic. Follow the image size requirements, and choose something that will catch the eye of your audience. I had a set of promotional images I’ve used for the show for years, so I adjusted them to fit these sizes. Episodic content requires both a 16×9 key image and a 4:3 Key image. (Standalone content requires 16×9 and a 3:4 image.)

  6. Upload. If you have a series, you don’t have to upload every file at the same time. You will need to have all the metadata filled in, cast and crew, graphics, etc… and then select the video files and captions, select the availability of the content. If you want to sell a season pass, you need at least 3 episodes uploaded. You can select when you want the content to be available, but I just chose as soon as possible.

  7. Publish. Once you think you have everything ready, hit Publish. If you forgot anything, you will have the chance to correct it. Then be prepared to wait. It takes Amazon a few days to look at your content and publish it. You will see small green circles for the areas the content will eventually be available. They should be half full and green. Once everything is approved and live, they will be all green. I published episodes over a period of time. My “circles” would still be half full, but episodes would already be available for viewing. Once every video file has been approved, then it will show completed. What if you want to change something? Then just go back into the dashboard of AVD, re upload the file, change the txt, etc… and hit save. Then wait several days again for the changes to take effect.

  8. Promote. Amazon has instructions on how to link to the streaming page for your content, and some “Watch on Amazon” graphics. And of course, you will want to let your existing audience know about this new outlet.

So far over 350 minutes of content have been watched. That will pay me… less than $1.00. But that’s OK, I’m not trying to get rich on Amazon, I want people to see the projects I’ve been a part of. If you can navigate the tricky caption requirement, making your content available on Amazon Video open it up to a whole new, pretty large, audience.

[Update: 8 months later, I consistently make 4-5 times more for views of the 12 videos I have on AVD vs the 60+ videos I have on Youtube. I’ve done nothing but make it available, no advertising, very little promotion.]

Producing Videos in Another Language

I speak English. I know a few words in other languages, but not enough to say I speak them.

Recently we were in a series that highlighted several testimonies from people in our congregation that were living out the Gospel. One of those testimonies was from a Spanish language speaker.

Obviously, since I don’t speak fluent Spanish, this was a challenge. Here’s how we did it:

During the interview I had someone there to translate. He gave me a synopsis of the answers during the live interview, so I could follow up.

Later I sent a video cut of just the answers to him. He typed out a complete manuscript for each answer. I made paper edits to that manuscript. This saved time, and helped create content that I used for subtitles later.

Then he came into the edit bay and helped me make the actual cuts to the video. A few times he suggested slight changes which sounded better to his ears.

Then I took the manuscript and broke down the text into titles for the English viewers. And he reviewed these for timing.

It took a bit of extra work, but we were able to share a compelling testimony with our entire congregation, instead of just Spanish speakers.

I Met a Homeless Man Last Night, and It Could Have Been Me.

bench-areaIt’s Sunday afternoon, and my wife texts me. She has been running, and it turns out she stopped to talk to a homeless man on the trail. After I chastised her about approaching strangers, she explained that she had felt God prompting her to interact with him. He wasn’t asking for anything, he was just walking. He seemed nice, and she offered to buy him dinner. The plan was for me to go get some food and meet him at the end of the trail.

15 minutes later I’m at the trailhead with a bag of Chipotle. After a while I wonder if he decided to forgo the free dinner offer. It’s getting dark. The out of the gloom I see a lone figure emerge. We meet at the picnic tables, and the first words out of his mouth are concern about my wife’s safety. He must have said about 10 times how she should be careful talking to men she doesn’t know. She doesn’t normally do this kind of thing, but when God moves, it’s good to listen.

I presented the food and we started talking. He was obviously grateful for the meal, and I got the impression that he would agree to anything I asked. I did not feel any urge to share the entire Gospel presentation with him. Weird, right? Instead I felt confident that any declaration he made for Christ that evening would simply be out of gratitude for the gesture of a meal, and not out of any conviction of the Holy Spirit. Later my wife confirmed she had felt the same way when they first spoke. He knew about religious things. He was open when I told him about a local ministry that can help him, and I know shares the Gospel. But this meeting wasn’t about his salvation. It was about meeting a physical and emotional need. Physical because a man’s gotta eat. Emotional, because people need to talk with other people. So we did, we talked a while.

His story wasn’t so different from many I’ve heard. He had a cash job lined up for this morning. He was new to the area, and really wanted to make it to Shreveport. I told him what I knew about shelters and such in the area. then I asked why he was heading for Shreveport. He didn’t answer that question, but he did tell me how he ended up homeless.

He was a single guy, working where he could. He was working for cash, detailing semi trucks. Got hurt on the job, and there wasn’t any Workman’s Comp for a job like that. 4 months in the hospital; Mounting medical bills and no income. He said he lost his car, his stuff and then his place to live. He’d been living like most Americans, in debt up to his neck, and it was all gone. He never got around to saying what his destination held for him, some glimmer of hope to regain his footing. He’d obviously been out on the road for a while. He said he hoped his work this week would give him enough cash for the $28 bus ticket to Shreveport. He never asked me for anything, and seemed truly grateful for a hot meal on a cool evening.

As I left him to eat his dinner, I couldn’t help reflecting on my own past. When I was single, living up to my neck in debt. I wasn’t working for cash, but I didn’t have health insurance, and when I blew out the ACL on my knee it looked pretty bad. I could have been fired from my job, I might not have had access to a non profit hospital that would write off some of the cost. My employer didn’t have to pay for $5000 of the surgery costs our of his own pocket (and begin providing health coverage). I could have been saddled with the entire cost of surgery/recovery and left with no income, massive debt and no choice but to try to get home to my parents. I don’t think I would have ended up homeless, but things could have been much worse.

When you drive by people on the street, it’s easy to look down and ask why they didn’t do things differently. And there are plenty of so-called “chronically homeless” who don’t want to get off the street. But sometimes it’s just a run of bad luck, and a guy trying to get somewhere that can give him a break, a leg back up into a more normal life.

if a bowl of spicy chicken an give him energy for a day of physical labor, which might lead to a bus ticket, I’m glad to help.

Live Directing is a Team Sport

front1mepanelMany weekends I am I the director chair,  calling cameras during the weekend services at my church. Other times I’m in the TD spot, punching buttons as another director calls the shots.

I have to confess, I’m not sure what my direction always looks like. I know what I see in my mind. And I know if the members of the team executed the calls correctly. But I don’t always know what it looks like as it goes down. I hope it looks like what I imagined.

As you call cameras, you have 3 things in mind all the time: the shot you were just on, the shot you’re on now, and the shot you’re going to next. And sometimes you even have a fallback shot in mind. As soon as a camera comes free, you are calling the next direction to that operator, while you are waiting for the timing to go to the next shot after the camera you are currently on. It’s a continuous flow of past, present, and future imagery. If you have a good crew, they can help you out by getting shots you like without much direction. But even the best operators can’t read your mind. Much of directing is communicating complex instructions quickly, clearly, and succinctly.

Then there are the times that you get into the zone, and you know the song, and what your camera folks can do. And you can truly be immersed in the worship moment, as you are calling cameras. That’s when it’s fun! You have to find this place where you’re focused on executing the technical and artistic parts of the service and able to worship. That’s only possible if we are all doing our part.

So, there’s about a million things going on. I’m not always conscious of what the shots actually look like, I’m always conscious of what I want them to look like. You cannot direct and micromanage at the same time. You have to turn loose and trust that the team will execute the orders you give. Sometimes you might see a camera op get into focus trouble, or go shaky, and you have to clear off that shot faster than you plan. So you know when things don’t go as planned. But it’s not until I watch the program back that I know exactly what it looks like.

You must trust the team. It’s a creative process, and everyone involved has a part. if it looks good, it’s just as much the result of talented team members as it is competent direction.

Churches Should Produce Non Traditional Religious Programming

MY showI used to work for a church that has been on the air with a traditional TV program for over 5 decades. In the Orlando metroplex, they reach about 100,000 viewers per week with their Christian program. It consists of a song or two from the service, and the message from the pastor. It is a fairly traditional church television program. When I was on staff a few years ago and had access to the data, I saw that we were reaching a predominately older crowd (75% of viewers were over age 55.) It was, and still is, a good work and it ministers to a lot of people in central Florida.

And because of the nature of non profit educational license religious channels and networks, there will always be a need for preaching/teaching shows in Christian TV. But those shows will continue to reach older, religious audiences. And will continue to not reach younger ones.

What if you took the money used to produce the program and buy airtime, and used it to produce programming that appeals to younger audiences? The churches I’ve worked for with TV programs spent between $30,000 and $250,000 on airtime purchases every year. Plus they had one or more staff people who were primarily focused on producing the content for the program every week. Conservatively estimating salary, taxes, insurance, etc… let’s say $50,000 annually.  That’s quite a bit of money in the indie production world.

What if you invested that money into creating video content that reflected a biblical world view, but wasn’t a traditional worship service/preaching program? What if it was something that told a story and, like a parable, taught truth at the same time?

Who would it be for?

People who don’t watch traditional religious programming. More specifically, find a target demographic in a group pf potential audiences members that don’t already consume traditional religious programming.

According to Pew Research, Older Americans watch more religious TV. Younger Americans are engaging in religious content online.

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Young audiences watch a lot of video content. 18-24 year olds still watch over 16 hours of TV per week, but that number is declining. The TV that they do watch is not traditional Christian TV programming. And they are increasingly watching video online. The older the demographic is, the more broadcast TV they watch.

We don’t need shows that target the 65 year old Christian, we already have those. We need churches to develop programs targeted at younger audiences that do not already watch religious programming.

How much would it cost?

The cost depends on what sort of show you are making. I’m most familiar with narrative programming. But you could do other sorts of shows that are not preaching/teaching/worship based.

If you do narrative, obviously, your church probably won’t be paying scale for actors and crew. Most of the people involved will be doing it as a ministry project. But unless you have no money at all, you should try to pay people something. I’ve done a show for no money before. It can be done, but it’s not sustainable long-term.

What if you could come up with $100 per day for the main cast and crew? That’s not scale, and there would be taxes taken out, etc… but $100. I have generally been able to shoot an episode in 4 days or less. If you have 4 main actors, and a crew with director, camera, audio and PA, you are looking at $800 per day. $3200 per episode. Plus any gear, additional actors, insurance, food, etc… $5000-5500 per episode. That may seem like a lot, but it is nothing compared to what network programming costs per episode.

At $5500, a 6 episode run would cost $33,000. 13 episodes would cost $71,500. This is assuming someone on your church’s staff is writing and producing the program, filling in the show running duties. And someone on staff would be doing the post work as well. One person cannot do it all, so you will need some help. Filmmaking and TV production is a team sport. Bare bones, on a shoe-string, you could make 6-13 episodes of a show for less than the cost of air time and a staff position in many markets. Other kinds of show may cost more or less depending on what all is involved in creating them.

How would people see it?

You just spent your airtime budget on production. How is anyone going to see it?

-Christian TV is begging for narrative content.

Literally begging because they can’t/won’t pay for it, but also begging because they want it badly.

It’s tempting to ignore broadcast television altogether. But even though the number is dropping, according to Accenture Digital Consumer survey, over half of TV shows and movies are still watched on TV. So it’s not a horrible place to be. And given the state of the religious TV market, you could have your show broadcast around the world for free. You might even get a little bit of money back to go toward the production of the program. One network my show was on was able to cover the cost of closed captioning. Traditional Christian programs have to purchase air time, but non traditional ones have a lot of effective, free options for broadcast.

Putting a Christian TV show on a Christian network is not way to reach the masses. The vast majority of viewers are Christians. I know that isn’t surprising, but I want to be clear that a program on Christian TV will be mostly seen by Christians. That’s OK, discipleship is something the church should be doing, and this is an avenue to disciple believers beyond the walls of your building.

You can produce programming that might appeal to non Christians, and broadcast it through non religious outlets, but it will cost more. Be sure to count the cost before you head down this road. There might be ways to mitigate those costs, but there will be costs.

-The internet is free.

It’s also very big. You cannot just throw a video on Youtube and expect it to reach thousands of people. If you have a video that has been seen by over 100 people, then you are in the top 30% of all Youtube videos. 300 hours of content is uploaded every minute! Youtube is massive. It’s the 2nd largest search engine, behind Google. So, most content is not seen by a lot of people. In order to be effective online you must have a marketing strategy. You need to develop an audience.

As a church you have a great foundation in your own congregation. Not only should you be mobilizing them to watch, but mobilize them to be encouraging their sphere of influence to watch as well. Last year my church did a campaign to get people to share their testimony through social media. It was not as successful as we had hoped. Still, I was able to locate over 80 videos that had been uploaded in the project, and I know that was just part of the ones uploaded over all. Those 80 videos had been seen over 200,000 times. Even if only a small portion of your congregation engages, you can still reach a lot of viewers.

Does your church have a ministry to help parents teach their kids about the Bible at home? How about developing a program that targets young mothers, and touches on subjects that they will have to face as they teach their own kids? Do a lot of mission trips? Send a video crew out with your teams, and produce a program that highlights the importance and impact of being in involved in missions.

Find something you are passionate about, that fits into the strategic vision of your church. Develop a program that targets younger audiences who would be interested in programming about that theme. Build a team, and make the show.

 

 

Micro Syndication: Is this the Solution for Indie Christian TV?

tv imageI have written about this before, but I wanted to talk about it again. Christian TV is upside down. Content creators buy time on educational licensed stations so they can then ask for money from viewers. I never paid for airtime with my show, Peculiar,  but most of the time we didn’t get money either. Only one network gave us anything, and that was just to help with paying for closed captioning.

In most cases on religious stations/networks the most you can hope for is free air time. Your program costs money to make, and you want to sell it to them. They can’t sell ads to cover the time, so they aren’t buying. There are a few networks that could afford to buy programming, but they don’t. That’s a problem for shows that don’t ask for donations, because it still costs money to make them.

So what can you do with your program?

Micro Syndication. This is an idea I want to try with my next series. It will be a lot of work, but I don’t see why this wouldn’t work.

The goal is to buy time on a for-profit network locally, and sell advertising during your paid programming. I went as far as pricing the air time on this once before. There are stations that will let you do it.

First you need a program. You’re going to have to have at least the pilot, and likely a few more episodes done before you can implement this. The program needs to be 22:30 with 6:00 of breaks. That’s room for twelve :30 spots. Your program must have space for advertisers, or it won’t work. And your program has to be something people want to see, or it won’t work for long.

Second you need a media buying agency. You could do this yourself, but once you get beyond a couple markets, the relationships your agency has will serve you well, and they can find deals you will miss. They know when and where you can find time near shows that are similar to yours. And you want that.

Third you need a sales agent to find sponsors for your program. They will get a percentage of each ad they sell, but they should be local to the station you’re trying to get on.  Their first calls should be to people in the pages of any Christian Business Indexes for the area your trying to broadcast in. They aren’t just selling spots, their selling a vision. You’re delivering viewers during a program with content they want to support.

The Process:

In a target market have your media buyers shop for a good spot for your program. Find out what it will cost per week. See if they can work in some ads to promote your program.

Once you know how much your program will cost per week, figure out how much to sell spots for. There are a couple of ways to go about this. You could just do a flat rate for every spot. Or you could charge more for different locations in the show. For instance, if you have a strong program in front of your show, one :30 spot right up top could cost more since they will be getting viewers who have stayed from the previous program. For the purpose of this post, let’s say they are all priced the same.

Example (Smaller Market):

  • Weekly airtime cost = $400
  • 12 spots at $50 per spot = $600
  • 20% of $600 for sales agent= $120
  • $80 “profit” per week.

That’s not much. And not a lot of wiggle room if a sponsor drops out. But you could get things off the ground with this. The goal isn’t to generate enough revenue from one market, but to get lots of markets bringing in revenue so you can afford to make more programs. Replicate this in 10 markets and you’ve got $800 per week. $41,600 annually. 20 markets is $83,200. There are hundreds of markets in America. Every one will be different, and will be very hard to expand into any of them.

Example (Larger Market):

  • Weekly airtime cost = $750
  • 12 spots at $90 per spot = $1080
  • 20% of $900 for sales agent = $216
  • $114 “profit” per week

Finally, sell the spots and buy the time. Gather the spots, embed in the shows and deliver them to the stations.

Make no mistake, this is a huge amount of work. And you’re not bringing in the kind of revenue that allows a big staff. And while you are managing all this, you need to be creating more content. If it was easy, everyone would do it.

How can you make this work better? Reduce costs.

Can you get the airtime for less per week? In the smaller example, at $300 for airtime you’re bringing in $180. That’s $2340 for a 13 week run. $9360 annually. From one market. But this is a balance. The better the time, the more expensive the time. Your buyer needs to be aggressive.

Can you charge more for ads? Your media buyers should be able to tell you what ads in your time slot would go for. Christian who are business owners may be willing to give a little more to support the kind of programming you are creating. $60 per spot? $75? With a discount for multiple spots in a program? I once paid $3500 for a :30 spot in the bottom half of the hour during a season finale on a major network. If you have the audience, people will buy the spots for more.

Work out a trade with a station. They give you the time, you provide the audience, and you split the ads spots. In the smaller market, you’d be looking at $300 per week in revenue. This becomes tricky with the media buyers, because you still need to pay for their services for that market. They will want, and you should be willing to pay for, their cut for buying the time. You should still clear more revenue per market, per week. But you need to show the station that you have an audience in their market.

This is going to be a lot of work.

Issues to Overcome:

Selling spots. You have to keep the spots sold, or you will sink. That’s it.

Placement. You have to have the program in the best time slot. Cheap enough to allow you to sell spots. Good enough that people will watch your show. 3:00 AM will be cheap, but no one will watch. Without viewers, it’s a waste.

Why not use a network? The key, at least initially, is local advertisers. It’s definitely possible to go to a cable network and buy time regionally and nationally, but it’s a lot of money. (Even Christian networks can charge $5000 for a 30-minute slot.)  You’ve got potential advertisers on the local level. But, they won’t pay to advertise their business where they don’t sell products. Until you can prove your show can draw a good audience, the regional and national sponsors aren’t going to be an option. You might have dreams of going to an Interstate Batteries or Chic Fil A for sponsorship, but they are going to want some ratings and proof of audience before they spend any money. So start local.

Why bother with traditional broadcasting? We know that online viewing and streaming is on the rise. TV viewing is declining. But it’s not dead yet. People still watch 140+ hours of TV per month. How to generate revenue online is a huge topic, and we should be working toward a sustainable model there as well. But in the meantime there is still an audience for your program watching traditional broadcasts.

Video Workload: You Get What You Pay For

quality triangleBased on a true story. Details have been changed and names withheld. Stories like this are too common.

Once upon a time there was a large church which had 2 staff members who, in addition to other duties, created videos for the ministry. The two staff members were overworked. They had completed over 40 video projects from start to finish in the last year, in addition to keeping the live video for services and events functioning, and other odds and ends projects. These two staff members almost always did all pre production, production and post themselves, without any help. None of the 40+ projects had any budget beyond a few hundred dollars in a catch-all line item of the organization’s budget.

Some of these 40+ videos were simple talking-heads, while others were much more complicated. The lead time on these videos ranged from as much as 2 weeks to as little as 24 hours. As you might guess, some of the videos weren’t as high quality as they might have been, and a few leaders on the staff wondered why that was. The two video staff members never sat down with their supervisors and explained what it would take to have high quality videos produced at a pace that was sustainable.

One day the leaders of the church were in meeting talking about an important video project. They decided that they couldn’t risk this video looking bad. It must look great, communicate well, and be professionally done. So they decided to outsource the video project to “professional” videographers. The leaders did not reach out to their overworked staff to handle this project, but instead took it upon themselves to hire a team to execute this production.

They asked the most vocal critic of the video quality of the church, a photographer, to produce this project. He hired some amazing talent to help; there was one of the best cinematographers in the area, a top notch editor, an ex news reporter to help with interviews, and of course the photographer would take pictures as well as produce the project. For this important project they were given a 6 week lead time. The professionals groused and grumbled about the lack of time to do their best work, but agreed to give it a try. The church leaders never asked to see a quote.

During the 6 week timeframe, the professional video team accidentally ruffled feathers and caused misunderstandings because they didn’t know the normal procedures of the church. The two video staff members were sometimes asked detailed questions about the video project, even by the same church leaders who decided to bypass them, but they we unable to answer. Much of the church leadership was in the dark about the project until it was revealed.

The weekend finally came when the video was to be unveiled. A video staff member received a download link with a message that music used in the video could not be broadcast or streamed on the internet. The message was delivered just hours before the video was supposed to be used in the service which was streamed and broadcast. They reported this to their supervisor, who told them to try to get the rights, and if they couldn’t, then ask the editor to replace the music. The professional editor didn’t have a grasp on how the end product was supposed to be used. The video staff spent Saturday afternoon negotiating with the publisher of the song, and came to an agreement on licensing. The cost for this license for one song from an unknown, indie-musician was almost $1000.

Church leadership had just received the first inkling of what this video was going to cost.

The video itself was a 7-minute masterpiece. Beautifully shot. Brilliant story interwoven with highlights and interviews. It was very well done. Everyone was pleased.

Then the bill arrived.

The final bill came back at about 1/2 the annual salary of one of the staff video guys. For one project. As the invoices came in church leaders were aghast. They certainly expected to pay more than they ever had for any video project before. But for the bill to total in the tens of thousands? What were they paying for? The supervisor of the staff video producers asked if these numbers were normal. With the exception of the photo/producer’s invoice which was inflated and the “interviewer’s” invoice which was absurd, the rest was not only normal, but the charges were less than they should have been for the time required. The rental was reasonable, and the day rates obviously discounted.

Most members of the professional team were trying to give the church a break, but the church leaders had no idea what it costs to do video projects of this caliber. The staff members who had been responsible for the video work had not educated the leaders who assigned the work. instead, they just did what they were told as best as they could.

In the end, invoices were paid (Though some were negotiated lower) and for a time church leaders had a better understanding of what it costs do produce amazing video content. But they didn’t increase the budget for any of their other projects, and within a few weeks the time lines for projects were as short as ever before. A few months later, the 2 staff members no longer worked for the organization.

What’s the moral of this story?

If you want high quality video it costs. It costs time and money. The quality triangle applies. Good, fast, cheap: Pick two, you can’t have the third. 

You get what you pay for. The producers on staff should have talked to leadership about how the truncated timelines with no extra budget were impacting the quality of their projects. And church leadership should have listened.

How many churches throw so much work on a tech that he cannot execute most of his duties with excellence, and then become frustrated with lower quality results… and begin looking for a replacement? How many techs are afraid to speak to their bosses about unrealistic expectations because they fear being fired or worse, sidelined?

Techs, save yourself the headaches of stories like this one. Talk to your team, your staff leadership. Let them know what your workload is, and how it affects your performance. Learn how to speak and explain in a way that they can understand. Ask for help if you need it. Church leaders want amazing ministry. We’re in this together. If something they are doing is impacting quality, they want to know. A lot of leadership (anywhere, not just churches) is allocating time and resources based on circumstances. Your boss can’t lead you if you won’t give him critical information about how you can best do your work, and deliver excellence.