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.

 

 

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First eBook Submitted for Publishing

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This morning I submitted my first eBook to Kindle for publishing!

14,502 words, 12 chapters, about how I took Peculiar from concept to worldwide broadcast. I cover everything from the Christian TV market, to writing and producing the show, to getting it on the air for free.

Find out more info at www.peculiarprogramming.com.

The book is in review right now, but will be available on Kindle in the next couple of days.

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Why We Shouldn’t Have Won the NRB Media Award for Best Creative TV Programming

NRB-Award-2013-410x410Last week National Religious Broadcasters announced that Peculiar would receive a 2014 NRB Media Award for Best Creative TV Programming. That’s a huge honor.

NRB has been around for 70 years. Every year they give out awards for various categories in the different media disciplines. Getting one is kind of a big deal in some circles. This isn’t some fly by night organization that just decided do some awards.

So, when I first heard we had won, I was surprised, pleased, proud of my team. What we did with a volunteer cast and crew on a micro budget is amazing by anyone’s standards.

But then I realized… We shouldn’t have won.

Not because we had done something wrong, or it didn’t meet the criteria, or anything like that. We shouldn’t have won because we shouldn’t have been the best program submitted.

I’m not blind. I can see the other winners in other categories. Any objective comparison of production quality will show that we are not in the same ballpark. Of course, they are using millions of dollars in equipment with a decent budget while we got by on borrowed gear and a dream. Nothing wrong with that, but we are not in the same league.

Now, I know creativity and story can overcome lack of production values. It doesn’t matter if the video is mind blowing if the story stinks. A bad story would still stink, no matter how good it looked. We can see that every year on major networks. They spend millions producing pilots that look amazing but don’t get picked up because they don’t work, aren’t good, etc…

But let me just be transparent. I am not the most creative guy alive. Sure, I can come up with a good idea. But for my first show out of the gate to win this award, well, color me shocked. I know I need to learn more about writing, directing, producing, and everything else. There are better producers, writers, directors, show runners out there. There are more creative people out there.

In Christian TV there aren’t a lot of shows like Peculiar. I can count on one hand the number of Christian sitcoms I have seen, and have fingers left. Same goes for Christian dramas. For whatever reason, there just aren’t many in production. But there should be.

I know that in Christian TV a lot of money changes hands. Some of the major networks, they take in millions and millions on the course of the year.

What if some of these networks or stations took just a portion of their budget, and hired producers to create creative programming? And took a bit more of the budget and earmarked it for production?

Imagine if a network set aside $1 million, and hired 5 show runners to produce 5 different series of shows (13 episodes each). Imagine if they set aside a one decent salary and a $100,000 budget for production.

Don’t tell me it can’t be done for that. I produced 10 episodes for under $9000 total. If some had handed me a $100,000 budget and paid me a salary, imagine what we could have done. Peculiar would be the same show, but 10 times better.

And don’t tell me they don’t have it. I know it would require retooling the budget, obviously. But there are networks that have it. And it could be focused on making new programming, creative programming. It’s a matter of priorities. Is it a priority to reach generations we are missing with our current content? (I am really trying to resist the urge to sermonize about this point…)

Of course, the question immediately follows: A network or station taking $100,000 earmarked for something else and investing in a new venture? What’s the return on investment? How do you recoup the money?

At first, you don’t.

The Christian TV market isn’t set up to do normal TV. As the station/network you can fill break slots with fundraising content and provoke some viewers to send in money. But that sort of thing is dying off. Younger viewers are not as likely to respond to that sort of request.

Maybe the key is selling digital copies? Maybe working with a distributor to get a DVD placed, and digital versions available for purchase on iTunes and the like.

Maybe it’s doing more “enhanced underwriting”. What’s enhanced underwriting?

Here’s an excerpt from an article on transition.fcc.gov:

“In 1984, the FCC granted stations more flexibility by adopting a policy of “enhanced underwriting,” which permitted noncommercial stations to broadcast donor and underwriter acknowledgements from for-profit entities. These acknowledgments can include logograms and slogans that identify, but do not promote, sponsoring businesses. They may include business location information, value-neutral descriptions of a product line or service, and brand and trade names along with product or service listings. That is why some underwriting messages resemble ads. Subjects that cannot be mentioned in underwriting announcements include price information, such as discounts, rebates, and interest rates; calls to action; inducements to buy, sell, rent, or lease; and any language that states or implies favor- able comparisons to other like businesses or competitors.”

A show that has viewers can attract sponsors. If the content is driving viewers to the station, then the underwriting becomes a good option for sponsors. This is a delicate balance. You don’t want to do something you shouldn’t or that’s not permitted on the non profit station, but you can do some sponsorships. Plus there is no limit to how you can advertise on the station’s website.

Obviously, an education license station can’t switch to all entertainment programming. There has to be a lot of teaching programs on the air or the station is in danger of losing its license. But creative programming can be done, and done for less money that you would expect. And that’s what younger audiences want to watch.

Being selected for this award is a huge honor. I am so grateful and humbled by it. I couldn’t be prouder of the work my team did on the show. But we shouldn’t have been the best show submitted. We shouldn’t have won because there should be better creative programming than ours on Christian TV.

It’s Dead, it Just Doesn’t Know it Yet

model tombstoneThe paid time/donor model for Christian TV broadcasting is dead. It just doesn’t know it yet.

I know there are program producers and stations and networks that will vehemently disagree with me on this. That’s OK. Eventually, no one will be able to deny this. There are some programs that are still working, but others are reworking what they do because of dropping donations. And it will only get “worse” as time passes.

The practice of paying non-profit, education license TV stations for a block of time, and then asking viewers to buy something or give something to your organization so you can continue to afford to make shows and buy time… is dead. Or at least on life support.

I recently described paid time/donor shows as having a limited shelf life (I’m mixing my metaphors.). These aren’t the same as churches producing teaching/worship shows. Those will always be around, because churches will continue to invest their budget into extending their ministry into their community. But the ones without the church backing, that rely only on donations from viewers, on selling things. Those will become less and less viable. Viewers who faithfully watch and support teaching programs with money are shrinking. They are literally dying off. And as the viewing and giving habits of younger audience members begin to have more of an impact on religious stations, things will begin to change.

The model to replace it hasn’t been fully formed yet. I had hoped to get in on the cusp of that new model, but those of us making shows that we are not buying time for are kind of out on the rough seas, looking for a harbor. (I know, I’m mixing my metaphors again. How about we’re in a private room in the maternity ward, hoping to check out of the hospital? No? You know what I mean.)

Today another network, CTN-Lifestyle, will start broadcasting my show, Peculiar. Not in the middle of the night, but during primetime and 3 bonus times. This cost me nothing but the time to email and ask, and then upload the programs. OK, it also cost me the time, effort, and resources to produce the programs.

This brings the number of networks (groups broadcasting the show to more than one market at a time) broadcasting Peculiar to 5. With 3 individual stations either already broadcasting, or about to start. With more in conversation. The amount of money spent by me to buy this air time is $0.00. It is possible to place programming that appeals to a younger audience on religious stations without buying it.

The flip side is that we cannot expect support from viewers who just want to write us a check. So, how can we afford to make more programs? Even at the super micro budget we had for Peculiar, that’s still a chunk to recoup… and then make enough on top of that to afford to make more episodes.

I did have one network give me a little bit of money for the show. Just enough to cover closed captioning. But that is not the norm. I really want to vent about the realities of Christian TV and it’s upside down funding model. I will restrain myself, and simply say that it stinks.

Retail? I wouldn’t bet on it. So far retails sales of my show’s DVD have been slow. It may eventually make back what we spent to create the show, but not any time soon. Unknown actors, unknown show, unknown director… very hard to reach a tipping point in publicity. For profit company broadcasting on non profit stations, so there’s no direct sales through the broadcast. Someone more skilled in marketing of this kind of thing may have better luck.

So, stations won’t buy it (cause most can’t afford to) and retail is sluggish. Netflix and the like aren’t much better. You might… might… get $10,000 for a streaming deal. That might cover your current production costs, but it won’t cover production for the future. So what’s left?

I’m not sure.

I do know that Christian radio stations sell spots… I mean, provide informational announcements for underwriting sponsors. Maybe a TV show can do something similar? Why not? I’ve spoken with one local religious stations about this. It’s possible. But likely that would be a station to station proposition, and not something that larger networks would consider. Not at this point anyway.

I don’t know the answer. But with the current model on life support, and more and more opportunity for new programming to air, we need to figure it out soon.

What do you think?

Another Christian Sitcom

sitcomHeavenly Help currently has 8 episodes and is broadcast on Parables TV. All of their episodes are available online.

That’s 3 Christian sitcoms I’ve found, counting mine and Pastor Greg, which isn’t in production any more. 3, out of all the religious shows in existence today.

I’m going to try to find out more about Heavenly Help. In the meantime, here’s segment 1 of their pilot:

I found another Christian TV Sitcom… from 2005

sitcomFrom 2005-2008 a Christian sitcom called Pastor Greg filmed 39 episodes.

Created by Greg Robbins, who played the lead, and produced by Uplifting Entertainment, Robbins’ production company, the show as broadcast on Cornerstone Television and TBN. From what I can find, it looks like Cornerstone put up the money for production as well. The cost of first 26 episodes was expected to push Cornerstone $150,000 past their normal operating budget. Apparently Cornerstone stopped producing all other shows, and focused only on this sitcom. Several articles said they filled their airtime with infomercials while in production. According to CBN, the target audience was men and women, 24-54.

By any account, that was not a lot of money to film a sitcom. Under $6000 an episode back in 2005. (Now, that’s a guess. I don’t know what they actually spent. $150k divided by 26 is under $6k.) The big chunk of the budget went to buy 2 HD cameras for the studio. Things have come a long way in video production. According to the reviews on the show’s IMDB page, the show wasn’t well received. I’d wager that they could do a lot better with $6000 per episode today.

The show did have a definite 80’s feel to it, the clips I could watch anyway. I know in my head that it was just taped a few years ago, but it felt like an 80’s comedy. Maybe it was the VO track. The opening was definitely that sort of feel. Some people described it as slapstick.

You can watch full episodes at www.cinevee.com, these are the “Lost Episodes” of the show. You can also order DVDs from this website: http://www.pastorgregsitcom.com

I found a short clip from the pilot on Youtube. I’m pretty sure this isn’t an official posting, so… Don’t now how long it will remain:

Independent Christian TV and Crowdfunding

independtv[Note: There’s a link in this article to the current crowdfunding campaign for the next season of Peculiar.]

I don’t know if this classification already exists, it probably does. To me, it means Christian TV programming that is not financially supported by another organization.

There are many shows that are a part of the broadcast ministry of a church, or attached to a network. Or supported by a ministry of some kind. Then there are shows that are out here, just making TV. If they are set up as non profit, then they are most likely ask for donations on their show and pay for their air time, continuing the paid time/donor model of religious programming.

Last week I was at the National Religious Broadcasters Convention. I talked with 18 different stations and networks about airing Peculiar. Many seemed interested. As hard as it is for me to believe, it seems like I have the only Christian sitcom out there. (Surely, someone else is doing something similar…)

But almost every station and network has a problem with my show. It’s aimed at the wrong demographic. That doesn’t mean they won’t air it, but the fact is, my 18-35 year old target is too young for their audience. It’s a vicious cycle.

Young adults don’t watch religious programming. So Christian program producers don’t make programming that appeals to them, they focus on people they can reach. They do shows for 35-50 year old women, and people age 50+. Then, when a young adult flips through the station they don’t ever see anything they want to watch, so they don’t watch religious programming. And the cycle rolls on.

There are some exceptions out there, but generally large Christian networks don’t do programming for young adults. I talked at length with one network rep, and he seemed very interested in the show. They are creating a new commercial network (trying to navigate the changing nature of religious broadcasting, looking to the future when paid time won’t be viable anymore) but their target is age 35-50 women.

Smaller station are more flexible, and I have several that should begin broadcasting the show as soon as I can get the episodes to them. I hope to find at least one larger network that will take a chance on us.

Meanwhile, I am finding out more each day why no one does what we are doing. They have to fund it somehow. With no large church or ministry or network to finance the show, how do we pay for it?

First, we do it for next to nothing. Quality suffers, but not as much as you would think. You have to be smart, efficient, and be able to cast a clear vision for why people should give of their very precious time to your project. When I showed the rep at that network our promotional piece that listed the ideal budget for each episode, he was shocked that I could do an episode for $5000. I laughed. I told him that was the ideal budget, what I would like to raise so I could pay the people involved a little something. We shot the first 6 episodes of Peculiar for under $3600. Total. Not everyone will have the resources I do, but you can reduce the cost dramatically. I call what we are doing micro-budget.

Second, we use crowd funding sites to raise money. Right now (through April 4th) we are raising money for the new season. We went with IndieGoGo this time, but for the first episodes we used Kickstarter. Both platforms (and many others out there) offer independent TV and filmmakers the chance to find the money for their projects. There are a lot of things that go into a successful crowdfunding campaign, more than I have space for here. So do you homework before you launch.

Meanwhile, we work at it. Keep moving forward. Keep doing freelance work to pay bills.

Saying “No” to the Good, Waiting for the Great

Today I said, “No.”

It was a good opportunity. But it just wasn’t the right time.

I have been producing a Christian sitcom, and working on getting it placed in various outlets. And working on how to generate revenue from it so we can afford to do more.

I had called a few advertising agencies, but this isn’t what they do. So I acted as my own agent and called a couple of local channels. Looking for local insertion, paid time, that would let me sell spots inside my own show. I found one. Decent channel. They agreed to let me do what I wanted, at a decent, but not amazing price in a decent but not amazing time slot.

Based on my estimates, assuming I could sell the ads slots, I would clear between $2000-2600 for the broadcast. Not a small amount, but less than what I had raised to do the first episodes. Definitely not enough to hire some one to sell the time, so I would be the sales guy… and the main post guy.

I really wanted to make this work. I wanted to be able to point to this as an example of how the model could work in other markets. I still think it’s a possibility, but not right now. I spent a lot of time praying and thinking on this, and never got comfortable with the cost versus amount of work. Never got comfortable with the timing.

So, today I let them know I wouldn’t be buying the time right now. It is good to know it is possible. But if I moved forward right now it would be through sheer force of will and charisma. I could make it sort of work, I’m sure. But it wouldn’t be what God has waiting for us down the road.

So I said no to something good, and will wait on something great.

New Old Funding Model for Christian TV

I’ve been producing a show for the past several months. we are smack in the middle of a crazy production schedule, and expect episodes to start dropping the week of October 15th.

The interesting thing about making a TV show without network backing is that things cost money. You don’t actually make any money. And Christian stations don’t/won’t buy the show. So at best you get airtime for free. But on educational license stations, for-profit shows cannot even sell dvd copies of their program. I was stuck trying to figure out how to create a revenue stream.

Not because I want to get rich making TV. I need to have positive cash flow so that we can afford to keep making more episodes. And yes, at some point I would like to be able to do this for a living. Up until now the only revenue stream I will have is through youtube views.

Today I was talking to a friend who owns several Christian TV stations. He recounted a story from back when he was working for a major network affiliate where he traded a religious program air time. The station didn’t buy the show, but rather gave the producer 3:00 minutes worth of ad time. They could sell the spots, and pocket the ad revenue. The station sold the remaining spots.

That got me to thinking. Why couldn’t we do the same thing now?

I get an ad agency to negotiate a 30:00 slot on a weekend for a few commercial stations. They get 3:00 and I get 3:00. I sell six :30 spots in that market (or later as we grow, sell regional spots to larger companies). The sponsors write a check to the ad agency. They take their commission and send the rest of the money on to me.

Let’s say we can sell the spots for $100 each (Just a round number. This is probably too high.) So the episode bills out $600 for one week of play. The ad agency takes 10% and we see $520 come in. Obviously, if we grow this too much it gets out of control. So we hire someone to sell ads for 10%. So we see $480 come in. Per stations, every week. That’s a best case scenario.

Expand to 10 stations and we are tracking $4800 per week. Suddenly we can pay people to be a part of the show. Even at $50 per spot, we would be at $2400. Those are numbers we can work with. I’d take $25 a spot… $1200 per week.

There are still a lot of details to work out, but if this could work… we could do this for real, for the forseeable future.

UPDATE: Of course, finding a station that feels the same way is not that easy. So I have been figuring out, anyway.

Caught in the Middle

I think I’m experiencing what many Christian filmmakers go through: The struggle between making the show you think you should make and making the show you think people will like/support with money/allow to be on their station and making the show somewhere in between.

I know, we shot the pilot for next to nothing. And the next 5 episodes will be shot for not a lot more. We have the capability to do that, but long term that’s not going to work. We have to come up with donors, investors or sponsors. Or some combination of the three.

It’s appealing to think about the established Christian TV model. Make a heartwarming, if somewhat cheesy, story attached to a non profit and watch the donations pour in. But that model is doomed. There’s some life left in it, but it’s not a long term solution. And really, who wants to make shows like that?

Or you could just do what you want. Don Miller and the people who made “Blue Like Jazz” did the movie they wanted. When I was watching I wasn’t sure I liked it. I really thought the main character was a coward. Then at the end, they totally got me. I finished the movie thinking this was the first Christian themed movie that a non Christian might watch without being coerced into it by their Christian friends. It had a lot of content that makes Christian movie watchers/makers uncomfortable: swearing, drugs and alcohol, and a main character who is a lesbian. And then it didn’t go on to condemn or show life transformation on all those people. We finish the movie with the lesbian still being a lesbian. Not a common Christian film.

Of course, it wasn’t accepted by a lot of Christian viewers. Not a big problem when you land distribution through a secular company. That would be a major problem for my show. We have the Youtube channel, but if we want to get broadcast, then we are looking at Christian TV. I don’t think many religious TV stations are going to broadcast anything close to Blue Like Jazz.

Of course, I’m not making Blue Like Jazz, or anything close to it. That’s not to say we are not dealing with issues that many TV shows shy away from. Last night we taped a scene which honestly answered questions about why God would send people to hell. One episode deals with sex and abortion. We’ve got bullying, cheating, politics, Christian sub-culture and even Halloween. But still, these are tame compared to Blue Like Jazz.

If you took Blue Like Jazz and put it on one end, and took the movie Courageous and put it on the other end, then placed my show in the spectrum in between. We would be so, so much closer to Courageous. Neither movie is bad, in my opinion, but both are aimed at different people. Both are telling different stories.

A few weeks ago I was in a meeting with someone about the show, and I had to describe the target audience. I said my goal was to make a show that 13-25 year old believers wouldn’t be embarrassed to watch. One they could tell their friends about.

That means that I can’t be super safe, and make a bland story, following the traditional model of funding and distribution for Christian TV. I want to deal with real issues, and show real people. But I can’t move too far down the continuum or I won’t be able to utilize any of the existing distribution channels. So I’m caught in the middle. But we are getting the show done.

We are working to tell a good story. In doing so, we are showing what it means to really try to live out your faith in the world. We are putting on display the life of a new believer who is trying to develop a biblical worldview. It’s a lot of hard work. And when we are done I am sure that some will say we should have gone farther. And some will say we have gone too far. But in the meantime we are doing our best to tell a good story and follow God’s call on our lives.