The group of seasoned pastors looks attentively at the big projection screen. They catch a preview of Big Questions, a major film project financed by the Australian Union Conference (AUC), seeking to reach an increasingly secular population in a country where less than 5 percent enter regularly any church. They pay close attention during the 27-minute pilot episode, and when asked to comment, they jump in, full-throated, good-natured, and enthusiastic. Grenville Kent, the producer and writer of this project, is working hard to keep up taking notes. Beginning in November of 2009 when an edited version of the film was available, Kent and Graeme Christian, ministerial secretary of AUC, have spent weeks on the road, listening to church members, nonchurched people, students, pastors, administrators, and anybody else willing to have a look at the film. As a result of careful market research, the team produced a different edit of “The Artificial Albatross,” the first episode of the film series BigQuestions: Does God Exist? Focus groups suggest that they are now reaching their target.
Christians (including Adventists) often speak a veritable form of churchese, a language that is not easily understood by secular people. Kent, a passionate pastor and lecturer who holds degrees in film and theology (including a Ph.D. in Old Testament from the University of Manchester in England), is aware of this challenge. That’s why he is so eager to find the right tone and speak an understandable language—without watering down the content or just portraying a feel-good, tame God. Just like Paul on the Areopagus at Athens (Acts 17:16-33) this exciting project speaks a language that can be easily understood by people who do not know churchese, but who, according to Australian psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg, sense a “hole in their soul” and are “spiritual anorexics.”1
A Quick Preview
If you could have a peek at the first episode of Big Questions and see Kent and his 7-year-old son, Marcus, following the human dream of birdlike flight and its imperfect realization, beginning from French aviator Jean-Marie Le Bris to the giant Airbus A380, or watching model planes battle wild winds on Kangaroo Island, you would quickly realize that this is a fun film to watch. Both presenters enjoy what they are doing and are able to ask penetrating questions, without looking for confrontation. Here is one: How is it possible that the albatross, the bird with the biggest span and seemingly too heavy for regular flight, is one of the best long-distance fliers, covering tens of thousands of miles every year? Even though huge aerospace companies such as Boeing and Airbus have invested billions in order to understand and harness these design nuances, human flight machines are no match for the design of the albatross.
However, the presenters do not talk too much themselves. Rather, they lead the audience with them. Jetting around the world (from Paris to Oxford to New Zealand), they ask insightful questions to representatives of the new atheist movement (represented by well-known chemistry professor Peter Atkins from Oxford) and those scientists who see an intelligent design option (such as renowned Oxford professor of mathematics John Lennox).
Big Questions is not only the title of a series. It also marks the mind-set of its producers and backers. They are willing to ask big questions—and ask even more questions when things are not clear. Many of the answers lead them to put the option of intelligent design on the table as a better explanation than natural selection and macroevolution. In churchese we would call this creation.
“The Artificial Albatross” is only the first of a series of thirteen 27-minute films that ask big questions. After much market research, soul searching, and feedback from hundreds of church members and workers, the Australian Union Conference voted in May 2010 to put significant financing behind the rest of the series. That vote sent Kent and his team scrambling to get a head-start on the next two or three years of writing scripts, shooting film around the world, asking profound questions of top specialists, and editing the resulting material. They will not stop listening to their audience and taking the pulse of a society and culture that is asking many questions.
Pastor Chester Stanley, president of AUC, located in Melbourne, Australia, is a great believer in reaching nonchurched people and the driving force behind this project. Without his support and vision Big Questions would have (almost certainly) not made it to the screen. He is all about resourcing Seventh-day Adventists for mission—whether confirming the faith of Adventist young people under worldview attack at secular universities, or giving pastors an excellent new addition to the expanding evangelistic toolbox. He can see Adventist families, who want to use their living room as a place for reaching out to their community, making use of the films. The project design, however, calls for more than a film series. The completed project will include a major apologetics volume, a do-it-yourself seminar pack, a correspondence course, and an appealing Internet presence for a generation that has embraced social networks and lives on Facebook or YouTube.
Historically, Adventist scholars have not been much involved in basic Christian apologetics. True, some early Adventist pioneers were great debaters and loved to contend with those who argued for Sunday over Sabbath or other controverted doctrinal issues. In fact, they were so successful that nobody really wanted to debate them, and Ellen White felt compelled to admonish the brethren to tone it down.2 Winning an argument was not equal to winning a brother or sister for Christ.
But their successors have not always excelled in presenting the evidence for God’s existence, the historicity of Scripture, creation, and other hot topics that are on the minds and hearts of secular or open-minded (or quasi-religious) people all around the globe.3 More often than not, our mission strategy takes for granted some type of Christian know-how. However, the world has changed. People have changed, and in a postmodern world with its latent relativism, many people ask questions that need good answers. Big Questions is talking to these people around us at this basic level.
God Is Opening Doors
Both Stanley and Kent clearly see God’s hand in this project. If you have ever had the chance to visit Australia you would know that Qantas, the national airline, is a major iconic brand name in that country. It is impossible to get Qantas to open its planes and hangars for TV crews—even crews from the major networks. However, the Big Questions team wanted to include the Airbus A380 and Qantas received one of the first planes of this type. After polite but firm official refusal, Kent met the director for maintenance of Qantas who—after hearing about the project—invited the crew to film the A380. This, in turn, opened the doors to visit the main Airbus production facility near Paris. God did the borderline-impossible—and, while doing so, also guarded the production budget.
A similar experience helped also with the extensive market research—most likely one of the most wide-ranging market research endeavors ever done for a specific outreach project of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Through a number of divine interventions the team was able to secure the services of McCrindle Research, one of the leading Australian market research companies (with huge corporate clients such as Pepsi, McDonalds, etc.), for a special price and received immensely helpful feedback. In the final report McCrindle stated that almost half of the respondents indicated that watching Big Questions influenced their worldview or beliefs. Further research regarding the state of Australian spirituality was done by another research firm, Windshift, whose results will not only benefit this project but impact the design of future outreach strategies of the AUC in a major way.
When Kent is asked about this project, he has a hard time containing himself, bubbling over with more stories of intervention by the “Invisible Producer.” What drives him is the knowledge that, through big or small miracles, God has made a way for this to become a reality.
As the team gets ready to produce and shoot future episodes, they are aware of great opportunities—not just in Australia, but worldwide—to reach people without any Christian background whatsoever. They are excited to see translated versions of the films reaching European or Asian or Middle Eastern minds. Big Questions provides helpful answers, inviting people to consider the possibility that we are not alone, that life is not an accident, and that the hole in our soul can be filled by One who was ready to go the second mile, who loves colors, oceans, people—and yes—questions.
1 Quoted in Peter Gregory, “Violent Youths ‘Can Be Changed,’” The Age, Oct. 1, 2009, p. 3.
2 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 1, pp. 624-626; vol. 3, pp. 212-221, 424-428.
3 See, for example, the excellent volumes of C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, or William Lane Craig.
Gerald A. Klingbeil is an associate editor of Adventist World who enjoys asking good questions and discovering divine answers. You can visit the project Web site at www.bigquestions.com or watch a three-minute trailer of the pilot episode at www.adventistworld.org.
Read 756 times Last modified on Thursday, 26 March 2015 04:58