What Ministry Resources Are Available For “I Can Only Imagine”, “Paul”, and “God’s Not Dead 3”?

Untitled

Last weekend, the movie industry was collectively stunned when the Erwin Brother’s I Can Only Imagine sold $17 million dollars worth of seats (which roughly equals $1.5 billion in concessions) on a $7 million dollar budget, the 4th best opening for a faith-based film ever.

This weekend, Affirm Films’ new Christian-themed film, Paul, Apostle of Christ, will open, followed Easter weekend by Pure Flix’s third film in the God’s Not Dead franchise, God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness. That’s three major Christian-made films opening across the nation in a two week period, films that have been made both as cinematic experiences as well as ministry opportunities.

This is one of the things that sets the so-called “faith-based film” genre apart from most other genres – the idea that the films are meant to be more than just entertainment, but entertainment with spiritual ramifications: an opportunity to learn about the Christian faith in a non-threatening, neutral environment for those outside the faith, or a chance for spiritual growth for people who are already followers of Jesus Christ.

To illustrate what I mean by this, on the website for I Can Only Imagine, we’re told, “A gripping reminder of the power of forgiveness, I CAN ONLY IMAGINE beautifully illustrates that no one is ever too far from God’s love—or from an eternal home in Heaven.” Paul, Apostle of Christ has a page on it’s website where James Faulkner, who plays Paul in the film, reads portions of Scripture as a tool for Christians observing the season of Lent. The makers of God’s Not Dead 3: Light in the Darkness sayGOD’S NOT DEAD: A LIGHT IN DARKNESS is a powerful reminder that in all circumstances, we are called to be a light for Jesus to a world in desperate need of hope.”

And so Christian-made filmmakers will often develop ministry tools to encourage churches and individuals to take the film as more than just entertainment. This can be interpreted in at least three ways: one, that the filmmakers are genuinely wanting their films to make a spiritual impression on audiences; two, that the filmmakers recognize that ministry resources are another revenue stream and an encouragement to sell bulk tickets to entire churches; and three, a combination of the two.

The second option might seem cynical, but it can’t be disputed that filmmaking – even Christian-made filmmaking – is big business. It’s especially indisputable now that we are living in a time where three modestly budgeted Christian-made films featuring well known actors are being released in thousands of cinemas across the country in two weeks. These films represent hundreds of filmmaking professionals, thousands of hours of work, millions of dollars of investment, and so it makes sense that many decisions connected to these films are directly related to the potential big payoffs that will hopefully accompany them. But at the same time, they are also legitimate means for opening discussions about spiritual and theological issues, and this is where the ministry tools come into play.

What about the three movies being released now? What sorts of ministry resources are they offering? Are they giving away ministry resources, charging for them, or both?

cityonahillOn the I Can Only Imagine website, we are directed to a page that links to a few different things. The first is a link to City on a Hill’s website where the majority of ministry resources are offered, including: a small group study ($39.99); a journal ($14.99); a leader’s guide ($14.99); a church campaign kit ($79.99); and others. Back on the movie’s website, you can also purchase Bart Millard’s autobiography, A MercyMe album, an I Can Only Imagine children’s book, and a host of other things including a bunch of framed art.

The website doesn’t list any free ministry resources other than some free downloadables such as video clips and web banners.

paulA trip to the Paul, Apostle of Christ website finds a much smaller resource operation going on, with more resources being given away. Like I Can Only Imagine, Paul‘s website offers a few free downloadable social media items, but they also offer a couple of ministry resources including a reasonably comprehensive discussion guide and a more concise church leader packet, all available as free downloads.

Interestingly, you’ll find no church campaign kits advertised on the Paul website, but I did some digging around and found out that Outreach is selling one for $49.95.

Our final stop on the Christian-made movie tour takes us to Pure Flix’s God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness webpage and the first thing that struck me when visiting this website was that you can tell that Pure Flix has done this before.

ResizeImage.jpg

The main clue is the way they handle the campaign kit. It’s not just a simple Bible study or sermon guide selling from $49.45 to $79.99. Rather, it’s a kit to help your church buy out a theater and hold a premiere event experience complete with optional red carpet (extra $199) and backdrop for photos (extra $370 for a 9’8″x 7’2″ Jumbo Sleeve Banner). How much for this experience? Roughly $2,500. This is being billed as an experience where your church or organization would need to purchase at least 250 seats – essentially buying out the theater – and the cost would include many of the same things you get in a typical campaign kit.

Interestingly – and this is what sets Pure Flix apart from the other companies – you cannot purchase a church campaign kit without the theater buyout.

Here is a video they include explaining their strategy:

So your church’s options are two (A) buy out the theater and give away the tickets or (B) buy out the theater and charge your church members and guests to attend. Either way, Pure Flix is passing the costs down the line and insuring that they will sell out theaters. Is it a good ministry model? A good movie business model? Both?

Interestingly, on Pure Flix’s “premiere partner” FAQ page, they have this question and answer:

 

Advertisements

Thimblerig’s Ark blog celebrates 300,000 Hits!

300000hits.gif

It’s hard to believe, but today the blog had it’s 300,000th hit! I wish I could figure out who the person was who took us over the 300K mark so that I could give them a prize, but since I can’t, I’ve decided to give everyone a prize! Also, I’m going to be counting down the top five posts of all time on the Thimblerig’s Ark blog.

But before we get to the top five, to celebrate this milestone, I’m giving away copies of my novel, Thimblerig’s Ark, for anyone who would like to read it!

To get your free copy for Kindle, just click on the picture below and don’t forget to tell your friends! Share it on social media! Paint it on your roof for passing planes to see!

And let them all know that Thimblerig’s Ark will be free until Sunday, February 25.

Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 4.53.54 PM

And it would be really, really super cool if you actually gave the novel a try, and then took a couple of minutes to write a review on Amazon. I appreciate my 29 reviews, but want to get many, many more!

Top 5 posts

And just for fun, I thought I would show the five most popular articles to come from this blog since we began in 2014.

Drumroll, please!


5. Nine Things I Learned from 40 Days (and Nights) of Christian Media. Yes, it’s over. (5,295 hits, published April 27, 2015)

In 2015, I decided to spend 40 days (and nights) consuming nothing but Christian media. It was a long 40 days, but in the end I think I learned some valuable lessons.

This article got a good bump when it was featured and discussed by Phil Vischer (the creator of Veggietales) on The Phil Vischer Podcast, episode 151.

4. A Memorial to the Family of Tambii Jee, lost on MH17 (11,673 hits, July 14, 2014)

How often do we hear about tragic events of the world, shake our head at the tragedy, and then go on with our lives?

family2On July 17, 2014, a tragic event far away struck very close to home for me. On that day, Malaysia Airlines flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine, and one of the heartbreaking stories was a family of six, three of whom were my former students from Atyrau, Kazakhstan. The family of Tambii Jee was returning home to Malaysia after many years in Kazakhstan, and this blog post was my response to this tragic situation, sharing some memories of this sweet family, especially the youngest son Afruz, who was in my homeroom.

3. My Review of Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter Theme Park (12,403 hits, published July 19, 2016)

When Ken Ham’s Ark Park opened on July 7, 2016, my family was there. The ark was an impressive feat of building, but entertainment-wise, it was a letdown. “But it’s a ministry!” some would say. “Why should it be entertaining?” Considering that Ken Ham compared the place with the Disney and Universal parks, I would have expected the entertainment factor to be higher.

When The Friendly Atheist, an atheist blogger, linked to my review, the article blew up and was seen by thousands.

You can read his thoughts here. 

2. Unpacking that God’s Not Dead 3 Teaser (21,916 hits, published April 12, 2016)

If you would have asked me when I was writing this blog post if I thought it would be the second most popular post I would write, I would have laughed. But, the God’s Not Dead franchise is unarguably popular for a Christian film franchise, and so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that my dissection of the claims made at the end of God’s Not Dead 2 would get so many visitors.

1. What’s Wrong With Christian Filmmaking? (107,234 hits, published March 25, 2014)

The post that started it all. God’s Not Dead had just been released, and reading a critical review sparked me to scribble down on my blog what I had been learning and thinking about since taking the Act One screenwriting course a few years earlier: the importance of Christians artists doing everything with excellence, including filmmaking.

And the bigger importance of the Big Christian Audience allowing Christian artists to do it.


And so, that’s it! Thank you, loyal readers, for being a part of this journey!

Enjoy reading Thimblerig’s Ark…

…and here’s to the next 300,000!

Thimblerig’s Ark Podcast Episode 9 • PureFlix’s original sitcom, “Hitting the Breaks”

Screen Shot 2017-09-09 at 11.07.49 AMIn the ninth episode of the Thimblerig’s Ark Film Review podcast, I give my thoughts on Pureflix’s first attempt at an original sitcom. The show, which is exclusively available on Pureflix’s streaming service, follows the Wilcox family as they relocate to rural Colorado from Atlanta. It’s a strange throwback to the sitcoms of the 1980’s and 90’s, almost a time-travel show in some ways. Does it work?

Follow this link to listen to the podcast, and then let me know what you think!

The Thimblerig’s Ark Film Review podcast is a part of the More Than One Lesson family of podcasts, and you can listen to it as well as other great film podcasts by visiting More Than One Lesson.

1200x630bb

A Visit to the Apple iChurch

iChurchI’ve really been struggling lately. Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and depression have been overwhelming. It feels as if my operating system has crashed, and I need to have a complete spiritual reboot.

It’s time to visit the Apple iChurch.

The first thing I do is try to sign on at www.appleichurch.com with my iChurch ID, but I can’t remember my password. Is it isaiah4031 or isaiah4110? I try to enter my password a few times. Too many attempts, and I get locked out. Great. Do they have to make it so complicated?

This means I’ll need to pay a visit to the Pastor’s Bar in an actual brick and mortar Apple iChurch building, so I have to make an appointment. When I check online, they’re all booked up for the next three days. But I can’t wait three days. I need to talk to someone today! I decide to take a chance and drive down to the iChurch building and see if I can sneak in and see one of the pastors between appointments.

When you enter the Apple iChurch building, you immediately notice how big and shiny and minimal everything is. The building is has been purposefully designed to be all metal and wood and industrial. Then you notice the indy Christian music being played in the background. Is that Sufjan Stevens? The Brilliance? Propaganda? The next thing you notice is that the iChurch is constantly packed with people. Whoever said the church is in decline has apparently not stepped foot in an Apple iChurch, because they are always filled with people looking for the latest in spiritual help or theological technology. As you look past the simple wooden tables lined with tablets advertising the latest Christian self-help books, you see the goal: A long industrial-sized table with a half dozen pastors sitting on the other side, talking with the lucky few who booked ahead of time. Video screens behind each pastor flash Bible verses and times of appointments.

It doesn’t look good.

Since I don’t have an appointment, I get in a line that stretches from midway through the building all the way back to the massive glass front doors. And like every person in that line, I’m hoping I can get an appointment to see one of the pastors today.

It really doesn’t look good.

I’ve heard that the greeting ministry at the Apple iChurch is one of the hardest ministry jobs in the church. Everyone thinks that their problem is the Most Important Problem In The Building©, and these are the guys who have to listen to sob story after sob story, all with a patient smile on their face. Personally, I don’t know how they do it.

The young man who we are all waiting to meet is wearing one of the simple iChurch t-shirts with a nametag that says “Brock”. Brock has tired eyes, a Bible-shaped electronic tablet, colorful tats going down his left arm complete with Bible verses and biblical imagery, and an impressive super-beard (I remember when goatees were the poils du visage du jour in church ministry, but trends change). Brock is using the Bible tablet to take down personal information (“Can we contact you about tithing opportunities?” he says with a gentle and persuasive smile) but more importantly, he uses it schedule Pastor Bar appointments.

I’ve been in line for about forty-five minutes now, and I’m finally one person away from young bearded Brock. The woman in front me is in tears, probably telling the earnest greeter how her husband has been unfaithful, or maybe that she caught her children experimenting with drugs, or possibly she’s afraid she will lose her job. Whatever it is, she makes it clear through the sobs that she needs someone to pray with her.

But she doesn’t have an appointment.

Brock nods empathetically and tells her that if she’s willing to wait around, she might be able to see one of the pastors later in the afternoon, but there are no guarantees. The woman gets more insistent, saying that she drove for a couple of hours to get to the iChurch building, that she took time off from her job, that she is too busy to wait around. I guess Brock must hear these sorts of stories a couple of dozen times a day. He nods understandingly, and tells her that she can come back in the morning. Doors open at 10:00, and if she arrives by 9:45 she might be able to score a pastor visit if someone doesn’t show up for their appointment. The woman mutters “hipster doofus” and storms out.

Yeah, she won’t be reaching the Pastor Bar until sometime next summer.

Brock seems unfazed as he turns to me and smiles. But I can see that he has been fazed. His eyes are even more tired than they were a few moments earlier.

But I’m ready for young Brock. Standing in line, watching person after person try the same tactic, I figured out the perfect strategy: I will see his empathy and raise him a healthy dose of sympathy and a sprinkling of small talk. That ought to help with those tired eyes, and might just get me past him to the pastors sitting in the back of the room.

I shake my head, wordlessly communicating my understanding of how difficult people can be. I rub my chin, drawing attention to my own beard, letting Brock know that we are beard brothers. Brock visibly relaxes, and I can tell that my strategy is working. He’s already on my side. This will be a piece of cake.

“How you doing today?” I ask, mustering as much Andy Griffith friendliness into my voice as I can. Come on, pal, lay it on me. Before this is over, I’ll have Brock telling me all about his family, his girl problems, and which vaping bar he’s visiting this weekend.

“I’m well, thanks,” Brock says, looking back at his tablet. “What can I do for you?”

Hmm. So much for the small talk. Guess I’ll have to try a more straightforward approach.

“Well, I’ve been feeling pretty depressed lately,” I say.

“Been reading your Bible every day?” Brock asks, looking at his tablet.

“Of course,” I lie.

Brock looks up at me, his formerly tired eyes now piercing. He doesn’t believe me.

“Alright, not every day,” I admit. “But my brother’s always posting these Bible verse memes on Facebook, and I read those.”

“Umm-hmm,” Brock answers, tapping something onto the tablet. “Prayer life?”

“Oh, I pray all the time,” I answer more confidently. This part is true. I’m always asking God for things, and I pray before every meal.

“Umm-hmm,” Brock answers, tapping more onto the tablet. “Church attendance?”

I’m ready for this one. “Oh, I watch all the sermons that Pastor Axl streams. And I listen to his podcast, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.”

main-qimg-c3534d5cb80e20c01a9b117e0b3040fb-cPastor Axl is the founder of the Apple iChurch. He is a former executive from Silicon Valley who left behind a promising career in the tech world to start a church in his garage in Los Altos.

In the past ten years, Pastor Axl has grown the church to be an international powerhouse. He’s loved by progressives and conservatives alike, and is a rockstar in the world of pastors and skinny jeans. He’s been on Oprah, Colbert, Fallon, even sang carpool karaoke with Corden. Mentioning him is bound to score me some points.

“Umm-hmm,” Brock answers. More tapping. He doesn’t appear to be impressed. I try to catch his eye so I can work on my strategy, but he’s not looking up at me any more. Just tap, tap, tap.

I’ve got a bad feeling about this. Time to bring out the big guns.

Sincerity and desperation.

“Listen, Brock, I really need to talk to a pastor today. If there’s anything you could do to help, I would really appreciate it.”

Brock looks up and stares at me for what seems like eternity. Finally, he nods empathetically, looking past me at the line that is just as long as it was when I arrived forty five minutes before. He is struggling, trying to decide what to do. Did my big guns actually do the job?

Finally, he leans in and speaks in a quiet, conspiratorial voice. “If you’re willing to wait, there is the chance that we’ll have some time open up this afternoon. But I can’t make any guarantees.”

“This afternoon will be hard,” I mutter, panic rising in my chest. Brock does not see me as a beard brother after all. I’m just another middle-aged beard in the line.

Brock sits back up and nods again, saying, “Well, we open tomorrow morning at 10:00, and if you show up around 9:45 you might be able to score a visit with a pastor if someone is late for their appointment.”

Pastor AxlI look back at the Pastor Bar, and see the pastors talking to the lucky few, some praying, some looking at tablets which probably contain a Bible or the latest Christian self-help book, or Pastor Axl’s autobiography, Pastor Axl.

I guess I have no choice.

“Thanks, I’ll be here in the morning,” I say.

As I turn to leave, I hear Brock talking to the next person in line. “What can I do for you?”

Thimblerig’s Ark Podcast Episode 7 • Shadowlands

Shadowlands

In the seventh episode of the Thimblerig’s Ark Film Review Podcast, I start a new series where I examine Hollywood’s attempts to tell “our” stories, or stories that are important to Christians. To that end, this week I took a look at 1993’s Oscar nominated Shadowlands, directed by Richard Attenborough (Ghandi, Elizabeth), written by William Nicholson (Gladiator, Les Misérables), and starring Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs and bunches of other movies) and Debra Winger (Officer and a Gentleman, Terms of Endearment)

Shadowlands tells the mostly true story of the unlikely relationship between C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman Gresham. Lewis, as most people know, was the writer of the Narnia Chronicles, the Space Trilogy, and dozens of other books dealing with everything from writing to Renaissance literature to Christian theology.

I chose to review this film because Lewis is the unofficial patron saint of Evangelical Christianity and I wondered how his life story would be handled by people with no faith-based agenda. The film is a masterpiece of biographical filmmaking, widely considered to be Attenborough’s finest work, with high praise for the acting of both Hopkins and Winger. But even still, it’s been criticized by Lewis devotees for not being entirely factual. I look and respond to these criticisms in the podcast.

Also, I’m very interested in what the Christian audience wants from Hollywood if they are making our films, and why the Christian audience should want Hollywood to tell our stories in the first place, and so I discuss these ideas as well.

I would be curious to know what people think of this subject, and so I’d invite you to comment after you’ve taken a listen.

The Thimblerig’s Ark Film Review podcast is a part of the More Than One Lesson family of podcasts, and you can listen to it as well as other great film podcasts by visiting the More Than One Lesson website.

1200x630bb

The Thimblerig’s Ark Film Review Podcast Is Here!

thimblerig-ark-1024x994I’m pleased to announce that the Thimblerig’s Ark Film Review Podcast is up and running. The podcast has come about as a result of conversations with Tyler Smith of Battleship Pretension and More Than One Lesson, and will be hosted on the More Than One Lesson website.

If you are interested in the world of Christian media, specifically Christian filmmaking, this is the podcast for you. We will be examining Christian-made films thematically and artistically, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the budding Christian film industry.

Follow this link to iTunes to subscribe! And if you do, and if you enjoy it, please rate and review the podcast to help give it more exposure.

Click this link to enjoy the first full episode, which is an examination of the mega-hit, God’s Not Dead.

gods_not_dead

Thimblerig’s Ark is Free, Feb 3 & 4!

In honor of yesterday’s most important holiday Groundhog’s Day (why isn’t it a day off, Mr. Trump? That should have been your first executive order!), we’re pleased to announce that Thimblerig’s Ark will be free for download on February 3 and 4!

screen-shot-2017-02-03-at-8-48-27-am
The second book in the series is nearing completion, and so you want to make sure you grab the first book while you still can. And tell your friends!

You already know about Noah. Just wait until you read the animal’s story.

Thimblerig is a little groundhog with big problems.

He’s a loner con-artist who’s losing his mojo; the wild dogs who run the forest harass him at every turn; he’s having vivid nightmares of apocalyptic floods; and worst of all, he believes he sees unicorns when everyone knows unicorns are only the stuff of legend.

But what one animal might call a problem, Thimblerig calls an opportunity.

In a moment of inspiration, he comes up with the ultimate con: persuade as many suckers as he can that a world-ending flood is coming; the fabled unicorns have told him where the only safe place will be; and only he can lead them to safety.

All for a reasonable price, of course.

When the flood really does come, Thimblerig has a choice: either save the ones who trusted him, or lose everything.

And that’s when he discovers that his problems have only just begun.

Thimblerig's Ark Cover Art

Thimblerig’s Three Interesting Things of the Week • September 10, 2016

We’re bringing back an old feature of the blog, Thimblerig’s Three Interesting Things of the Week, where we link to stories from the past few days that Thimblerig finds to be of interest. We hope that you will find them interesting, too!

1. Q&A with Corbin Bernsen and his producing partner as Regent’s movie premieres

ily-webRegent University is premiering its first feature-length film, the faith-based romantic comedy “In-Lawfully Yours”, featuring Corbin Bernsen and written by Act One faculty member Sean Gaffney and Robert Kirbyson, and directed by Kirbyson [edited – thanks, Guy]. This is an interesting project, because it’s a low-budget indie film that is forgoing the theatrical route that so many faith-based films attempt, and releasing initially on Netflix.

It’s fascinating to see the variety of methods low-budget faith-based filmmakers are taking to get eyes on their films. For instance, Lifeway films recently bowed its film, The Insanity of God, on 550 screens for one day, and it was briefly the #1 film in per-theater average. In fact, it did well enough that it will have an encore showing on September 19. 

Other faith-based films have attemped the wide-release route, and with the exception of a couple of break-out hits (War Room, Miracles from Heaven), most have failed to make back their budgets.

The choice to have In-Lawfully Yours only on Netflix is an interesting one, and is quite possibly demonstrating the wave of the future for the faith-based genre of film.

Meanwhile, reading Bernsen’s thoughts on the subject is pretty interesting, so click on over and read what he has to say.

2. Pure Flix brings new titles to TIFF

I’ve been really interested to watch the growth of Pure Flix after the success of God’s Not Dead back in 2014. Previously a middling little independent faith-based film company, they suddenly found themselves sitting on a mound of box office gold when the film wound up pulling in over $100,000,000 in combined box office and home video sales. Since that time, the company has expanded in numerous ways: the Pure Flix home streaming service; the Pure Flix U.S. distribution company (by far the most successful faith-based distributor on the market); and the lesser known Quality Flix, the International Sales and Distribution wing of the company.

The second interesting thing that Thimblerig found this week was a story detailing Pure Flix’s efforts to introduce four films at the Toronto International Film Festival, which could potentially lead to international distribution deals for these four films. The two big pictures Pure Flix is pushing includes the upcoming Hillsong concert documentary, Let Hope Rise, and the drama I’m Not Ashamed, which tells the story of Rachel Joy Scott, one of the victims of the Columbine massacre.

cet6ylnw8aepkn8This story interested Thimblerig because it’s a story about Pure Flix, a faith-based film company, on Screendaily.com, a secular film website. And the story is examining Pure Flix’s distribution efforts as if it were any other film company, and not one that is Christian-owned and operated. The story doesn’t contain any belittling, or any disrespect, or any winks or nudges or “know-what-I-means” – it’s business as usual.

But I thought we were at war?

3. Columbine martyr film seeks bold youth revival

The third interesting thing that Thimblerig found this past week was a story detailing that upcoming Pure Flix film, I’m Not Ashamed.

The film is apparently being released along with some pretty serious ministry efforts, including Pure Flix’s partnership with See You At The Pole and First Priority, all to help mobilize young people to see the film, with the hope of begining a “national movement of youth across the country propelled by the movie.”

This is the truly fascinating part of this faith-based movie push that has been going on for the past couple of years – this mixture of marketing and ministry. Christianity and capitalism.

It works this way: a company like Pure Flix makes a faith-based film and encourages everyone to bring vans full of church and youth groups, which will enable the message of the movie to be seen by thousands, but will also mean thousands of seats sold. The company develops curriculum and ministry resources to help underscore the message of the movie with those thousands, and then sells the curriculum for premium prices (with a few notable exceptions: Captive, 90 Minutes in Heaven, Ben-Hur being three).

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-10-48-19-pmThis is what continues to flummox me: a faith-based company like Pure Flix has huge financial success, and yet they continue to sell their ministry resources. The Kendrick brothers sell all their resources, too, even if their last movie made over $100,000,000 in combined box office and home video sales.

As an American, I have no problem with this. It’s an example of capitalism at its finest. But as a Christian, it makes me pause. Imagine if Paul had charged the church at Ephesus for his letter? Or if Jesus had charged entry to the Sermon on the Mount? Since when did we become okay with ministry being about profit over being prophetic? Isn’t that at least part of the reason why the Reformation began?

Join Thimblerig next week, when we’ll be back with three new interesting things.

 

 

My Review of Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter Theme Park

13582052_1133848186679731_1482006195964388807_o

Welcome to The Ark Encounter, the Answers in Genesis Ark Park, located in Williamstown, Kentucky. The centerpiece of the Ark Encounter is the enormous Noah’s Ark replica, built 510 feet long, 85 feet wide, 7 stories tall, and reportedly the largest timber-framed structure in the world. The Ark Encounter is also one of the more controversial theme parks built in the United States in the last several years, largely because it is a government-supported tourist attraction with a decidedly religious focus and an end-of-the-day price tag of $172,000,000.

IMG_6062My family I visited the Ark Encounter on July 7, 2016, the park’s official opening day, with some friends. I wasn’t there as a life-long Answers in Genesis supporter, nor was I there as a life-long anti-AiG protestor. I was there because I love the story of Noah’s Ark, because we happened to be in-country and only seven hours away, and because I frequently write about the state of American Cultural Christianity on this blog. Visiting the new flagship of American Cultural Christianity (see what I did there?) on opening day seemed too good an opportunity to pass up, even at $40 a pop for my family of five (the baby was free).

But surprisingly, as I’ve been thinking about what to write regarding Ken Ham’s big boat built in the bluegrass backwoods, I’ve been struggling. Do I write a simple report of my trip? Do I tell my thoughts about the controversial displays – the dinosaurs in cages, the explanations of Young Earth ideology, the mannequins of Noah and his family?  Do I respond to the protestors who congregated around the exit from I-75, frustrated by AiG’s alleged non-scientific view of the origins of the planet, and who seem to have made it their mission to see the Ark Encounter fail as a theme park?

I decided not to delve into any of those topics, but rather, to give a simple list of the positives and negatives of this theme park as I see them, as I do when I review Christian films.

Positives about the Ark Encounter

1. The ark itself

AiG attempted to build a replica that was the size of Noah’s Ark according to biblical instructions (300 cubits by 50 by 30), and the scope of the project is stunning. It’s actually pretty difficult to describe what it’s like, standing underneath the replica, looking up at that massive stern. The experience really did bring the biblical account to life.

As you can see by the pictures, AiG’s attention to detail with the ark is unarguably impressive. When they could, the builders used very old shipbuilding techniques, a feat that must have been a massive undertaking. One can’t help but admire the craftsmanship and dedication that went into the construction of the replica ark, by people who – in many cases – were doing it as an expression of their Christian faith.

2. The “Fairy Tale Ark” and the living quarters displays

The Fairy Tale Ark display really caught my attention. This was a simple room filled with children’s books about Noah’s Ark. At first, I thought the room was going to be celebrating that the story is taught to children, but I quickly realized that the purpose of the room was actually to condemn the trivializing of the Noah’s Ark story.

I was completely caught off guard by this display, and it really resonated with me. For the longest time, I’ve been amazed that a story about the destruction of the world was often told as a children’s story, and even in Thimblerig’s Ark, my middle grade novel for which this blog is named, I tried to capture the seriousness of the flood and not make it cartoonish. I was glad to see that the AiG people felt the same way.

That being said, seeing what that room represented surprised me, considering how much Ken Ham and AiG disliked Darren Aronofsky’s incredibly mature Noah film, even devoting a two hour video review to critically dissecting the film. It’s been a while since I watched the review, but I think they must have at least appreciated that Aronofsky shared their serious approach to the event.

The second display that impressed me was found on the third deck, and it was the AiG representation of what the living quarters on the ark might have been like for Noah and his family. This was another section where an impressive amount of attention was given to detail, and a great deal of thought given to what life may have been like for people at that time.

Since one of the main complaints about Aronofsky’s Noah was that he took too many liberties with his film, AiG appeared ready to head off any criticism about their own filling in of details with a rather lengthy explanation of their view on taking artistic license with biblical material.

IMG_6217Here are some images of the living quarters, where you can see the craftsmanship and detail that went into the creation of the displays.

3. The tenacity of Ken Ham and AiG

Ken Ham and the AiG people fought doggedly for years to get the funding to build the Ark Encounter: They raised millions through private donations; they were determined to participate in a Kentucky tourism tax rebate program, going so far as to take the fight to court; they were persuasive enough to convince the little town of Williamstown to give them a break on property taxes and a very good deal on the property [edited]; and when the attempts to raise donations didn’t seem to be doing the job, they gave supporters and investors the opportunity to purchase high-risk bonds for thousands of dollars a pop, and supportive investors apparently turned up in droves to do so. atheiststoAiG_zps5c32d784When their detractors were celebrating the project’s demise, Ham and company kept working, and they ended up having the last laugh as the park opened on July 7.

Say what you will about Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis (and there’s plenty of people out there saying plenty of things!), but you have to admire their determination and tenacity to tell the story they want to tell in the face of massive opposition (even if they do go too far in response from time to time).

And I should say that as a Christian, I can’t argue with the desire of the folks at AiG to expose as many people as possible to Gospel of Jesus Christ. After all, Jesus said:

Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 7.46.53 AM

Creating something like the ark does draw people in (although I question Ken Ham’s claim that 40% of attendees will be non-Christians – most non-Christians I know aren’t the least bit interested, and most of my Christian friends are only moderately interested), and the Ark Encounter might very well result people coming to faith in Christ.

After all, Scripture has story after story of God using unexpected and sometimes even foolish means to accomplish His ends. In this case, even though the secular society sees something like the Ark Encounter and the Creation Museum as complete and utter foolishness, and many authentic Christians agree with that assessment, as a Christian I can’t discount the possibility that God can use these things to bring people into a relationship with Himself.

More about that later.

4. The Ark Encounter’s economic potential

I’m not sure if this section should go in the positives or negatives, but I’ll go ahead and add it as my last positive. A segueway into the negatives, if you will.

Kentucky has one of the worst state poverty rates in the country, and Williamstown is among the lowest for any town anywhere. Having a major tourist attraction in this region could potentially help the economy in the long run, and this was one of the big selling points that Ham and AiG used to get the state and the town onboard with the controversial tax rebates and interest-free loans. The Ark Encounter’s sister attraction, The Creation Museum, helps make the case as the attraction has drawn nearly three million visitors in its nine years of operation, and having the two attractions so near to one another is a draw for many people who might not come to Kentucky otherwise.

Furthermore, Ken Ham has stated multiple times that the Ark Encounter could potentially bring a couple of million visitors in its first year alone. Having said that, it should be noted that others claim that those high numbers were purposefully inflated to make the park more attractive to investors. Whether or not it was purposeful, I can’t say. But unfortunately, with only 30,000 people reportedly visiting in the first six days, it doesn’t look like the end result will be anywhere near a couple of million.

That being said, my family must have spent close to $1000 in travel, lodging, food, and the Ark during our four day excursion, and there were hundreds of families at the Ark Encounter on opening day. That’s a lot of money injected into the area. Critics counter this idea by pointing out that the Ark Encounter has taken money away from the state through lost tax revenue and interest payments on that huge loan, and that it will be years before that loss becomes a gain for the local economy. And if the Ark Encounter fails, it will never be a gain.

This is a very complicated issue, and you can read a detailed account of it here, and the Answers in Genesis point of view here, and then you can make the decision for yourself.

Negatives about the Ark Encounter

  1. The displays

Other than the two displays already mentioned, most of the displays were pretty underwhelming. I saw posters explaining the AiG interpretation of Scripture, the AiG explanation of how the earth could be 6,000 years old, supported by a few television-sized video monitors. I also saw a few exhibits demonstrating what life might have been like on the ark for Noah and his family. There were also several fake animals in cages (including the infamous dinosaurs… I didn’t see the unicorns), but they didn’t really do anything, so they weren’t terribly interesting.

Considering that Ken Ham was bragging that the Ark Encounter would compete with Disney and be “beyond Hollywood”, and furthermore that he continually emphasized that the park had been designed by the person who had designed the Jaws and King Kong rides at Universal Studios, I was expecting more bang for my $160 bucks. See, the park is heavy on attempts to proselytize visitors and educate them about Creation theory, but extremely light on entertainment.

I’m assuming that as time goes by, more displays will be added, but they need to be more than just posters on the wall or the odd mannequin. The ark needs to be a dynamic, moving place to visit, and they shouldn’t just rely on visitors being impressed by a big boat, because that wears off quickly and won’t bring people back. I know that AiG has plans for a Tower of Babel, a first century village, a theater, and other things, but right now the Ark Encounter needs to bump up the entertainment factor if they want their numbers to be sustained.

Here are some simple ideas that AiG can use for free: (1) have actors wandering the decks in costume and in character, interacting with visitors. (2) Have much more multi-media, maybe even 4-D films that help you to experience what it would have been like to be in the flood. (3) since AiG loves dinosaurs so much, use Ken Ham’s Aussie connections to get dinosaur puppets from Erth to be a part of the experience.

The bottom line? There are a thousand things AiG could do to make the Ark a “must-see” park for everyone and not just believers, who are currently the only ones interested in visiting. Part of that is to make the place entertaining as well as informative. After all, it’s not the Creation Museum, so loosen it up a little! Make the experience more immersive and interactive and maybe even add some levity and fun, and even I might be convinced to return.

2. The sole focus on apologetics as ministry

As I walked around looking at the displays, I kept my eyes open for anything that would indicate that there was any sort of charitable component to the Ark Encounter, this ministry that was taking so much money to build.

IMG_6235Perhaps a portion of the ticket sales would go to help the poor in Kentucky? Maybe AiG would give you the opportunity to donate to help build schools or hospitals in some developing country as you buy your official Noah’s Ark cubit in the gift shop for $19.99 a pop?

Surely there would be something in this Christian theme park that reflected the charge of a Christian to help the poor?

But I saw nothing, and while it did disappoint me, it also didn’t surprise me. After all, as I said before, the Ark Encounter is for-profit, and after operating costs, every dime that is spent on visiting the Ark Encounter will undoubtedly go to pay back the massive 68 million dollar interest-free loan that was given to AiG by the city of Williamstown (which – interestingly – has a poverty level of 18.3%) and to return the investment given to those who purchased the bonds. This certainly makes business sense.

But does it make ministry sense?

3. The evangelistic component

Along those lines, I’ve said multiple times that I admire that Ken Ham and AiG have placed such a high priority on their projects sharing the Gospel. They have put an impressive amount of time and energy into building what they call “one of the greatest Christian outreaches of this era of history.”

But having visited the Ark Encounter, having walked the halls, examined the displays, and seeing what they have to offer, I can’t help but question how much of an impact this outreach will have on non-believers.

I’ve spent the past couple of days scouring the internet for any examples on non-believers visiting the ark, and in that time I’ve seen several reviews from visitors whose views weren’t in line with AiG when they visited. Reading their reviews seemed to indicate that none of them were convinced of anything afterwards, even after they were treated very respectfully by Ark Encounter and AiG employees.

This led me to expand my search for any skeptics who had been convinced by the Creation Museum, since it has been around for nine years. I found plenty of negative reviews by Atheists and Christians alike (here, here, and here – just to show a few), and I did find a couple of anecdotal examples of children from Christian families telling their parents that they wanted to follow Jesus as a result of visiting the museum, but I didn’t find any stories of skeptics or non-believers having any sort of change of heart from their visit to that attraction.

Sadly, if anything, the argument could be made that the typical response of non-believers to the Creation museum was having their skepticism reinforced by the visit. Watch this video for an example (and there is a bit of salty language):

The Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter both seem to suffer from the same problem that plagues most of the Christian films I review. They want to be evangelistic, but their impact outside of the faithful appears to be negligible.

Incidentally, I freely admit that I could be wrong about this. There could be scores of people who have come to faith as a result of their experiences with the Creation Museum, and there could be scores who will because of the Ark Encounter. If so, and if someone would like to provide evidence that I’m wrong about the evangelistic impact of the Creation Museum on skeptics, then I’ll gladly retract this point and have my positives outweigh my negatives.

4. The Cost

While I admire the tenacity, determination, and heart for evangelization of the people behind the Ark Encounter, I’ve also struggled with the fact that they are doing an Ark Encounter at all. Such a huge sum of money for building a theme park? My struggle finally came to a head one morning last May when I opened Twitter and found an AiG Tweet touting the benefits of building a Noah’s Ark theme park right next to a Tweet from J.K. Rowling’s charity Lumos, talking about their push to raise money to help orphans.

Seeing the two money-raising efforts side-by-side took my breath away. On the one hand, as a Christian, I respect AiG’s effort to share the Christian faith. On the other hand, as a Christian, I’m horrified that believers have struggled and fought and spent years raising an enormous amount of money to build a for-profit theme park replica of Noah’s Ark.

And it warps a part of my brain that it’s been done in the name of Christian ministry.

At this stage in the project it may be a tired argument (although I wouldn’t call it a stupid argument, as some have), but I can’t help but think what else could have been done with that money that might have had even more of an impact, if not on propagating the Creationist viewpoint, at least in sharing the Gospel and demonstrating a valuable apologetic, by meeting the physical needs of the poor and sick.

For example, over on Twitter, @branthansen wrote this:

Brent’s Tweet represents the heart of my struggle.

But didn’t Jesus command his followers to make disciples and to teach? Isn’t that what the Ark Encounter is doing?

As I said before, Answers in Genesis claims to have obeyed that command by building the Ark Encounter, and they have a point. People visiting the park will be exposed to the biblical teaching that the world is a damaged place, and that Jesus’s life, ministry, and death on the cross is the answer to fixing the damage.

At the same time, Jesus also said this:

Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 8.05.51 AM

So, what do we do with this? First, some counter arguments:

1. Giving to the poor is not AiG’s wheelhouse. After all, AiG’s stated mission is to help people learn how to defend the Christian faith, and building an attraction like the Ark Encounter is one way to go about doing that.
2. God owns “the cattle on a thousand hills”, and $172 million dollars is nothing to Him. As a friend wrote to me, “If Ham spends $100M on a colossal mistake, God is not one dime the poorer, nor are His plans set back by a day.”
3. I don’t personally know the Ark Encounter supporters, investors, or AiG employees, and I don’t know what they do with their private money. For all I know, they give more in a month then I give in a year, and the money given to AiG was on top of their already generous contributing to all sorts of worthy charities.
4. Christians should never endeavour to do big things for large sums of money? What if a Christian filmmaker successfully raised $172,000,000 to make a big blockbuster film? Would that make me “struggle”?

These are all good questions, and all good points. But they don’t change the fact that this sort of money raised in a for-profit ministry venture makes me uncomfortable, especially when there is so much need in the world.

And it leads me to ask the question: Would Jesus build an Ark Park, or would he turn over the tables in the gift shop?

I don’t know the answer. I really don’t know.

My final thought on the Ark Encounter: would I recommend a visit?

Christian or not, the ark itself is magnificent and is really something to be seen. But considering the cost of a ticket, there needs to be more going on to make it worth the expense, especially if you’re bringing a family. Once the park gets the zip lines up and running, once they get a few more (hopefully entertaining) displays in the ark, once they get a few more animals in the petting zoo, I’d say give it a go.

This is true, even if you’re not a Christian, or if you are a Christian but not a young-earth Creationist. Just be prepared to talk to your kids about what they will see, and to talk about why they will be seeing it. It can lead to some really interesting conversations about different belief systems, and different ways of interpreting Scripture. And yes, Bill Nye, it can even lead to discussions about science.

At least it did with my kids!

And if you do decide to go, and you agree with me on the charity/cost issues, then do the job that AiG should be doing and donate a matching amount to the tickets you purchased to a worthy charity of your own choice, preferably one that works in Kentucky.

I’d recommend a charity like the Christian Appalachian Project.