A 'disruptive' new leader takes a powerful job in the Southern Baptist Convention

A 'disruptive' new leader takes a powerful job in the Southern Baptist Convention

It's a long way from Storyline Fellowship in Denver's western suburbs to downtown Nashville and a publishing-and-ministry operation the locals have long called the "Baptist Vatican."

That's 1,165 miles, on a map. The cultural gap between the Colorado Rockies and Tennessee seems bigger than that.

Storyline Fellowship is the congregation that the Rev. Ben Mandrell and his wife, Lynley, started in their living room in 2014, helping it grow into a modern evangelical flock with 1,600 members in a revamped Walmart facility. That's the kind of challenge church planters accept when working as missionaries outside the Southern Baptist Convention's heartland in the Bible Belt.

Now the 42-year-old Mandrell has jumped from the SBC frontier into one of the most high-profile jobs in America's largest Protestant flock -- serving as the new president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources. That's the complex publishing, research and media company, with about 4,000 employees, that in simpler times as called the Sunday School Board.

Bible classes remain on the agenda, stressed Mandrell. But so are many other ministries that symbolize a new reality that all religious leaders will have grasp, one way are the other: The good old days of safe, predictable church work are gone.

"Not that we're not doing what we used to do" in terms of publishing materials used for Sunday Bible classes and other familiar forms of outreach, said Mandrell, in a telephone interview.

"But we're have to do so much more because America is getting so complex and diverse. … We have to keep asking our church leaders, 'What do you need us to provide for your tool boxes to do the work that you now know that you have to do?' "

This era of rapid change led to obvious changes -- including the series of explosions on January 6, 2018, that leveled the 12-story LifeWay tower, with its iconic giant stone crosses, that loomed over one corner of downtown Nashville. LifeWay moved to smaller, modernized facilities close to the Tennessee State Capitol.

The challenging task of passing on a Bible story that's bigger than witty vegetables

The challenging task of passing on a Bible story that's bigger than witty vegetables

It's easy to capture a kid's attention with cartoons about Noah and the Ark, Joshua's laps around the walls of Jericho and other colorful stories from scripture.

Phil Vischer ought to know, since for millions of Americans under the age of 25 he is best known as Bob the Tomato and the brain behind the original VeggieTales videos. But over time, he realized that he faced a bigger challenge as a storyteller, one symbolized by the sign on his 1990s office wall that proclaimed: "We will not portray Jesus as a vegetable."

At some point, he said, children need to learn the whole story of faith -- including the hard parts. This has to happen quickly in a culture that barrages them with competing signals as soon as they leave their cribs.

"You have to have the big story of what our faith is all about," said Vischer, in a telephone interview. "Our moral beliefs are like ornaments we hang on a tree. The problem is that we've thrown out the tree and we expect the ornaments to keep hanging in the air on their own.

"You can't just tell kids, 'Behave! Because I told you so!' … Without a big spiritual narrative, some larger worldview, you have nothing to hang moral behavior on."

That was the challenge at the heart of Vischer's talk -- "Beyond VeggieTales: Forming the Moral Imagination of Your Kids" -- during a recent Nashville conference on parenting held by the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Speaker after speaker mentioned a media culture that feeds children clashing concepts of good and evil, success and failure, before they enter kindergarten. Digital screens are everywhere, packed with compelling stories.

Memory eternal, for a quiet giant in American Orthodoxy

FRANKLIN, Tenn. -- It was a typical evangelistic crusade in rural Alabama and, as he ended his sermon, the Rev. Gordon Walker called sinners down to the altar to be born again.

Most Southern towns have a few notorious folks who frequent the back pews during revival meetings, trying to get right with God. On this night, one such scalawag came forward and fell to his knees. 

"Preacher! I've broken all the Ten Commandments except one," he cried, "and the only reason I didn't break that one was that the man I shot didn't die!"

It didn't matter that this man repeated this ritual several times during his troubled life, said Walker, telling the story decades later at Holy Cross Orthodox Church outside Baltimore. Now wearing the golden robes of an Eastern Orthodox priest, Walker smiled and spread his arms wide. The church, he said, has always known that some people need to go to confession more than others. The goal was to keep walking toward the altar.

With his gentle smile and soft Alabama drawl, Walker -- who died on July 23 -- was a key figure in an unusual American story. The former Southern Baptist pastor and Campus Crusade evangelist was part of a circle of evangelical leaders that spent a decade reading church history before starting an Orthodox church for American converts. Then in 1987, the late Metropolitan Philip Saliba accepted more than 2,000 pastors and members of their Evangelical Orthodox Church into the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.

After the Veggie sale, Part II

While brainstorming the other day, Phil Vischer thought up an idea for a wacky late-night show that could also deal with faith issues.

This show would not feature digital vegetables and Vischer playing a big, red, silly tomato named Bob. It would not be a VeggieTales show produced under the Big Idea brand he created a decade ago. It would sink or swim on its own.

This felt exhilarating and terrifying.

"That was the whole thing with VeggieTales," said Vischer. "It was wonderful, but everything we did had to end up as a digital-animation video product. We had a studio to protect and everything had to feed that franchise. ...

"What if you had an idea for a live-action movie? Too bad! How about new characters? Too bad! How about new children's books? Too bad! Maybe an old-fashioned animated movie? Too bad! What if we went back and did a puppet show? Too bad! We had to stick to Veggies."

The good news, said Vischer, is that he is now free "to chase all these creative bubbles" wherever they go. The bad news is that he is free to do so because Big Idea Productions crashed into bankruptcy last year after losing an $11 million lawsuit about a verbal contract with a distributor, only 10 years after releasing the first Veggie video called "Where is God When I'm S-Scared?"

VeggieTales started with Vischer and Mike "Larry the Cucumber" Nawrocki, two wisecracking puppeteers who exited Bible college because they were in trouble almost as often as they were in chapel. Vischer learned computer graphics, Nawrocki wrote silly songs and a dream was born.

At its peak, Big Idea was a 210-person animation studio in the Chicago suburb of Lombard. The reorganized Big Idea, Inc., has downsized and moved to Franklin, Tenn., just outside Nashville. The new owner is Classic Media, which controls Lassie, Rocky & Bullwinkle, the Lone Ranger and other wholesome products.

Nawrocki and a circle of others made the move. Vischer did not, but agreed to keep providing the voice of Bob the Tomato and legions of other characters. He will write one of three Veggie scripts each year and consult on others. "The Lord of the Beans" is just around the corner.

"I'm trying to tell the stories that God is putting into my head," said Vischer, pausing. "And I'm still trying to learn how to let go. But it's good to let go. It was killing me, trying to run a studio and be creative at the same time."

The late Bob Briner would have agreed, 100 percent. Throughout the 1990s, the president of ProServ Television used "Roaring Lambs" and his other books to urge believers to stop cranking out predictable products to sell to the converted.

Briner was a big VeggieTales fan. Yet, weeks before dying of cancer, he offered sobering media insights that would soon become highly relevant to the Big Idea story. Briner said that when he started paying attention to the Christian marketplace, he feared that the artists didn't have what it takes to make competitive, mainstream products. This was not the case.

"We have people who can tell stories, write songs and be funny," he said, in April of 1999. "We have lots of talented people. I've decided that this isn't the problem. Our biggest problem is that we don't have enough people who know how to handle the money so that the talented people can do what they need to do."

Vischer found that out. He said he started out telling stories and ended up "chasing the Walt thing" as he tried to build a corporate brand that could compete with the Walt Disney Company and the rest of the industrial entertainment complex.

In the end, it was hard to tell funny stories. The pressure was too great.

"I wanted to do as much good as I possible could as fast as I could," he said. "I mistakenly believed that the bigger we got, the more opportunities we would have to do good. What I learned was that just the opposite was true.