This is the third part of a three-part interview with Shane Sooter, the founder of City on a Hill Productions. The complete interview, which took place in late 2014, is available in Today’s Vital Church, Volume 1.
Bolinger: I thought of a couple of other things, too, Shane, while you were talking.
Sooter: Yeah, hit me with them.
Bolinger: You mentioned testimonies. I think that’s a really good one. It’s tough to be put on the spot, especially at a baptism ceremony, when you’re about to get baptized. Some people are afraid of the water! They have to give their testimony in front of hundreds of people, and all they’re thinking about is that they’re going to get dunked backwards in water in just a couple of seconds. That’s a lot of pressure. It’s more pressure than public speaking in general. And they’re supposed to move people with their testimony. If you can film that in advance, like you said, and edit it for time, and leave out the areas where they stumbled, that’s a great, achievable use of video.
Here’s another one that I saw at our church. You mentioned music videos being easy to do because you don’t have to incorporate the audio portion; you just play a track, just play music. We had a video done where some of the youth of the church held up hand-painted signs on cardboard. On one side, it was something they had been struggling with, and the other side showed what happened when they let Jesus take control: “Now I’m at peace.” “Now I have reconciliation.” “Now I have forgiveness.” It was very, very powerful, and it was very easy to do.
Like you said, it’s all about creativity. When we get creative, we will have ideas that we can do even if we’re novices with filming and editing a video. It will be impactful. And the next time we do something, maybe we can do something a little more challenging or elaborate than what we tried in that first very moving video that we did.
Having a Creative Arts Director at a Small Church
Sooter: The point really is just the sheer creativity. It’s the giftedness to be able to do that sort of thing.
My first church was a really small town Baptist church and I just remember there was the pastor and there was the church secretary, and that was the church [staff]. There are a lot of churches like that. There was this kind of growing awareness that you needed to have somebody whose focus is youth, and there was the rise of the youth minister as a position in churches.
Worship at this church was led by a member of the congregation who got up and told people what page to turn to in the hymnal, and sort of waved his arms while a volunteer played the piano. And there was this growing understanding, this kind of movement in the church, that the worship minister is a position. It’s not really something that you can just fill with stand-ins. It’s a question of giftedness and, when you bring somebody with giftedness into that role, it transforms the life of the church.
I think that we are well into an age where people understand that there is another role in the church. It is called by many different names – the church media director, the producer, the creative arts director – but there’s a recognition that the ability to look at the message of the service and to be able to bring all manner of the arts to bear on the communication of that issue is a specific gifting. I understand that all churches are not going to be able to go out and hire a creative arts director, but I just want to put that on people’s radar.
You would never assume that you’re going to have a great youth ministry if you don’t have somebody who’s gifted in communicating with youth in that role. I’ve worked with a lot of creative pastors, and they come up with a lot of great ideas, but their core job is teaching and preaching. While they can come up with a lot of great ideas, it’s not quite the same as somebody who is essentially an artist whose job it is to bring the arts into church.
Bolinger: I agree 100%, but I’ll go back to the small or midsized church that I grew up in and that, until recently, we were still attending. A couple hundred people, maybe a few more, maybe a few less. In a church of that size, to have somebody who is gifted in the area of youth ministry, you may have to go with volunteers. It’s not a staff position because you really can’t afford one, so you have volunteers. But volunteers often can be gifted and talented and commissioned to work with youth.
I think that, in the same way, lay people (who are not on staff) may be gifted and talented in this area of being able to equip the people of the church through media. They may be creative, artistic folks. They may do this in in their jobs; they may be using this technology and using media in their jobs. So as long as the pastor is giving direction from a biblical standpoint, I think you can leverage these folks.
Another thing that I thought of is that a lot of these folks are going to be younger.
Sooter: There’s probably somebody in the youth ministry in any church who’s got a YouTube channel with 50,000 subscribers.
I have one other point on this issue of how do we get into it, what can we do with a safe budget, what are the good ways to get started. We’ve listed a whole lot of great ways to get started, but my last point on the topic would be to get started with vision and get started boldly. Don’t be afraid to be ugly or to make mistakes.
I had some great tools when I first started this at Southeast Christian Church, but they were no better than the tools that any church in America can afford right now. I frequently show at conferences the very first video that I did. If you saw this video, you would never, ever guess that the person who wrote and directed this video went on to continue to work in that field and just produced a movie that opened in theaters nationwide a couple of weekends ago. You would never believe that. If you were feeling charitable, you would say, “Don’t quit your day job.”
Is your church going to be around in 10 years? Most people would like to believe that their church will be around in 10 years. Where can you go with this in 10 years? The journey for me over a decade was starting a video production ministry that now has created dozens and dozens of hours of content, probably close to a dozen different major projects, and has done feature films. It’s all because we started and we stuck with it, and we were willing to take risks, even though the results weren’t always pretty. Leadership was willing to give grace and to stick with the vision and great things have happened.