Charles Byrd served as a Seventh-day Adventist minister for nearly 30 years, pastoring churches in Pennsylvania, Washington, Wisconsin and the western Pacific island of Saipan. He left pastoral ministry to found QuestLine Productions with his wife, Karen, and create a series of videos for a Bible study series.
Question: You have made a Bible study video series called Thunder in the Holy Land. What is it all about?
Answer: I met a pastor in Wisconsin who showed me a new Bible study method — with this method, 80% to 90% of people finished the studies and 70% to 80% were baptized and still active in the church a year later. After spending a day with this pastor, exploring his method of study, I knew I had to use it from then on. It built and maintained friendships. It took the pressure off me to perform. It was easy and fun. Most of all, it was effective.
I simply took this method and recreated it with a brand new video series shot in high definition, mostly on location in the Middle East, with three young people talking about the doctrines of Jesus.
The only thing I added to his method was that I built this new series from the ground up so that the local pastor (or medical professional or layman or whoever) could replace me as the host. That’s the one thing that no one in any denomination is doing: no one is taking a local person and making them the host of a $450,000 Bible study series for just 3.85% of the production value.
Question: What does “3.85% of the production value” mean?
Answer: To produce something of this quality, the production cost is $1000 per finished minute. The host portion of the video series is about 260 minutes. That should cost $260,000. With our method, you can buy the finished product, with yourself as host, for 3.85% of total production value, or 2.22% of the value of the actual series. We are providing a high quality video series — personalized — at a cost that no one else can equal.
Question: The series is mainly aimed at non-Adventists, as an evangelism tool, is that right? Is it shown in churches, or homes?
Answer: Yes, outreach is where it needs to be used. But it is also aimed at Adventists. The pastors can now empower their members to give studies. It is my conviction, based on the teachings of Jesus, that sharing your faith is salvific; you are putting your salvation in jeopardy if you don’t share your faith. Jesus said: He that is not gathering with me is scattering. That is pretty cut and dried — pretty radical. If I ask someone: “How many people have you led to Jesus in the last year, or last 12 years, or even last 20 years?” If the answer is “Nobody” then how can we complain about our kids or grandkids leaving the church, or about the decline in membership?
Obviously Thunder isn’t the only way to reach new people — but it’s a really good way.
It can be shared in a lot of places, but it’s targeted at small groups in homes. The format is that first the group views the video, then small groups discuss the Impression questions. This is the magic sauce — this is what makes the numbers so high.
Question: Did you write the scripts and the Impression questions yourself?
Answer: I wrote most of the scripts. The young people who were there with us on location also helped. The father of the method helped me write some of the questions. Also a group here in Tennessee helped to write the questions. They aren’t just something out of my head.
We actually created each episode’s question list as a living document. It is online, and downloadable for free. This means we can add to the questions and change anything that doesn’t work well.
Question: How long did it take to make the series, from start to finish?
Answer: My wife Karen and I stepped out of formal employment in March 2011, and by May we were in Israel, writing and shooting. We lived in Bethlehem for four-and-a-half months. Then we spent a year-plus shooting the host portion and editing.
To date we have finished the series and sold over a thousand sets with me as the host. Now we have also inserted 50 pastors, evangelists and a layman, and sold over a thousand sets with them as hosts.
Question: Why go to all the trouble to film in the Middle East? Why not just use your studio in Tennessee?
Answer: I think most Christian videos are boring — talking head stuff. I am not interested in most of the Christian videos that are out there. Most don’t hold my attention. I have seen some really good, well-made videos, but seeing the land where Jesus walked helps to bring his teachings alive.
Also the personalization adds to the interest. Shawn Boonstra, Doug Batchelor, and Mark Finley are great — but they are not members of my church. Someone might watch a video and become enamored with the host, but when they come to my church, that person is not there. Once the local pastor is inserted into the Thunder series, a church member can say: “Do you want to meet the host? The host is a personal friend of mine.” And then the person comes to the church, and there is that wonderful TV personality — your pastor! People love that. They are connected to the pastor before they ever meet him in person.
Question: How long does it take to film a host? Do you go to them or do they come to you?
Answer: They come to our studio in Nashville where we film them in the host role. It takes about three days to video their portion. We edit it, insert them, and give them a master set. They have a lifetime license to make as many copies as they want to use across the context of their local ministry. They can’t sell them or ship them all over the world, but they are free to use the series wherever they are.The license goes with them if they are transferred.
Question: Where did you get the idea to let churches use their own hosts?
Answer: When I first saw this Bible study method I was saying: Why haven’t I known this? Why haven’t I had this as a tool? I am on the front line — I have been pastor for close to 30 years. But no one ever showed me this. I wanted it badly enough that I was willing to step out of the safety net of the organized work where you have healthcare and a regular paycheck because I wanted it so bad. I figured other pastors would say the same thing. So if it’s for them, I thought we should just build it that way from the ground up.
Question: How much does a set of videos with a personalized host cost? Who is paying?
Answer: It costs $10,000 for a pastor to be inserted. For that, you get everything: scripts, coaching, and lifetime license for as many copies as you want.
For the most part, at this point, the conferences are paying. If you define church growth as 3% to 5% new membership per year (which to me as paltry, but if that’s your definition), only 25 churches in North America could claim they are growing churches.
If you take all the money the church in North America brings in each year, look at the tiny percentage that is used for outreach, then compare that with the number of baptisms, we are paying about $42,000 per baptism. Those statistics are so bad that something has to dramatically change. With this method that we use in Thunder in the Holy Land we can quickly turn that around and bring baptisms into the double digits.
Conferences are recognizing that they are spending $10,000, $20,000, $40,000 on evangelism (or millions in the bigger urban areas) and a year later what do they have to show for that?
The statistics on this Bible study method, however, are that the people are still there — active members of the church — a year later. With this method, as they answer the Impression questions, they talk themselves into the church, they make deep connections with church members and a year later they are still there.
Question: So the small group is really the key?
Answer: The small group is vital because the number one reason people aren’t in church a year later is because they don’t feel like they belong or fit in — they are not connected.
We start people at a small group level and we find them a mirror — that is, we try to find matching peers from the church. So if the pre-Adventists are two older ladies coming to the Bible study, we try to bring two older ladies from the church to also attend. If it’s a family with small children, we like to bring a family with small children from the church to be a part of the study. Adventists journey with the participants in the Bible study, and they are connected from day one. That is critical.
If the new members don’t show up to church one day, the small group members don’t wait for the evangelist to find them. No, they say: “That person belongs to me.” They feel responsible for them, and keep track of their friends. They defend them if anyone else in the church picks on them. They invite them to things. They make sure they are included.
The conferences might spend $10,000 on a local evangelistic crusade. Fifteen different conference presidents have all told me that after such an effort, they might get five baptisms.
But the conference secretary from the Manitoba-Saskatchewan conference has been using Thunder in the Holy Land and he has had 23 baptisms in seven months.
Question: You have advertised at ASI conventions, Southern Evangelism Council, campmeetings, pastor meetings, to local conferences. . . where else?
Answer: You are asking about our marketing strategy? The way I market the series is to try to get appointments with conferences to talk to their ministers. We actually do Thunder for 60 minutes — we give them an experience. Then we entertain 60 minutes of questions. When they see how it makes financial sense to use the series as part of their cycle for evangelism, and when they see how excited their pastors get, conferences will usually help support the insertion of their pastors.
Question: You said you have inserted 50 pastors, which is a lot, but not all that many if you think about how many pastors there are in North America. Who is not interested in this series, and what reasons do they give for not wanting to buy it?
Answer: Conference leaders who do not like evangelism (and there are some) are not interested. Conference leaders who do not understand the real cost of video production and what they are being offered are not interested. But for the most part, from what I’m hearing, there is a buzz going on about Thunder in the Holy Land up at the highest levels.
Question: What about showing the series to a bigger audience? What about 3ABN or The Hope Channel?
Answer: 3ABN is airing the program, but we didn’t make it for 3ABN. We made it for small groups. Which is why when I was asked if I would air it on Hope, I said yes, if you advertise it as a Bible study. But they didn’t want to do that. I didn’t do this to be famous or important, but so local pastors can have an effective tool that is life-changing.
Question: Why did you base QuestLine Productions in Nashville?
Answer: The Kentucky-Tennessee Conference heard what I was doing, and invited me to come down and share. The president said: “Every year we spend $200,000 or $300,000 or $400,000 on evangelism, and get our 200 to 500 new members, but this could be a game-changer.”
So they gave me free office space and free studio space, and 29 of their pastors have been inserted into the series.
Interviewer’s Note: Charles Byrd is my uncle, and I have been listening to him preach since I was a little girl and he got his first pastoring job in a three-church district in rural Pennsylvania.