Perhaps you know the feelings. They're not uncommon to so many of us who believe what the Bible says, but wonder how to get the message to the masses, or even if we could articulate what we believe in a clear, cohesive, friendly manner to someone of a different viewpoint with whom we are blessed enough to converse.
For the last several years I've followed the trend back towards Christians-Creating-Culture (as opposed to doing the other "C"s we've become known for - combating, critiquing, and cocooning ourselves off from it, to borrow terms from Dick Staub's excellent book, The Culturally-Savvy Christian). So when I came across the efforts of one humble individual who was responding to God's call by "Helping Christians better understand and share their faith using just a pen and a napkin," I was intrigued. Much more so when I realized that the "Napkin Theology" videos Stan Ward was uploading to YouTube were of good quality (thanks to project videographer Robbie Jones of Pine Cove Christian Camps), useful as training tools for believers, and primers for unbelievers.
Then consider that I know the guy. In the early 90s, this gentleman and I had as much influence on each other as anyone, studying theology and ministry together at college for 75 percent of the year, and going crazy with summer campers together at a Christian youth camp during the remaining 25 percent (but I digress; you can read more about those experiences here).
Needless to say, I had to talk to Stan about how he came up with the clever, insightful, and just-funny-enough videos in which his crude drawings and storyteller's voice merge to illustrate invaluable theological points. Consider, for example, how even in the middle of Stan's current fair-minded series on the various worldviews that are out there he lightens the mood right off the bat by reminding us that "philosophy can be boring, but cows make everything fun!" This was one man with one small idea, responding to God's push, creating something tangible and useful to the Kingdom. In other words, doing that which so many of us would hope to say about ourselves. Surely he's got something valuable to share...
Crosswalk: Stan, did I see something that said you got your inspiration for Napkin Theology from something Phil Vischer of VeggieTales fame had written or said?
Ward: Yeah, it was a Christianity Today article that came out last fall. The title was "Platform Agnostic: A Conversation with Phil Vischer."
My takeaway from it was there's basically two levels of visual media that are really influencing culture right now. It's either high-end media, i.e. Avatar, or low-end media, like YouTube. So the VeggieTales style of Saturday morning cartoon-style media has lost a lot of its ability to influence. That was my takeaway. Sometimes I'm not entirely true to what I read (laughs), but that was my conclusion after reading the article.
CW: So reading this article stirred something in you that made you say, well, maybe I can't do the high-end media, but I could do low-end stuff? And what brought you specifically to thinking you could create this Napkin Theology spot?
Ward: The first thought was, yeah, there's a lot of people that can put stuff on YouTube. But surely that would be an outlet. The second thought was, "What can I do that's YouTube-able?" The class I teach at Brook Hill is a Christian Worldview class that covers the whole year. The first semester covers constructing a Christian worldview, the second semester then goes into non-Christian alternatives. And with most of my weekly lessons I always try to have some sort of illustration that sort of summarizes what we've talked about, that helps to illustrate some main idea. It's usually just something I can draw on the board quickly.
Last year I started kidding with my students, saying, "Yeah, this is something where next time you're at Starbucks and you want to talk theology, whip this out! You can do this on a napkin." So we as a group started calling this "Napkin Theology." I don't know if I came up with the title or one of my students did. It's just something that both last year and this year has been a part of class the students have really enjoyed. So I thought, okay, this is something I could put in a YouTube format that may be creative enough to get people's attention. It's short, so hopefully it's memorable, it communicates a certain skill - the ability to communicate what you believe, or to think about faith visually. The bottom line for me is kind of one of my soapboxes: seminary takes too long and costs too much, so there's gotta be a better way to start doing theological education. And although I wouldn't claim Napkin Theology is the last word on anything, I think it can be a helpful first word.
CW: What kind of feedback and response have you seen so far?
Ward: Overall I'm pretty pleased. You know Daniel Wallace of Gull Lake Ministries has talked about including one or multiple videos into the training they do up there... a pastor friend of mine who's in Colorado - I just got a Facebook message from him just a few minutes before you called - he's going to use one of them this Sunday in his message. I also just went and looked at some of the statistics with some of the videos just to see what's been happening with them, and a couple have some blog links and things like that. So, they're starting to spread. It's a slow process, and I'll also admit too, I think it requires a very specific taste (laughs). It's not necessarily mass media by any means; you've got to have certain kinds of interests, and maybe even a certain whimsy to get your theology on a napkin.
CW: You mentioned that much of your material comes from the classes you teach at The Brook Hill School; do you have any others you're coming up with anew now that this has kicked off?
Ward: We're in the middle of what I'm calling a Worldview series right now, and I'm definitely going to play that out for a while. Again, I'm not the last word on any of this, but I really enjoy thinking in terms of Christian worldview; that's something I discovered when I was in seminary. It's a relatively simple concept that has great explanatory power. And because I teach that here, I also do some work with our faculty on trying to teach from a Christian worldview, how do we do that, what does that look like, what are the presuppositions we need to have in order for that to work... So Christian worldview's something I think about a lot. Of course, I'm not a professional philosopher, so I do so haltingly and awkwardly, but I do think I have a gift for taking big ideas and making them consumable. So that's one of the things that I just do. In my spare time I kinda think about these things, and go, "Gosh, how could you communicate this?"
CW: Do you have any advice on how others can act upon urgings from God or gifts that they have to create, to influence culture, to evangelize, to get the message out there in new and fresh ways?
Ward: Well I guess I could start with an anecdote: Robbie Jones - who's the videographer for the project - when I got the idea I called him, and reminded him about the scene from Blues Brothers, where Aykroyd says "We're on a mission from God"? (Laughs). I was trying to use that to say, "Man, we got a mission." I don't know if that's gonna motivate everybody, but it seemed to work on him. In a nutshell, what do you do? I think you have to recognize two things: 1) What are your gifts? 2) What are your resources? For me, I know I can take relatively complex ideas and put them in a consumable fashion without reducing them to silliness. And then, too, I have a very good friend who's a videographer! And I'm not afraid of digital technology, I'm kind of intrigued by it, so with those things in mind I thought, well, let's just give this a shot and see what happens.
CW: When I first saw these I thought, "This is incredible." You mentioned the Starbucks idea - any Joe Schmo just sittin' in a bar or a coffee shop or a restaurant could easily pull out the cocktail napkin and a pen and illustrate these things to people with whom they've struck up a friendly discussion. I think it's something that, the more people who see it, could really catch on in explaining - as you say - the Christian worldview to others. It's a phenomenal method, and really, easily packageable to any regular person who may have trouble articulating in other ways what their faith means to them.
Ward: And that's the goal. That really is the goal, is to equip people to a) either think through their faith a little more, or b) communicate their faith in a way that's accessible. And if I've done that, then I feel like a success. Obviously that's where the conversation needs to happen - outside the walls of the church. In fact, probably the greatest compliment would be to find this laying around on a bar napkin somewhere someday...
Stan Ward is a teacher at The Brook Hill School in Bullard, TX, a non-denominational Christian boarding school with a three-fold mission: to provide excellence in college preparatory education, affirm the gifts and challenge the potential of each student, and encourage students to honor God through Christ-like character. Stan is also a doctoral candidate in Leadership Studies at Dallas Baptist University. He lives in Bullard with his wife and two daughters.
You can find more Napkin Theology videos by Stan at youtube.com/napkintheology. Follow along on Facebook at facebook.com/napkintheology.
Original publication date: March 3, 2010