When William Walters founded Scripture Gift Mission in 1888, his two main innovations were to make the Bible available free of charge, and to dispatch a respected watercolour artist, James Clark, to the Holy Lands to produce paintings of everyday life: these images became coloured plates in the mission’s literature.
In a world where there was no internet or homogeneous media, and where photography was a recent, largely black and white, medium, these innovations helped ordinary people to access the Bible and connect to the story.
Walters believed that a proffered gift of an attractively produced copy of one of the Gospels, with a “winsome word of testimony”, was a sure means of evangelism. This combination of outreach, Scripture and artistic excellence has continued through to today, 133 years later. Formats and technologies may have changed, but the anatomy of each Lifewords resource still contains the same DNA, namely:
- the Bible’s own words
- set in an aesthetic framing
- resonance with readers’ lives
- released, freely, into a contemporary context
- providing ways into Scripture for all people.
To explore how this tradition plays out today, let’s consider at our newest Bible booklet, The True Light, released across the UK and beyond throughout Advent 2020 – perhaps many of you have enjoyed it? We love re-telling the narrative of Jesus’ coming, so that churches can share it in their communities. But have you ever wondered how to go about doing that differently again and again?
Our starting point is that we believe that the Word is everlasting in a constantly shifting world. So, our challenge is to tell the story in a way that resonates with the times. And, oh what times we live in! Creating a Christmas resource in the context of a raging global pandemic which, at the time of writing, has claimed nearly 85,000 lives in the UK alone – was not easy. But it felt necessary. We knew that Christmas services and outreach would not be “normal”. Even if churches could run advent activities, there would be a huge amount of online activity as well. Advent loomed in a world where for many, there would be an empty chair at the Christmas dinner table; or exhaustion from fighting for Justice to prevail or working flat-out to comfort the sick 24/7. Where people were locked down, their mental health suffering; where pressures on the economy, stress on the NHS and essential workers, and fear amongst the most vulnerable all added to the feeling that this was a haunted festive season, a Christmas unlike any other.
This was the context where the Christmas message of goodwill to all and peace on earth needed to resonate.
The new resource was to join the roster of resources that are always in demand, such as OUTSIDE/IN (re-telling the Christmas narrative through a window of invitation versus exclusion), or Meet the Cast (with its more traditional, family and children style); and with added animation, signing and social media, these resources still offered much.
In line with Walter’s vision for people to connect with the Bible’s message, we worked on both a physical booklet and an online format, inviting people to reflect – and journal – on where “the true light” would find them. On a local church level, it needed “shareability” online and in real life, as much as might be possible with Covid-19 restrictions. And, it could be an individual resource for people to engage personally, to reflect and make their own connections with the text.
Verse selection is key. Our approach is to feature passages, not single verses that can be misappropriated. We feature selections and point to the full narrative of the Bible. We test the theology – check different translations, explore nuances. Then, when we have a selection, we look at what, if any, non-Bible material would be helpful to give people footholds in to the story.
The idea came to build the text around verses describing intersections between God’s heralding of the coming Prince of Peace and those who were the initial recipients of that news. We noted that these “glad tidings” came to everyday people in a range of contexts, very often along with the assurance of “Don’t be afraid”: what a vital message right now! Where and among whom did this message come to earth, become grounded?
In the text, we read of shift-working shepherds doing their vital, physical work in the open air: that the message came to a group of essential workers on a break. How could we root that in our storytelling? Perhaps a nurse coming off shift after a day on a Covid-19 ward, or a shop worker or a bin lorry crew, and so on.
Then, we looked at how the Bible recounts that the True Light found people in the unexpected, in the joyful, in confusion; when we need clarity, when we feel worthless; in our desperation, grief and exhaustion. There were characters and places that reflected all this – Mary, Elizabeth, Joseph, shepherds, Magi, Rachel, even lowly Bethlehem itself. These links formed a core arc for the telling. Still, every booklet needs a “capstone”, and for this one it was the wonderful lyricism of John 1, book-ending the narrative with the True light coming in to the world: “And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son” (John 1:9-14 NLT).
After several drafts, checks and reflections, a “script” is signed off. But there’s still work to do!
Next, we consider design – the aesthetic, look and feel – and commission a designer or artist who can provide that style. In this case, collage would lend itself to contemporary media and online animation.
Finally, we consider the sizing and what kind of paper to print the physical resource on – what weight, finish, stitching, and so on. Then, we put it in the oven and wait!
With a digital strategy – something Walters would have been interested to see, I’m sure – and a range of promotions, the resource took its place in Lifewords range at the end of October 2020. Perhaps you enjoyed it for yourself and found it helpful. Every resource stands in line with Walters view that: “while there is an increasing demand for various kinds of literature, there is comparatively no taste for the Book of books – this priceless treasure, to which we owe so much, and which carries light and peace wherever it finds its way.”
Let’s keep on bringing lifewords!