In 2000, Phil Vischer was running the largest animation studio between the coasts, had revolutionized Christian family entertainment by selling thirty million Veggie Tales videos, and was named one of the top ten people to watch in worldwide religion. Vischer's vegetable empire, better known as Big Idea Productions, seemed poised to become a Christian Disney.
But by 2003 the dream was over. After a heartbreaking court decision, later overturned on appeal, Big Idea declared bankruptcy and Vischer had to sell the company's assets, including his computer animated characters Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber. We spoke with him recently about his life after Big Idea, and how God has transformed his understanding of ministry.
In the book you talk about growing up in evangelicalism. How did that shape your sense of mission when you started Big Idea?
In college I heard a sermon in chapel about knowing God's will. It was given by a former mathematician. He said that if God's will is not clear we should use the test of spiritual expediency. Which of the two choices in front of me will impact more lives? That one is God's will. My evangelical upbringing said more impact is better. It's better to be Bill Bright than Mother Teresa. Better to impact millions at once than one at a time. God has given us limited time and resources and we have to help as many people as possible - not just two or three. Mother Teresa should have franchised a system for feeding the poor on a massive scale. She needed an MBA.
When did that perspective begin to change?
Near the end we were selling a gazillion [Veggie Tales] videos and I was getting four hundred fan letters a day, but one day I was reading my Bible and I came across the verse that lists the fruit of the Spirit. It occurred to me that none of those things were present in my life. It didn't say the fruit of the Spirit is impact, large numbers, or selling lots of videos. I realized something was not right.
I began asking, how am I supposed to live? I thought I had that figured out, but evidently I was completely wrong. So over three months I went through all of Paul's letters and wrote down every directive or instructive statement he made. And when I read all of those statements it became clear that the gospel I had was a sham. It was more the gospel of Benjamin Franklin than the gospel of Jesus Christ. It was more about self-improvement, and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, and going out and changing the world. It was American cultural values masquerading as the words of Christ.
What is your understanding of success now?
Now I understand God has a unique journey for each of us with unique measures of success. Now I ask myself, have I done what God has asked me to do? Am I walking with him daily? Success has very little to do with where I end up. I don't know exactly why, but we seem wired to look for numerical results for affirmation. But success in ministry cannot be about measurable impact.
What advice do you have for church leaders? How can we keep our souls healthy?
I think we all have to start with a good self-assessment. That is what I did when I was sitting in the wreckage of my world-changing ministry reading the fruit of the Spirit and not finding it in my life. We should have peace. We should have joy. And that doesn't mean we should force ourselves to have it, because we can't. It will come from us when we've let go of our life, when we've let go of our ministry, when we've let go of any aspiration for having an impact. When it's just us and God we'll find the joy and the peace. Then, we can get back to work and help other people follow that path.
You can read more of the interview with Phil Vischer in the spring issue of Leadership.