Taking JESUS to the World
An Interview with Paul Eshleman, Director of the JESUS Film Project
For 25 years, Paul Eshleman has been a leading figure in the ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ Intl. He is known for directing EPLO ’72 in Dallas Texas, which trained over 80,000 students from across America to share their faith and the well-remembered, “I found it” campaign which targeted more than 200 US cities and reached 85% of Americans. Now he heads up the JESUS Film Project that has impacted over one billion people. We talked with him recently to get his thoughts on the future of this global effort.MF: Congratulations on reaching one billion viewers. When you first produced the film back in 1979, did you ever imagine that you would reach that many or was that part of the original plan?
Paul: The plan was always to produce a film that would be used by the whole world. And so we were careful in the scripting to stay as close as we could to the Scriptures and to keep this from being a North American production. Our initial target was every language of more than a million people of which there are currently over 285. At that time we believed there to be 163.
MF: What do you think has been the key to its success and use by so many mission agencies, 682 at last count?
Paul: I think the number one reason is that it is the Bible—the Scriptures brought to the motion picture screen. The power of the film is not in the cinamatography, the presentation or even in the actors, but the power is in the Word of God. Because it stays close to the Scripture, it can be used like the Bible and that is why mission organizations want to use it. It presents Christ in such a powerful way. Secondly, it attracts great crowds, and it is one of the easiest crowd drawers all across the world. Thirdly, you don’t have to have great powerful speakers in order to have an incredibly effective evangelistic campaign. All you need are people who can give a good invitation and people who can do the counseling afterwards. Very inexperienced people can turn on a projector. Every time it is shown you have the same high quality of presentation. Fourthly, it communicates so well to the millions of illiterate people in the world of many different languages. They are hearing it in their own language, and most of the time they have never seen a film in their own language before. When Jesus speaks, he doesn’t have a trace of a foreign accent. This is one of the most astounding things they have ever seen. We had someone ask one of our directors after a showing, “How long did it take you to teach that white man to speak our language without any accent?”
MF: I understand that you plan on reaching another 4 billion people by the year 2000. I realize that this is a faith-goal, but how do you plan on reaching so many people?
Paul: We have a marketing plan designed so that if the Lord brings in the money and television opens up in certain countries, we think it is still possible to do that. We are down to about 3.8 billion remaining and that number keeps dropping every month. We have five or six methodologies, and we have examined country by country which of these will work best and estimated how many people we think can be reached.
By using 16mm film teams we expect to reach around 210 million people through primarily rural showings in open areas suitable for large crowds.
We’re counting on 2.1 billion being reached through television broadcasts. But the Lord must open doors in some major areas first. We are praying for 8-10 national showings in every country during the next 3 1/2 years. This will be our number one target in the coming years. We want to sell the film to every national television network in every country in the next 12 months. So far we have been on television in 93 countries, but we need to be on multiple times because in one showing you may only reach five or ten percent of people depending on the number of channels they have. We also want to cover all the languages in a region on different regional channels. We just finished reaching nearly 100 million in India with telecasts this last Easter on all the regional network stations. But there are more people in India without television than with it, so that is why 16mm films in that particular country is such an important medium.
Through distribution of video cassettes we plan to reach 500 million. This allows us to get it into the exact language of the people. For example, in the former Soviet Union we’ve been going district by district through the country with video cassettes in the schools. Out of a total of 68 districts, we are down to just 20 where we have not done a distribution.
We think we are going to reach people in two other ways with the newest tools that we have—dramatic radio broadcast and audio cassettes. We have prepared six half-hour radio programs called the Story of Jesus and a 90 minute audio cassette of the Story of Jesus that can be played in people’s cars. We think we will reach 700 million through radio and 400 million through the audio cassettes.
That is how we plan to do it, and the cost of it between 1997 and the year 2000 will be right at 300 million dollars in order to get it done. It will be tough, but we will do as much as we can with what God provides.
MF: With the film now on audio cassette, how many languges do you plan on translating the audio cassettes into?
Paul: Our main target is for use on radio. It took us since 1980 to get to 400 languages. We probably can’t turn around those 400 into an audio format in the next three years, but we will have it in 200-300 by the year 2000. We will prioritize those languages that we are going to use on radio or those languages in closed countries where it’s going to be a primary methodology for them. After the year 2000 we will keep on going to more and more translations.
MF: How does your Macedonian Project relate to these efforts?
Paul: The Macedonian Project refers to our plan for comprehensive coverage of the world in the showing of the JESUS film as defined by three essential criteria of coverage. We are not saying that this is the fulfillment of the Great Commission, nor that people are evangelized, nor that they or their country are reached. All we are saying is that we have developed a definition of what we mean by world coverage with the film. This global coverage involves three things:
First, we must be able to document that we have enough presentations of the film for the number of people in each country. If a country has 10 million, we must document that 10 million people saw it through all
kinds of methodologies. That doesn’t mean that every last person saw it. It may be that some saw it three times and some not at all. We think we should be able to account for at least as many people having seen the film as there are in the country. It may take a person 5 or 10 presentations of the gospel in order for them to respond. We would like to see one of those to be the JESUS film.
Secondly, we think it needs to be in a language they understand. Hopefully, that is their mother tongue, but if not, the nearest trade language. We believe that by the end of the year 2000 we will have it in the mother tongue of 96% of the world’s population. The other four percent will be able to see it in a trade language. We are targeting 1,154 distinct translations for languages of 75,000 speakers or more. We currently have 420, with about 220 in process. One is completed about every seven days.
Thirdly, for adequate coverage, we must present the gospel through the JESUS film where they live. This means not just showing it in the major cities but to the people in the rural areas as well. We are looking to reach every target area of a million population. This involves reaching untouched areas and unreached peoples.
The Macedonian Project is designed to reach those areas and those unreached peoples where no one is currently showing the film. Recently, we asked our people around the world, “How many areas of a million people did they not have any partners or no one to show the film.” We determined that there were 2,300 of these. At our staff meeting this summer our own staff from the U.S. chose 1,900 of these and the rest will be covered by our staff from other parts of the world. We will be in every geographical part of the world. To us, the Macedonian Project is our attempt to be faithful to the Great Commission. The biggest reason that the world has not been reached is that we haven’t gone to every unreached people group and we haven’t gone to every geographic territory. We cannot promise to reach all of them. But we will be faithful to go to those spots. That is what the Macedonian Project is all about.
MF: Do you have any plans to put the JESUS film into the new DVD CD-ROM format and other mediums that may be less expensive?
Paul: It will be on the Internet by the end of the year. It will be on Digital Versatile Disks (DVD) soon, and it is already on CD interactive. By next winter, it will be available in every major format.
MF: At the U.S. Center, we believe that the Gospel should become indigenous to every people. Is the western looking Jesus a problem in making the Gospel indigenous to the people who see the JESUS Film?
Paul: So far, we have not found this to be a problem because such a large percentge of the world still lives in a first century culture. They are still fishing, farming and wearing very basic clothing. When they see JESUS in many parts of the world, they think it could have been filmed in the next village. Even though you’re portraying a Jesus with lighter skin, they still identify with Him because of what he is doing, where he is walking, the background with sheep and goats, the fishing scenes etc. There has simply been no problem with identification. I was in India watching a showing and an old man who looked like Ghandi, maybe 80 years old said, “I could identify with Jesus. Whenever he traveled around he never had a suitcase. He only had a bag, so I think he could understand poor people like me.”
But the greatest help is that Jesus is speaking their language perfectly. They are blown away by Jesus speaking their language fluently. Nobody has ever taken the time to learn their language so perfectly. Out of the thousands of film showings that I have been to in 15 years, not one person from another culture has said that they couldn’t identify with Jesus, except African Americans in the inner city. We may need to do something different for them.
MF: When you go into an unreached people with no existing churches to show the film, how do you do follow-up so that an indigenous church is established?
Paul: First, every single one of our film teams throughout the world, of which there are 1600 full-time teams, consist of nationals from that country.
Secondly, we want every film showing to be sponsored by the nearest church, even if it is 50 miles away. Prior to the film showing our teams visit that church and prepare their people as counselors. After the film showing, the people from the sponsoring church act as counselors. Someone gives the invitation to come to the light if they want to receive Jesus. Then a string of lights is turned on. Under each of these lights, is a counselor who has been prepared beforehand. The children gather by the screen, the women on the side and the men over a little farther. The counselor gathers them in groups, explains the gospel again and prays with them aloud to confirm their decision to receive Christ. Then it is announced to them and the whole crowd that if anyone wants to know more about how to grow in their faith, there will be a new life group that is starting tomorrow night in this house, or that building, or even a church if there is one nearby. Then a teaching elder from the sponsoring church comes every week and teaches this class which eventually become a daughter church. Our whole emphasis is to do this kind of evangelism which leads to church planting among all of the unreached peoples in every geographical area.
MF: A few years ago, Tom Steffen of Biola University wrote an article in Evangelical Missions Quarterly stating that we should not show the JESUS film until we understand a people’s beliefs, how they make decisions and know how to incorporate them into nurturing churches. How do you respond to such statements?
Paul: I think Tom has a valid concern that we should not do some kinds of pattern evangelism where we haven’t given thought to the people we are trying to reach. I think, in the case of the JESUS film, this is not a problem because it is just one way of presenting the Scriptures to them. One would have to say, “Don’t take the Gospel to them, don’t read the Bible to them until you know how they are going to respond. I know of no place where the Word of God does not relate to the present beliefs of people.
I think we do know how to incorporate people into nurturing churches because that is our ultimate goal. Sometimes, we have to start the church because there are no churches. I applaud his concern for doing appropriate evangelism, but I think that the JESUS film is probably the most cross-cultural tool that the Lord has ever given to us. It has led to the planting of churches in every single unreached people group to which we have gone.
MF: Do you adapt the presentation of the JESUS film according to the different peoples you minister to?
Paul: Only slightly. For example, when we go into radical Muslim areas, we remove the introductory remarks that are in the English version which say that there are one billion Christians. There is no need to say that to a Muslim up front, as if we are trying to compete. So we have made some adjustments to that. In a few areas, the invitation to receive Christ, which is not in the Bible, is stated in more appropriate ways. We have also adjusted the introduction and the close to be more appropriate to the particular peoples we are ministering to.
MF: Tell us about Project India. What is that all about?
Paul: Project India is our plan to show the JESUS film to every person in India. We have already shown it to 200 million. Right now, we are in a massive mode of securing partnerships. We have offered to provide the JESUS film, a 16mm projector, and some initial training to organizations worldwide if they will supply the manpower who will show the film 100 times a year.
This is drawing tremendous interest in India and we now have over 400 partners just in India alone who are supplying young men out of their Bible Schools or denominations. They are taking responsibility for particular territories and people groups to try to show the film. The initial target is to get 750 teams in India. We started about two years ago with 40 teams. Now there are 503 teams with a new one starting every 3 days. We plan to reach every person in his or her mother tongue in groups over 75,000. Those of smaller groups will be able to see the film through a trade language. However, if there are smaller groups of 25,000-30,000 that cannot understand any other language, we will do what we can to get it to them.
MF: Is there anything else that you would like to say to our readers?
Paul: I want people to realize that this is a film that belongs to the Body of Christ. The showing of the film is not just something that Campus Crusade for Christ or the JESUS Film Project is doing. We have 8,000 16mm films in circulation with many being shown by hundreds of mission agencies and denominations. The over two million videos in circulation are being used by many people outside our organization. Now is the time to forget about who gets the credit, and let’s just find out who hasn’t heard yet. We want to see the whole Body of Christ use this film as a resource to reach all peoples.
For more information please contact:
The JESUS Film Project 910 Calle Negosio, Suite 300 San Clemente, CA 92673-6251 Phone: 714-361-7575 FAX: 714-361-7579 WEB: http//www.jesusfilm.org/
JESUS Video a Bestseller at Cairo Fair
New as a volunteer, the young man was startled when a sheikh, a religious leader in largely Muslim Egypt, approached the Bible Society booth at the Cairo International Book Fair and requested a JESUS video.
After receiving the video, the sheikh then asked: “Where is my Bible?” The young man quickly supplied that as well.
A Cairo newspaper reported that story, as well as the fact that the JESUS film was the bestseller at the annual fair, the second largest such event in the world. (Frankfurt, Germany holds first place.) The 1997 Cairo fair drew an estimated 8 million people.
60,000 videos sold
Numerous glimpses showed the impact of the 60,000 videos sold during those weeks. In a newspaper article, one Muslim writer commented that after seeing the JESUS film himself, he understood why millions come to believe in Him. A well-known Egyptian writer of numerous books wrote in his daily newspaper column that he had watched and enjoyed the video twice in a row.
For the first time, newspapers allowed advertisements on the video’s sale to appear in Egypt’s leading papers, including a photo of Jesus as portrayed in the film. TV ads also told of the availability of the video and the Bible at the fair—a first in a nation where pictures of Islam’s prophets, including Jesus, are forbidden on television. Local Christians reported no negative publicity or public attacks connected with the intense weeks of sales.
Reprinted by permission of JESUS Film Update, Volume 13, No. 4, 1997