The Free Bible images story couldn’t have had a less promising beginning. We were a small group of Christian men who were unemployed for a variety of reasons and had decided to meet in a local church side-room to offer mutual support. Some of us had just been made redundant; others were unable to work due to ill health; some were retired. On the surface it was a depressing encounter. But in reality it marked the beginning of an extraordinary plan that God was unfolding.
One of the group, Paul, shared an idea he had to provide free Bible images for teachers and preachers across the world to access via the internet. It sounded daft. But he was fed up of hearing a thousand words in church when a picture could be used instead. There was no money for the project, nor were there any resources in place. He hadn’t expected to be taken seriously but to his surprise the group was full of enthusiasm and decided to search the web to see what Bible story images were available.
At our next meeting we collated our research and the need for such a free resource became evident. When we shared our experience we found we had skills in project management, finance, marketing and design. We ‘no hopers’ collectively made a formidable team. Perhaps God had brought us together for a reason.
We had wide experience in business but deliberately set out to break all the usual rules of commerce and concentrate on putting ministry before money, prioritising faith over funding and putting Bible principles above business practice.
Far from being depressing, our meetings abounded with humour. The name FreeBibleimages was adopted, with the acronym F.B.i. (a lower case i to avoid confusion with a much larger covert organisation). A self-confessed technophobe, Tony, was put in charge of I.T. (although here it stood for Integrity and Tea making).
We decided to enlist some willing actors and schedule a photo shoot based on some of the New Testament parables. But where would this take place and how would we get the costumes to clothe the cast? Yet God had planned for that too. The Wintershall Estate, which had hosted the wonderful Life of Christ productions for many years, had a huge barn and a massive array of costumes. Sir Peter Hutley who runs Wintershall, after an initial meeting, gave us free use of the costumes and the facilities.
With some initial funding from the Seedbed Christian Trust, the FBi team was ready to progress. February 2010 was scheduled for the first shoot.
But then tragedy struck. The wonderful ‘head of I.T.’, Tony Staite, who had recently developed cancer, passed away just before the shoot took place. Two more members of the team had minor operations and the shoot director, had acute flare-up of a chronic condition. Only one member of the team, was fit … and he collapsed in London the week before the shoot and ended up in Accident and Emergency. Everything and everyone seemed under attack. So that was even more reason to carry on. People in the churches we attended rallied round to help.
One of the Bible passages being photographed was The Parable of the Great Feast, featuring, ‘the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ One way and another most of them seemed to be in the barn that day.
Eighty frames had to be shot in eight hours. Filming started at ten o’ clock. By eleven o’ clock only five shots had been taken. Time was running out.
But we have a great God who answers prayer. Those who had had operations and health issues joined in with enthusiasm. An actor who had broken her rib earlier that week gamely took part, although she hadn’t anticipated empathising with the role of the crippled woman quite so strongly. There’s method acting for you.
And we made up the time too. Not only did we complete the three planned stories but an extra one as well: the Parable of the Persistent Widow – a story about persistent prayer.
The team was excited by the success of the first shoot and soon the results were up on our newly developed website – ready to be shared with the world. And the world was keen to partake. In the first few months since its inception, hundreds of users visited the site. With some good search engine optimisation, people were quickly finding us online when they searched for ‘free Bible images’ or similar.
One of our first tasks was to form a prayer support group. Everyone was agreed that the project should be surrounded by prayer, especially as there had been so many difficulties. Prayer partners came forward and provided a stalwart support base. They were going to need the ‘knees of a camel‘ as requests came thick and fast.
A constant problem was lack of money. The early funding was soon used up and although the team gave their time for free, there were photographers to pay as well as the costs of uploading new material. An application was made to a Christian Trust who kindly put up more funds – although they were soon used up by the next shoot: Elijah.
Some of the Wintershall cast had volunteered to play Bible characters for the photographs and proved a willing and talented bunch. One in particular, Brian Worthington, seemed to have a biblical face and he was an obvious choice for Elijah. (Even though he was actually a retired solicitor from Walton-on-Thames in Surrey, England!) He looked great in the photos and by the end of June another story had been added to the site.
But we were conscious that white Anglo Saxons – even those with brown eyes and suntans – do not look the most authentic Bible characters. For the next project, the story of Joseph, we needed to find middle-eastern people who would look the part. We contacted a Coptic Church in the UK and Paul and Gill visited to ask for volunteers.
The congregation was Egyptian, Syrian and Greek and so looked much closer to the way Joseph and his brothers and some of the Egyptians in the Bible story would look. The response was amazing. About fifteen people volunteered to take part with more promised. It was a particularly poignant moment considering that two weeks earlier 21 people were killed and 90 injured in an unprovoked attack on a Coptic Church in Egypt.
The generosity and enthusiasm of these persecuted people was heart warming. Some of them came quite a distance to be there and one group had enjoyed themselves so much on the Saturday they came back again on the Sunday afternoon just to watch. As we got to know them a little better, we got to know their stories: one family had to flee from Egypt in the wake of the shootings there to take refuge in Britain. They didn’t know anything about the project but had heard that morning that people were travelling across from the church and decided to come with them to offer their services.
We were gradually amassing a multi-cultural cast. There were volunteers from Egypt, Syria, Greece, the West Indies and South Africa. It was great to see people from different churches and different countries working together on a Christian project.
As well as trying to replicate the ethnicity of Bible characters more accurately, we were also seeking to find new acting talent with the right look. A cursory phone call to churches in the area produced Rob O’ Shea, a professional actor and the warm up artist for a TV quiz show. He is also an enthusiastic Christian. He played the part of Joseph brilliantly and everyone was hugely impressed by the fact he could make himself cry at will. A true professional. Mind you, at the end of the shoot, when Joseph was reunited with his elderly father Jacob, the actors played their parts so well that the tears flowed for real.
But there was a shock to follow. The wife of our web designer, who had been suffering from a brain tumour, was taken into hospital. A few weeks later she passed away to be with her Lord and Saviour. There are times when as a Christian you don’t know what to say or do … we just prayed and prayed for her devastated husband … and continue to do so.
In this difficult time we needed to find someone to take on the responsibility of updating and maintaining the web site. David, a web expert attending one of our local churches, was approached and he was willing to take on the role for us.
BARRIERS AND BREAKTHROUGHS
The free download of pictures was the project’s biggest asset but also its biggest problem. Some individuals and churches had given generously but as each story cost about £1200 to produce so donations were soon used up.
The team freely gave their time to this project but the costs still needed to be met. We could not raise money fast enough and projected shoots often had to be put on hold until money was forthcoming. Nevertheless, we planned the Joseph shoot in faith, knowing we could not afford the post production costs after the shoot to get the images online. The next day two cheques arrived in the post. Against all the odds God was blessing this project.
Another break-through was meeting up with the directors of Big Book Media. This wonderful company produces films of Bible stories. They shared our vision to provide high quality Bible images to the world and were prepared to license some stills from their films – at half the price it cost us to create them. Again God was at work.
FreeBibleimages began 2012 with its funds used up so the team took the problem to God. We came into contact with Sweet Publishing who had created and used over 2000 images for a Sunday School curriculum now out of print. After making contact, Sweet Publishing made these images available to FreeBibleimages to distribute freely under a Creative Commons Share-alike licence. The cost to us – absolutely nothing.
This generous act by Sweet Publishing to make these images available along with our technology and web site was a brilliant combination. God just brought us together – amazing.
The team of volunteers took their artwork into Photoshop, to enhance and optimise the images, then put them into Bible story sets. A new section of the site – FreeBibleillustrations – was soon up and running.
Over the next few months volunteers began to come forward willing to translate the Story Planner PDF files into other languages. Translations are now underway for Spanish, Romanian, Hungarian and German – but many more are needed.
Following an interview on United Christian Broadcasting about the project, another Photoshop user came forward willing to darken the skin tones in the images to better represent Middle Eastern skin hues. It is an important part of the FreeBibleimages philosophy to make our images as culturally and racially accurate as we can.
As of the Summer of 2012 FreeBibleimages have people downloading sets of Bible story files in their hundreds each day.
Tony Staite, who passed away in 2011, left the team £1,000 to get images created for the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It was accomplished and is currently the most popular download. His legacy will be online for future generations. As a former bank manager he called it ‘the best investment [he] would ever make’ – and he was right.
The grumpy old Christian men at FreeBibleimages are learning God’s ‘power shows up best in weak people’ (2 Corinthians 12 verse 9). There is certainly weakness. But the vision is strong and we know God is backing us.
After all, ‘If God is for us, who can be against us?’ (Romans 8:31) or as actor Brian Worthington declared aloud when we shared our ideas with him – ‘the gates of hell will not prevail against it.’
2013 – UPDATE
The rest of 2012 continued to provide challenges and break-throughs. Lack of funds was still a problem but God always provided. We called it the manna approach – there was never enough money to make us feel secure but always sufficient for our needs. God was teaching us a lesson here! By the end of the summer our bank account was empty again and we knew we had to finance the Christmas stories to be put on the site in time for people to download them. All our team are unpaid volunteers but we have ongoing administration and development costs.
One of the lessons we have learned is that very few, if any, of those downloading files take the time to make a donation. Should we be more direct about asking for donations? We felt not. Most of our users are already giving their time and talents generously to God to teach others the Bible so we wanted to encourage them – not make them feel guilty. So we decided that after a download they did not need an in-your-face prompt to donate but a Bible verse to motivate them. It didn’t improve our finances but we did have a peace about this approach.
Then, out of the blue, The Seedbed Trust, who had given us some start-up funding, invited us to apply for another grant. We didn’t ask, they asked us! To our delight they gave us £5,000 – enough for the Christmas story image sets. Praise the Lord!
But the licensing of images and publication of the Christmas story took our funds to zero again. We needed more money for administration costs and we hoped to finance the production of the Easter story later on. Now what? We decided to take the initiative ourselves. The idea was to do a sponsored cycle ride round the Isle of Wight in the South of England – around 70 miles. Now most on the cycle team were in their fifties and sixties, two had had major operations and one suffered from a chronic condition. Not the most likely group. What is more, we set a target to raise £6,000, a seemingly big ask. But again God was good. The mid-October day (often cold and wet in the UK) dawned sunny and mild. Everyone completed the trip, with varying degrees of finesse. Half way round God lit up the sky with the most beautiful rainbow. One of the riders jokingly said it must be His sign we should never do this again! Nevertheless, 115 people made donations and the amount raised after gift aid was £6,900 – all we had hoped for plus a little bit more. Thank you, Lord!
The site was continuing to grow. By the end of 2012 FreeBibleimages was being visited by people in 198 countries with thousands of images being downloaded each day. And we still hadn’t even officially launched the site! It was imperative that we did this but once again lack of funds meant anything we planned would be a fairly meagre affair. What could we do?
In August 2012, someone had nominated FreeBibleimages for the People’s Choice category in the Christian New Media awards to be held in the Autumn of 2012. There were thousands of nominations so we didn’t get our hopes up, but to our surprise we were shortlisted. People began voting online for shortlisted nominees and a few week later we heard we were in the final two places and invited to the ceremony, a plush affair at an amazing London venue. We had a delicious meal, talked to some inspiring Christians… and won the award!
John and Paul went up to receive it and dedicated it posthumously to Tony Staite, our ‘Director of I.T’ whose enthusiasm had helped launch the project. So without a marketing budget, God had provided us with a first class launch with an acceptance speech that was filmed and available to watch throughout the world. Wow! Our thanks to Premier Christian Radio for organising the event with such style. We got a major boost in new visitors to the site also.
As funds got low again, we took a step of faith to use them all up to license further images of the story of Easter. Two weeks later we got the news of an unexpected gift of £5,000 from a Christian Trust. We had not applied to them for money but they had heard of our project and its growth and decided to support us. Images of the story of Easter can now be shared around the world. God is so good!
The challenge for the team, all born in BC (Before Computers) is to get the help of those born AD (After Digital) to generate interest in the site via social media. We are on a learning curve working out how Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and other online communities can help us communicate with those who will find our images useful.
As we look back over 2012 we are awed by how much God has blessed this project. Each day stories flood in of how people are using the images to teach the Bible, often in very difficult circumstances. We are never complacent – each month brings new challenges. But we rejoice that God has been willing to use a group of grumpy old Christian men… to help others teach the Bible more effectively.
2013 – TRIALS AND TESTING
At the beginning of a new year we often sing the chorus that begins:
I do not know what lies ahead, the way I cannot see…
As we started out 2013 full of hope for FreeBibleimages, it was probably just as well we couldn’t see what lies ahead as there were certainly some challenges in store.
2012 had been a great year and God had really blessed the project. We had won the People’s Choice category in the Premier Christian New Media Awards but, more important, the numbers of people downloading from our web site were increasing each month. The team was in good health and everything was going to plan. Maybe the difficulties were behind us and we could continue to ride the crest of the wave.
By June our funds were low but were able to attend an event organised by the Kerygma Fund in London. It works a bit like Dragons’ Den, the TV programme where entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to potential investors. In this case, Christians pitch their projects to Christians looking to support Christian initiatives. We had 6 minutes to present FreeBibleimages. Six organisations were granted funding and we were one of those – £15,000 was given, Kerygma allowing us to get many more sets of images online. Fantastic. What could possibly go wrong?
Later in June we ran our annual fund raising bike ride on the Isle of Wight, which raised another £3,000. It was a lovely day, fine weather, and everyone enjoyed the event.
One enthusiastic cyclist was David, the son of one of our trustees. He completed the Isle of Wight course with ease and had already recovered by the following weekend to go cycling in Sussex with some friends. But as he was cycling through some woods he crashed, sustaining three bleeds to his brain and three fractured vertebrae. His worried parents, on holiday miles away, had a 4 hour ‘dash’ to be with him in hospital. The FBi team was stunned. It didn’t seem fair that David, who had contributed so much to the project, should suffer in this way. We alerted our prayer partners and we all prayed fervently for David’s recovery.
Paul, another trustee, had completed the bike ride but within five days his health had collapsed and a month later he was in hospital. A self-employed man, he was unable to get back to his normal work for the remainder of the year but thankfully could sit at home putting more images online.
Les had been part of the team presenting to the Kerygma Fund. He is a great enthusiast for the project and used our images in local school assemblies and in Romania. We were all shocked to hear the news he had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer near the spine, which needed immediate surgery. The lump was removed but further treatment was needed with specialist equipment only available in the USA. The National Health Service sent Les, supported by his wife, over to a hospital in Florida for regular ongoing treatment for the remainder of the year.
The value of having a prayer support team cannot be underestimated. Prayer is vital to the success of the project and to ensure we do not lose motivation when faced with difficult problems. At the start of 2014 things are looking much more positive. David is making a good recovery and Paul is well enough to start rebuilding his business again. In fact, we published more in this period of time than in any time in our short history. Les is now back from the USA and making good progress. He tells us, ‘I read a poster in a restaurant when I was in Jacksonville that really moved my heart: ‘Don’t tell God how big your storm is… tell the storm how big your God is.’ The FreeBibleimages team, and those associated with it, have experienced plenty of storms. But our God is bigger. Praise Him.
All the while we were praying through these setbacks, more and more people were finding FreeBibleimages and downloading files. In November the stats told us we were getting, on average, a full set of images downloaded every minute, 24 hours a day and on some days this was a higher at a download every 45 seconds. In adversity God was still growing the ministry.
To expand the work further, we are making plans to allow people to contribute Bible story artwork to the ‘Word in Pictures’ project. However we have to be very careful about copyright. We were given scans of artwork from a Bible Story filmstrip series, produced many years ago by the Moody Bible Institute and spent several frustrating months trying to unravel the red tape around copyright and permission to publish these images for teaching purposes only.
Then we had a breakthrough. Fred, who deals with the publishing rights for Moody Publishers, was visiting England before Christmas and willing to meet with us. Over a meal in London we obtained the agreement we needed and became friends with Fred. He is a lovely Christian man, who understands the issues around providing free Christian resources in a commercial world. It was well worth the wait to meet Fred and do things properly – in God’s way and in His timing. We launched the new Contributors section of FreeBibleimages in February 2014.
Now it is a new year and it is time for that chorus again. Perhaps the events of 2013 have caused us to sing the second verse a little more fervently:
I know who holds the future, and He’ll guide me with His hand;
with God things don’t just happen, everything by Him is planned.
So as I face tomorrow, with its problems large and small,
I’ll trust the God of miracles, give to Him my all.
2014 – GROWTH AND BREAKTHROUGHS
2014 began with encouraging growth. Paul, who had been housebound for six months due to illness, was able to get lots of image sets ready. His son, Richard, who had just graduated with a masters in Digital marketing worked with us to advise and help build our online profile. By March a set of images were being downloaded, on average, every 50 seconds, 24 hours a day. Paul was gradually able to get back to work. David, who had a bad accident the weekend after our fund-raising bike ride in 2013, is now back on his bike but has promised he won’t be doing any more jumps.
However, Les Black, a great FreeBibleimages enthusiast, who has used our pictures in his local church and in Romania, had a set-back. He was sadly informed in May that his cancer had returned and was incurable. Just recently Les wrote to a former American colleague promoting the FBi website. He said: “For me, the FBi project is like the parable of the mustard seed: from nothing 5 years ago, God has grown a tree that brings blessing worldwide”. Despite his illness, Les intends to support the FBi team and project “until his race is finished”. We continue to pray fervently for Les, that God will keep moving the finishing line a long way ahead of him.
We were undecided whether to run another round the Isle of Wight sponsored bike ride this year, wondering whether it had seen its day. We were conscious that it relied on the goodwill of the same bunch of loyal cyclists and often drew on the same support base for funding. The uncertainties of the British climate and safety issues added further risks. However, God clearly had other plans. After much prayer we decided to go ahead. To our amazement Les Black insisted on riding around part of the island. His courage and enthusiasm helped ensure the best sum raised to date – over £7,000! Thank you Les – and thank you God.
Encouragement came in September when we heard that Big Book Media had just finished filming the four gospels on location in Morocco. We have an agreement with them, allowing us to purchase and then license their still shots. In contrast to recent Bible epics coming out of Hollywood, they have made every effort to film each scene just as it happened in the Bible and used the Bible text, without any edits, as the narration.
In December we watched extracts from these films at the launch of the LUMO project in the beautiful location of Southwark Cathedral in London, and were amazed at the quality and authenticity of the films. More stills from these, as we can license them, will be appearing on our site during 2015. But we were saddened to hear that a young man we have got to know from the Lumo project is facing significant health problems and we are praying very much for him.
We decided to hold another fund raising event in October. This time, as a new venture for us, we thought we’d run a concert. With little experience in catering or event management, it was a big ask – but we had a secret weapon: the wonderful Christian singer, musician and raconteur Jonathan Veira. We found an ideal venue, sent out loads of publicity, bought huge quantities of refreshments…and prayed hard. It was a superb evening! People roared with laughter at some of Jonathan’s stories and there were more than a few tears at the end of some of his beautiful songs … and all this from reserved Brits! Everyone who attended agreed the concert had been a great success – and we raised another £1,500 to put images on line.
A major breakthrough came at the end of November when a team of four Christian brothers and sisters working in China finished translating all of our story planners into simplified Chinese. Praise God that our web site can still be viewed in China, but, should it be blocked, that the files are already there and widely distributed.
Hindi is the main language for over 258 million people. A team working in a church in India translated all the story planners into Hindi, allowing us to share great Bible stories with a vast new population! Praise God for those who have made this possible.
By the end of 2014 we had over half-a-million downloads into every country apart from the Western Sahara. We have welcomed some new friends to our contributors section – Bible Hub, The Redemption story, with some new images from Moody Publishers to come.
2015 brings new challenges and opportunities. We want to publish lots of high quality images of the Gospels but need to raise a lot of money to meet this challenge. Our experience is that God supplies your needs but only when you really, really – even to the point of desperation, need it. We also need much prayer support for those facing ongoing health challenges.
This is an exciting journey to get the Word into Pictures and no-one but God knows what is around the next corner. We praise Him for his faithfulness in 2014 and trust He will continue to bless us greatly in the year to come
2015 – A YEAR OF TWO HALVES
Football pundits talk about a, ‘game of two halves’, and 2015 was a bit like that for Free Bible images. The first half ran smoothly but the second was full of challenges.
In July 2015 the team met for a barbecue. We were delighted to have as our guest Margaret Prentice, who was visiting England for a short trip. Margaret, and a team of volunteers, use our images to teach Religious Education in schools in New Zealand. It was a happy occasion as we celebrated our first one million downloads of image sets.
Two days later we ran our annual fund-raising cycle ride/walk on the Isle of Wight. Margaret joined in the walk and contributed to a very successful event. We were also delighted that Les was well enough to take part.
There was some concern about one of the cyclists, who crashed his bike but bravely cycled on for another ten miles. (He was later found to have two cracked ribs!) They breed them tough round here.
Just when our situation looked comfortable, we faced renewed challenges. Paul, who puts our image sets together, became ill whilst on holiday and was unable to continue with his work as a self-employed I.T. trainer for the rest of the year. John, our chairman, had a bladder biopsy. Raphe, our treasurer, had to go into hospital for a hip operation.
In this period of difficulty we published more images than ever. Paul worked from home when he was strong enough to do so. He was particularly encouraged when two Christians in India who use our images, skyped him to say that God had asked them to pray for him. Bill, a user in the USA, got a group praying which added to the prayers of the FreeBibleimages team.
In December John was given the all-clear on his biopsy and Raphe was recovering well too. Paul is well enough to work on a computer. It does seem that when we are at our weakest, God makes us strong.
During these adversities we found new contributors. One of them, Sue Bentley, an artist and teacher, was recovering from her own health issues. She decided to use her time to create artwork for young children, which has proved very popular. The Christmas story set she created was our most popular download in December.
During the latter part of the year we were able to launch a mobile-friendly version of our website. There has been an 87% increase in the number of people using mobiles and tablets to access our website, so this was an important step.
Another technological breakthrough was launching our new Story View. This lets people view each image in a story along with the caption text. We aim to encourage people to use mobile devices to ‘tell’ Bible stories to others using the images to keep their attention. Since its launch in September, the Story View has proved to be very popular.
We are deeply grateful that God led us to a Christian man, David Gosnell, to do our web work. His coding expertise is vital in the development of our website. David has created an online portal we can make available to those wishing to translate our materials. One of the first organisations to use this was ‘Gobaith I Gymru’ who are translating our Story Planners into Welsh for use in Welsh schools. It has been thrilling to see new translations in Arabic, Hindi, Telugu, Spanish, Hungarian, Romanian, Portuguese among others.
We were encouraged by users contacting us to say how they are using our free resources around the world. We have posted some of this feedback on our Facebook page. Those teaching in areas where Christians are persecuted remain unpublished but are always in our prayers.
Although we enjoyed the comfort and ease of the first half of last year, overcoming the difficult personal and technical challenges in the second half has seen the work grow. The first half was in our strength but the second half was heavily reliant on God. 73 new sets of Bible story images were published and downloads were up 23%. It is our testimony that God provided for all our needs in 2015.