Not many people have “Megachurch Creative Director” on their resume. Even fewer can say they’ve directed a comedy with Chris Kattan and Fred Willard. Jesse Bryan doesn’t seem to think twice about it. And when Pastor Mark Driscoll of Seattle’s Mars Hill Church recently went to the Holy Land, Jesse Bryan was the man behind the lens.
“Pastor Mark is my pastor and he’s also like a big brother, too,” Bryan says, who seems refreshingly unfazed by the media attention around Driscoll. “In Seattle, it’s just not that same as it is everywhere. Nobody knows who Mark Driscoll is. Nobody knows who any of us are. For me, he’s just a totally normal guy who works his butt off, and he beats the same drum every Sunday: the Gospel.”
Behind the scenes at Mars Hill Church, things seem surprisingly normal. Part of their worldwide media success probably has to do with Bryan’s lack of church experience growing up. “I became a Christian at age 19, so I don’t know what other churches do. And I’m in Seattle, where there are no churches, so I can’t go to other churches and learn. So we’ve been winging it for four years. We don’t have a big budget because we have a bunch of young Christians, so it’s always been like, 'Alright man, we’ve got like 20 bucks,'” Bryan quips.
Big budget or not, Bryan seems genuinely excited about life and Jesus. He’s the kind of guy who seemingly has unlimited Red Bull in his veins—like he has to pinch himself to believe that he gets to do what he loves for God. Not out to get rich or famous making movies, he uses his position to bring clarity to the gospel and brevity to life that can be burdensome at times.
“Here’s the problem: We confuse style for content in the church. We go, 'Did you see how cool that Nooma video was?' And then you go, 'I have no idea what anyone was talking about'," Bryan says in a little church-to-church jab.
“The classic thing with Christian church media is that I need to be relevant and all this kind of stuff. You don’t realize that what is relevant as a Christian artist is Jesus. And then you end up with this insane product that nobody understands—including yourself most of the time.”
Just because Bryan works at a church, doesn’t mean he constantly watches Fireproof and listens to Michael W. Smith. In fact, Bryan recently directed a secular PG comedy movie called Scout’s Honor.
“I’m not really into the Christian movie thing. I’ve met a lot of the guys that have done the big Christian movies and they’re usually fantastic guys. But that stuff doesn’t appeal to me at all. In fact, if they saw my movie they’d probably be mad because there are a couple of wiener jokes and things like that.”
Despite the availability of more lucrative commercial gigs, Bryan continues to embrace his creative, indie roots. He recognizes the struggle of finding his identity in creativity rather than in Christ. “The question is, What makes me valuable as a person? Is it the fact that I’m a creative director? Or the fact that I make movies or that I work with these bands?” Bryan says. “If I get my identity in these things I am going to end up shooting myself because it doesn’t do anything.”
Too often in the American church, congregations focus on trying to outdo each other in technology, showmanship, and presentation. Thousands of dollars are spent trying to appeal to church hoppers and first-time visitors while often ignoring the message of the gospel. When directing, Bryan starts with the text of the Bible as his focus and works from there. His pragmatic approach has helped Mars Hill Church expand their reach online through video and audio podcasting.
“The easiest thing to do is to go back to the text—go back to the scripture," Bryan says. "The biggest thing in churches right now, unfortunately, is, Who is the most innovative church in the country? Who cares about innovation? If they had an award for who most clearly communicates the gospel, I hope we’d win that every year.”