Jim Killam

Q&R: Acts 29 – Now we get to change the world

This month, pastors Luke Uran and Josh Pardee are wrapping up a 17-week sermon series on the book of Acts. Today they look ahead to where this leads our church family next.


So, there’s one more sermon from Acts. How does it end?

Luke: This week, Josh is going to be driving home the idea that we are now the 29th chapter of Acts. The book’s ending was left unfinished. We have this mission that we have been given, to go and make disciples.


That sounds like another good jumping-off point.
Headshot of Lead Pastor Luke Uran

Lead Pastor Luke Uran, First Free Rockford

Luke: Yes. As we look to this spring and the launch of our Life Groups, the sermon series we will be doing next is based partially on another book by an author we looked at last fall, Dustin Willis. This book is called The Simplest Way to Change the World.

What the series is going to focus on, and the reason we’re doing it next, as a follow-up to Acts, is because if we want to see all generations go, tell, and show the love of God here in the city of Rockford and around the world, then we need to be ones who are willing to be out and present in our community. We’re going to focus on that idea of being present, being active, being involved, being available and out in the community. Our primary purpose behind that is, let’s put hands and feet to this now. Today, not at the time of Acts. What does this look like? How do we apply it?

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Behind the Acts video

For the past four months, every Sunday sermon has opened with the same short, animated video that draws from the book of Acts. Nathan McDonald, First Free’s communications director, produced that video with local animator Dustin Bankord. We spoke with Nathan about the creative process.


Nathan McDonald Avatar

Nathan McDonald, Communications Director

What’s the purpose of an introductory video?

It’s mainly used so that they can change over the stage from the music portion to the preaching portion of the service. But if that’s the only way we look at it, just as the need to fill 45 seconds, we can miss an opportunity. Especially when the video is being shown week to week. I want it to fit within the flow of the service, so it doesn’t feel like too much of an intrusion and so it helps serve to bridge that gap between corporate worship and the preaching.

Sermons can be 25 to 40 minutes long. Typically people walk away with one or two highlights—something significant that stuck out to them. But if there is a song that we do in worship that is tied to the series, you’re going to remember that song really well. And I think the sermon intro video also can serve in that way. It’s a short, simple thing that uses visuals and music. So you can walk away remembering parts of that short video. And hopefully it’s helping you recall something from the corporate worship, and some of the actual meat from what was being preached and taught that day.


When you are presented with the need for an introductory video for the Acts sermon series, where do you start?

For this one in particular, we looked at The Bible Project and their approach to animation. Since this series was going to take four months, it seemed to make sense that we would approach the introduction video as a narrative as opposed to just a theme.

So for me, the first part was looking at some of the highlights in the narrative of Acts. You take certain chapters and kind of lump them together and say this is one part of the narrative, and then here is the next part. I had to start broadly and then work my way down to specific scenes. Oh, and we are shooting for the whole video to only be 45 seconds to a minute long.


Digital sketch in ProCreate using an iPad Pro and Apple Pencil.

So you identify the stories or scenes you want to highlight. What then?

For this type of video, I start with pencil sketches. Not literally — I’m actually drawing digitally on my iPad using an app called Procreate. That allows me to move really quickly with the illustrations. Then I take them into Adobe Illustrator on my laptop where I turn them into vector drawings. That’s the format the animator will need.


So you are basically taking a pencil sketch and digitally animating it without having to draw every single frame of the animation, right? How many illustrations did you give to the animator?

Seven or eight.


The animation process sounds Hollywoodish, but artists here in Rockford are doing this kind of thing. What happens?

I just give him the illustrations and my notes. I trust Dustin Bankord, the animator I have worked with for a couple of years. As long as I can give him the stuff in the way he needs it, I can leave some things open for him because I trust he will make really good decisions. And for this one, he went above and beyond my expectations.


We are talking about a process that a generation or two ago would have taken months. That’s amazing.

I started the pencil sketches on a Wednesday afternoon, and the final video was done by Saturday morning. It had to be. There were some things holding up our timeline that month.


Two stages of vector drawing: outlining (right) and coloring (left).

You mentioned The Bible Project. How did their work influence you on this video in particular?

I love what The Bible Project is doing, and it’s not just because it’s about the Bible. They are pulling some of the most talented illustrators and animators in the world to work for that organization. I appreciate that the work stands alone, whether in church culture or outside it. I’m attracted to their ability to pull stories together in a memorable and accessible way.


At the level of a local church, what motivates you to take the work to a different level like that?

My dad was an art educator and a printmaker and he’s a very talented illustrator. In the last several years he’s been doing some incredible painting. Being raised in my family with the type of vocation that he had, instilled that in me. And then I have my mom, who is a ballet dancer and ballet teacher and ran her own school for a while. So I grew up in an arts family.

And then that is all in the context of wanting to honor the Lord. If we have a certain skill or talent, we are going to take the time to learn how to do it the best that we can, whatever that craft or skill is. 


There is a portion of the Acts video, near the end, that I know you guys put a lot of thought into. Maybe not everyone has noticed it. What should we watch for and what does it mean?

That last scene starts with Paul looking out on Rome. And then it flips upside down, and you see Paul in chains, sitting at a table, and there is the ascended Christ on his throne. The idea was to quickly make an inference to the upside-down kingdom. Pastors Luke and Josh have used that phrase a lot. So it was kind of neat to do something that would visually represent that idea.


That’s quite a deep thought packed into about four seconds.

What we are seeing take place in this world is not what is taking place in the heavenly kingdom. These two are at work simultaneously. So here is Paul in chains. And in everyone’s eyes, they think this is a loss. Paul is under house arrest and not able to travel any more. The story’s over. The movement is done. But actually that’s how God works in the world. Paul is identifying with Jesus being arrested and then on the cross, and that changed everything. If we are just looking with earthly eyes at our circumstances, we’re going to miss what is actually taking place in the spiritual realm.


Any communications director is in a bit of an assembly line environment, too. How do you balance the need to produce multiple and varied projects versus spending the time and thought you would like to on every single one of them?

I don’t think I figured it out yet (laughs). I’m always having to make decisions to not go a certain direction or take something to a certain level because you just don’t have the time. I’ve always appreciated when my canvas is well defined. People sometimes think of creativity as this open-ended expanse with unending possibilities. Actually, we do better work if we can define the limits of the canvas more clearly.

And then you think about resources. I have a certain amount of time and there’s a specific goal in mind. Creativity means taking those limited resources and coming up with the best possible solution with what you have. I actually find that more fun. I get overwhelmed when there are too many possibilities. That’s also why I like collaborating with people. For me, it helps narrow down where we want to go.



Q&R: Looking back at the Acts series

This month, pastors Luke Uran and Josh Pardee wrap up a 17-week sermon series on the book of Acts. Today they talk about what God showed them, and our church family, through this series over the past four months.


This has been a long sermon series. What was your thinking behind extending it even through Christmastime?

Luke: We wanted to go a little more in-depth, especially in the beginning part of Acts where the church got its start. Not so much the individual missionary journeys of Paul. Those are important, but for me personally, the Lord has been teaching me what it means to live by the Spirit and to listen to the Spirit and to open the Word and continue to allow the Holy Spirit to illuminate that. Especially in those beginning portions of Acts, we see the apostles all being Spirit-led. That was one of the primary qualifications for any laypeople who wanted to be a part of the movement.

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‘His mercy is more’

On Sunday, the congregations at all three of our main campus venues sang the modern hymn His Mercy is More. The refrain goes:

Stronger than darkness, new every morn
Our sins they are many, His mercy is more

Written by Matt Papa and Matt Boswell, the hymn draws from a 1767 letter and sermon by John Newton. Here’s an excerpt from that letter:

Are not you amazed sometimes that you should have so much as a hope, that, poor and needy as you are, the Lord thinketh of you?
But let not all you feel discourage you. For if our Physician is almighty, our disease cannot be desperate and if He casts none out that come to Him, why should you fear?
Our sins are many, but His mercies are more: our sins are great, but His righteousness is greater: we are weak, but He is power.

True to his letter, Newton’s sins were many. Read More

Photo of Pastor Josh Pardee with Q&R title

Q&R with Pastor Josh: Redemption starts with Christmas

A conversation with Pastor Josh Pardee

At the Christmas Eve service, Pastor Josh Pardee used the story of the infant Jesus’ presentation in the temple as an introduction to the theme of redemption. We thought a follow-up conversation might be in order.


With this sermon, what were some questions you wanted to help us think about at Christmas?

We talk about how it’s Merry Christmas and how it’s a happy time of year, but yet as we look at our lives, we see brokenness around the world. What enables us to actually say Merry Christmas? Why do we look at this season so differently?

Josh Pardee Avatar

Josh Pardee, Pastor of Congregational Life

Focusing on Anna is an unusual approach. How does Anna’s portion of the story speak to you?

Anna was widowed after just seven years of marriage. Now in this passage she is 84. She has spent her whole time in the temple praying and fasting and worshipping. And then as soon as she gets a hold of the child, she is declaring to anyone who will listen that he is the redemption of Jerusalem, and how that story extends to the world. And so the reason that we do celebrate, even amid the brokenness, and amid the pain in life, is knowing that there is redemption to come. It’s already and not yet.

In the sermon I mentioned Revelation 21, the New Jerusalem coming. Now we’re going to see the climax of that story . And that’s why we can experience hope. It’s not that pain and brokenness and suffering aren’t a part of our story. They are just no longer the focus of our story. Redemption is the story that’s being written.

What’s the significance of Anna being highlighted like this? Especially as a woman?

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Glimpses of glory

Earthly surprises can point us heavenward

By Jim Killam

On January 30, 1969, the Beatles went to the roof of their Apple Corps studio building in London and began to play. In the film shot that day (hard to find online now because of copyrights), people smile and point five stories above when they realize what’s going on. Some climb fire escapes for a better vantage point. This was, after all, the band’s first concert since 1966.

Others walk resolutely, never looking up or acknowledging what’s going on. Some are ticked off because their predictable day has been interrupted. Almost 51 years later, the whole world remembers that concert, how the London police busted it up when the band might have played much longer … and how it turned out to be the Beatles’ last public performance.

Like everything in popular culture, surprise concerts have been so overdone that they usually feel cliché. Subway platforms are particularly popular venues (U2, John Legend, Elton John, Miley Cyrus), along with fans’ wedding (Ed Sheeran) and even a middle school class (Beyonce).

Former Beatle Paul McCartney did one last year with James Corden on The Late Late Show — a program that almost no one really watches but which has an enormous YouTube following. Toward the end of a “Carpool Karaoke” segment, they sneak into a Liverpool pub. When someone puts a coin in the jukebox, the stage curtain opens and Paul starts playing Beatles songs. It’s pretty great.

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So what does any of this have to do with Christmas Eve? Read More

Christmas in the Congo featured image

Christmas in the Congo

With First Free Rockford’s strong connection to the Congolese church and to Tabitha centers in the capital city of Kinshasa, Christmastime unites us even more.

ReachGlobal missionaries Jim and Ruth Snyder and their family lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo from 1985 to 1996, back when the country was called Zaire. (ReachGlobal is the world mission agency of the Evangelical Free Church of America.) We spoke with Jim via email about his family’s memories of Christmas in the Congo.

From a Nativity play: Herod’s soldiers after receiving the decree from Caesar Augustus. They especially enjoy brandishing the wooden swords. Photos provided by Mike and Julia Anne McCord

Is Christmas a big deal in DRC? It’s a public holiday, right?

Christmas is a VERY big deal. Employers generally give food stuffs (chickens, rice, fish, salt, sugar) to their employees and often have parties in early December which include a meal and the distribution of these. The closer one lives to Kinshasa, the more commercialized it has become. China’s influence (believe it or not) has introduced plastic Christmas trees, lights of all sorts and decorations that are now in many homes and churches. In general, people look forward to the holiday as it affords time off from work and with extended family.

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Christmas Traditions 2019

Christmas Traditions: Pray, serve, give

A conversation with Pastor Luke Uran

First Free’s annual Christmas Traditions event runs from 4 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14. We’ll have a petting zoo, pictures with Santa, cookie decorating, an indoor snowball fight, a stage show, carolers, a kids’ story time and more. Each activity is designed to help families create new traditions and memories while weaving the Christmas story into it all.

We spoke with Lead Pastor Luke Uran about the event, its purpose and the opportunities it presents.


Headshot of Lead Pastor Luke UranDo you remember how Christmas Traditions evolved into what it is now?

About three years before we started doing the event, a bunch of us were talking about what would it look like to do an outreach event well. We came up with this idea of a Christmas-themed event with different activities that could be taking place, kind of an all-hands-on-deck thing. I remember us saying, “Let’s make an event that is easy for families. So they can take part in Christmas traditions that their family already does, but let’s just make it easy for them.”

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Mister Rogers and Daniel Tiger (puppet)

Why we long for Mister Rogers

A beautiful film speaks volumes to a broken culture

By Jim Killam

About halfway through A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, journalist Lloyd Vogel is interviewing Fred Rogers in a restaurant booth. It’s another in a series of conversations where, really, Mister Rogers has been interviewing Lloyd, uncovering deep pain from a torn relationship with his father.

“You love people like me,” Lloyd concedes.

“What are people like you?” Fred asks.

“Broken people.”


Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) and Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Photo: TriStar Pictures

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is based on real-life journalist Tom Junod’s encounters with Mister Rogers for a 1998 Esquire magazine issue about heroes. The premise is cliché, but in this case true: a cynical journalist assigned to interview “the nicest man in the world.” And a throwaway, 400-word “fluff” assignment becomes a friendship that changes a man forever.

Junod wrote a wonderful essay for The Atlantic to coincide with the film’s opening. Lloyd Vogel’s storyline is fiction, which is why Junod asked that his and his relatives’ real names not be used. But his deep interactions with Fred Rogers were real and, he writes, reflected accurately:

“A long time ago, a man of resourceful and relentless kindness saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. He trusted me when I thought I was untrustworthy, and took an interest in me that went beyond my initial interest in him.”

That thought forms the movie’s story line, which is wonderfully framed as an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Getting there takes a few minutes, though. Tom Hanks’ singing entry made me laugh aloud. In the 1970s and ’80s, Mister Rogers might have been best known for the parodies by comedians like Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams. This seemed like another of those, for about 30 seconds. Then I forgot I was watching Hanks and was absorbed into a story that centers on the kindness of a man who seemed too good to be true.

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IT’S HARD TO WATCH this film and not think about the gospels’ stories of broken people encountering Jesus. How he quickly moved past cultural differences and people’s own defenses. How he made the person to whom he was speaking feel like the most important person in the world. “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did,” the woman at the well told her friends.

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Angel Tree opportunity is here

Starting Sunday, Dec. 1, First Free Rockford is again participating in Angel Tree, a program sponsored by Prison Fellowship. The program delivers gifts, a gospel message and personal message of love to kids on behalf of their incarcerated parent.

This year, more than 7,000 churches and groups have committed to serve more than 300,000 kids across the country. First Free is one of five churches in Rockford, and one of eight in Winnebago County, taking part, said Angel Tree Program Specialist Danielle Kruger. Read More