Monday, April 25, 2016

Jesus Goes to The Movies

You may have noticed that in nearly every conversation, web article, or even Sunday sermon, people are talking about, referencing, or using as illustration a favorite or memorable scene from a movie. Movies are huge and going to the local cineplex is one of the most participated-in activities in America— especially by teenagers. In 2016 alone, the film industry grossed over $11 billion. Let that sink in... $11 billion!

Teenagers and adults alike are willing to freely (and frequently) give their money to escape to a world filled with spies, monsters, aliens, or two animated characters who learn to become friends despite superficial differences. Meanwhile, a slight drop in temperature— or a late Saturday night— keep many from warming seats on Sunday morning. It’s a struggle. While we shouldn’t give up on having teenagers participate in our Sunday services, I would encourage us to find new and creative ways to engage both our youth and culture by taking our teenagers to the movies.

So, how does that work? Just drop them off and finance a ticket, a soda, and an over-priced popcorn? How is that helpful? Well, it’s not! But taking our teenagers to the movies can a great way to connect if you keep a few things in mind...

Story Is Powerful

Story is powerful. I believe it to be true, and I think Jesus did, too, because He used story as a cornerstone of his teaching ministry. Reading through the Gospels, you will find Jesus doing few things more than sitting with people and telling them stories… powerful stories. In fact, we believe that God Himself has been— and is still— telling the greatest story ever told! God loves story, and being created in His image, we do too. We connect with story. Think of your favorite sermon; was it your favorite because the pastor itemized a set of instructions, or was it because someone brought an Old Testament or Gospel story to life? Or did the pastor connect a Biblical truth to a personal or local story that you could relate to? That is the power of story.

Entertainment Is Not Mindless...

We’ve already mentioned how people seem to look for any excuse to avoid church yet they are lining up on opening weekend for their favorite films. I would submit that, at least in part,  that is because those films are doing a better job at telling stories (but not telling a better story!). This means movie goers are voluntarily (and for a price) giving writers, directors, and producers  a few hours of their time to let convey what the movie’s creators think and feel about the world, culture, faith, and even God. Movie theaters have become modern-day pulpits and if we ignore these films, we exclude ourselves from the conversations and ideas being discussed. Orr worse, we don’t even acknowledge the ideas that may have slipped under the radar while people “turned their brains off."

It’s Not About What You Like, It’s About What They Like

I enjoy a wide array of film; from sci-fi to horror to animation to documentary. Even so, there are some movies that are just painful for me to sit through (e.g., . Nicholas Sparks' body of work). Fortunately, as leaders, our job is to engage with those we shepherd, and those things that interest them. In this case, if your entire Campaigners group is going to see the next installment of the Divergent series, then I would say, “They are not good films, but, good or bad, your high school friends are watching and connecting with them.” Find out why! Ask questions like “What was your favorite part?” “Why?” These are the best questions you can ask someone who connects with a film.

Be More Open-Minded

Hear me out— and please use discernment—just because something isn’t produced by a Christian film company doesn’t mean that it lacks value. I would actually argue quite the opposite. I know it seems like a no-brainer that the youth pastor would take the youth group to see a film like Woodlawn (which is a perfectly fine film), but that movie isn’t likely telling the stories that our teenagers are being saturated in every day— and by a huge majority of the culture. You may be surprised what teenagers can take away from a story; like how they deal with emotions from Inside Out; how do they fight against injustice an oppression from The Hunger Games; the power and responsibility in creation from Jurassic World; and yes, even what it looks like to be a family from the Fast & Furious movies!

Tell a Better Story

Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves, “Why?” Why are we engaging the narratives of popular culture? The answer is simple: To tell a better story. This is especially true with teenagers. I can only imagine the time and attention you as Young Life leaders spend trying to make the Gospel “relevant” to this generation. Stories about pharaohs and fishermen don’t connect as easily as they once did (right!?), so teenagers run to stories they can grasp. Stories of injustice, of broken families, and of heroes who choose to do the right thing in the face of overwhelming odds. These stories are noble and can be helpful in revealing the story. 

If your middle and high school friends connect with stories about a good guy who seeks justice, show them that it’s because they were created to desire justice. (Isa.1:17

If they love the animated movie about two unlikely toys who become friends, show them that it’s because they were made for community. (Ecc.4:9-12). 

And finally, when they just can’t shake the idea of our film hero laying down his life for his friends, remind them that we have a God who was willing to die for all of us. (1 John 3:16)

Tell Your Story

Once you've earned the right to be heard, one of the most powerful stories available to us as we connect with kids is our own. Use film as an opportunity to share how God entered your story (not that he ever left) to right the wrongs and trade hopelessness for joy. And then share how He is just waiting and eager to enter theirs.

Keep Exploring

For more on this, I would highly recommend my friend Joel Mayward’s new book, Jesus Goes To The Movies. We both are very passionate about engaging culture and, in his own words, Joel says that Jesus Goes to the Movies “...offers youth workers a theology of movies that can be passed to the next generation, equipping them with critical-thinking skills, discernment, and the ability to engage the film culture surrounding them with wisdom, grace, and truth."

I would also recommend James Harleman’s Cinemagogue video series on Film & Theology:

Film & Theology 101: God as Storyteller
Film & Theology 102: Redeeming Entertainment
Film & Theology 103: Engaging Narrative
Film & Theology 104: A Tale of Two Stories

Written by Mikey Fissel. Mikey is the Managing Editor at Reel World Theology and the Producer of the Reel World Theology Podcast— encouraging people to recognize that story is powerful and entertainment is not mindless. He lives in Greensboro, NC with his incredible wife Laura and their son Jon Luke.

Check the Young Life Leader Blog tomorrow for links to all the upcoming summer movies and opening dates.

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