Many years ago, while I was serving as a Paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, I was in a Christian rock band. We called ourselves Narnia. One day, while we were practicing at a local Christian coffee-house on Fort Bragg, a good friend of mine asked me a very interesting question. He asked if our ministry was geared toward young believers, or if we were focusing more on soul-winning.
I didn't really understand what he was asking. To me, they were all the same thing. Christian music was just Christian music. But, they are different ministries, and they really do need to be approached in different ways. Any ministry that is trying to use an entertainment media to reach the masses needs to ask themselves this question.
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"God's Not Dead" was a great film, if you're already a believer. The problem is that its message was geared toward soul winning, and to a lot of non-Christians and atheists, the film's arguments were laughable.
This film is not alone in its chief fault - it didn't understand the audience it was gearing itself toward. Many Christian films seem to be aimed at a particular audience, and then throughout the course of the film manage to completely alienate that audience. This brings no one to Christ.
The first thing a filmmaker needs to keep in mind when setting out to make a faith-based film is that the primary of mission of any film is to be entertaining. In a lot of Christian films, the message comes ahead of entertainment. This is a mistake.
While in any morality play the message is important, the message is lost if your movie is boring to audiences. If no one wants to watch your film, no one is going to hear your message.
"Unidentified," a 2006 film written and directed by Rich Christiano, presented itself as a film about UFOs from a Christian perspective. This had the potential to be a really interesting movie. By the time you get to the end of the film, however, the UFOs not only never existed, but you realize that the entire plot of the movie was a practical joke from one character on another. This was not only a completely unsatisfying ending to an otherwise perfectly mediocre film, but it leaves the audience feeling cheated.
The 2014 remake of "Left Behind" fell into a different trap - one more common in faith-based films that try to be marketed to a more mainstream audience - it ended up being extremely secularized. Based on a novel about the pre-Tribulation Rapture, 2014's "Left Behind" had everything interesting in the novel and the 2000 film removed and became a disaster movie and lost almost all of its Christian message.
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An example of a film that did a lot of things right but still had its failings was "The Imposter." "The Imposter" was released in 2008 and starred former D.C. Talk vocalist Kevin Max and former Kansas guitarist Kerry Livgren. While it did a wonderful job at showing some of the struggles Christian musicians face while trying to balance their spiritual lives with the rock star lifestyle, the problem comes with the blatant hypocrisy that is being practiced by almost every character in the film.
In the film, Christian frontman Johnny C - played by Max - is on top of the contemporary Christian music world. He also has an Oxycontin addiction as well as a propensity for infidelity in his marriage. On the surface this is a very good plot, but many of the other characters are also revealed to have wrestled with drug addiction and instead of showing love to Johnny and trying to help him overcome his temptations, he is cast aside as though they have no use for him. Many of these characters, when confronted by Johnny about their own addictions, do nothing but make excuses and try to justify why their drug addictions weren't as bad as his. This film doesn't show Christians in a very good light.
One studio which has consistently managed to get it right is Sherwood Pictures, a film production company started by Sherwood Baptist Church and run primarily by associate pastor Alex Kendrick. There are a few different things that set the films of Sherwood Pictures apart from many others in the Christian film industry.
The primary thing that Sherwood Pictures has done very well is that they recognize that they are making movies. Their films are meant to be as entertaining as they are inspiring, and they make sure they stay true to whatever genre they are choosing to set their film.
For example, the film "Courageous" isn't just a film with a Christian message, it is 100 percent cop movie, and it doesn't shy away from that.
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"Courageous" recognized the faults with films like "Unidentified," and hit the cop movie genre head on with gunfights, car chases, and everything one would want out of a cop movie, but with an inspiring message.
"Courageous" is first and foremost a film on coping with the loss of a child, as well as how to be a Godly parent. How to love your family the way Christ loves the church.
Another Sherwood picture, "Fireproof," was about how to have a Godly marriage, and how to fix a marriage that is broken.
These films don't just preach to the choir, they help the choir deal with issues they may be facing. A Christian's life is far from perfect, and Sherwood Pictures not only acknowledges that, but they make movies to help Christians overcome the hardships they may be facing in their lives.
Filmmakers walk a very thin line when trying to make a faith-based film. While the potential for helping a lot of people spiritually is more than enough reason to make these films, filmmakers need to be conscious of what they are doing in every step of the process. They can't cheat the audience by promising a film in a certain genre, and then not staying true to that genre. They have to make sure that they are making an engaging and entertaining film first, and preaching a message second.
Finally, they need to make sure that characters with flaws are addressed. Otherwise, you're just portraying Christian characters negatively and that reflects negatively on the entire community.
If movie producers and directors follow these guidelines, they will be able to make some of the most prolific movies not just in the Christian film industry, but perhaps in all of Hollywood.
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