Some Christians say that if Jesus were here today, he would use films as he used stories. At first glance, this sounds perfect. However, this perspective is flawed, especially when films are used as contemporary tracts for Christian evangelism.
One of the best Christian films of the past ten years was “The Passion of the Christ.” While many churches encouraged their congregations to use the film as an opportunity for evangelism, a Barna study concluded that “less than one-tenth of one percent of those who saw the film stated that they made a profession of faith or accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior in reaction to the film’s content.” Certainly that’s better than 0%, but at what point can we call that a success? If I ran a business with this type of return, I’d be out of business.
The problem with using films as evangelism tracts is that when we do, we put on film what should be our responsibility. Christians are called to go into the world and to tell people of the good news by loving God and loving people. But, when we point to a film, or a tract, we take out the human responsibility of true evangelism. While I do believe “The Passion” launched many good spiritual conversations, it is authentic relationships with a time investment that give us permission to speak the truth in love into someone’s life.
People usually come to faith not by one big decision but by mini-decisions. A film can challenge someone towards a few of those mini-decisions. When I play golf, I try to go for a hole in one, no matter how far away the hole is; it’s all or nothing. You get 100% of my swing or none at all. But, golf is not meant to be played this way. Shorter strokes can be even more important and often the most difficult. As Christians, we’ve created an all or nothing approach with evangelism. You get the whole thing or none at all. But that is usually not what the person asked for or even wanted. They were more than likely having a mini-decision moment, not the full swing.
Filmmaking starts with a great story, and the story starts with the writer. A famous Christian writer, Flannery O’Connor said, “The Christian writer does not decide what would be good for the world and proceed to deliver it. Like a very doubtful Jacob, he confronts what stands in his path and wonders if he will come out of the struggle at all.” Early on, one can see if a particular story may lend itself to have “spiritual appetizers” in them, but to start with an agenda-driven film is not to start a with true story.
A film must be true to the purpose for which the audience came to see it: to be entertained. Let’s say you went to a film, and realized it was about a religion other than your own – not informative in nature or as a backdrop, but as a purpose to convert you. How would you feel? Because people go to movie theaters primarily for entertainment, to do otherwise would be to dupe them into watching an agenda on the screen. And feeling duped, they not only despise the film but may transfer those feelings to Christians and ultimately to Christ. Films have tried to have agendas, resulting in conversations with friends saying, “Oh, I saw that film, and it has a political agenda.” This comment is not affirmative. An agenda devalues the film and makes what could be good entertainment, a cheap trick to try to sell the viewer a point of view.
A film can be a tool for evangelism by helping local Christians in authentic relationships engage in dialogue. But it should never be used like a tract to hand around. Let us not forget that Jesus told stories while also being with people: caring for them, loving them, and serving them. He used stories to illustrate his points, not just to give a point and then walk away.
Ron Newcomb has been a former Pastor, Police Officer, and began a Washington DC based organization called, The Fellowship of Christian Filmmakers. He has been a producer, writer, director and actor for several shorts and feature films. Ron co-wrote OAP’s project, THE FELLOWS HIP. Ron resides in northern Virginia with his expecting wife Candice along with their daughter “Peanut”.