Should Movies Be Used as Evangelism Tracts?

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”.

 

29 Comments

  • Jim Watkins says:

    Ron, thank you for raising such interesting points about why Christians might make and watch movies. I was wondering if you would mind expanding what you mean when you say that “A film must be true to the purpose for which the audience came to see it: to be entertained.” I especially wonder what you might mean by ‘entertainment’ because the reasons that I go to movies do not always seem to fit so easily under the category entertainment. For example, I might go to a movie to be educated. Documentaries do this, of course, but also fictions such as historical dramas. I even find that genres such as fantasy and sci-fi are interesting to me precisely because of their educative value: they often help me to think through ‘big questions’ such as what does it mean to be human? etc.

    It seemed important to me to ask for more clarity regarding ‘entertainment’ because you juxtapose the concept to ‘agenda’ as the purpose driving the making of a movie. I am a little uncomfortable with this juxtaposition because it seems that a lot of great movies do have an agenda. For example, it might be said that the agenda driving the movie Schindler’s List is to make the horrors of WWII palpably real, and also to show an example of a person who risks his life to love and serve others. Also, because of the juxtaposition between ‘entertainment’ and ‘agenda’ you suggest that those who go to a movie that is driven by an ‘agenda’ end up feeling duped. But if I know the agenda ahead of time, would I feel duped? Also, if I as a viewer come to movies with an agenda, for a reason other than to be entertained, should I not also expect a film-maker to approach the film he or she is making with an agenda as well?

    • Ron Newcomb says:

      Greetings Jim!
      That’s a good distinction. The formula works much better with narrative film. However, think of it this way, though we were in school to be educated, the teachers that did it best were the most entertaining ones. Film is meant to be entertaining, even if its secondary reason is education. If you are not educated in an entertaining way, your education on the subject matter is stifled.
      Wrestling with a strong theme is one of the foundations for a good story, such as your example with “what does it mean to be human?”, but when that is the driving force, and not entertainment, it won’t reach its fullest potential. I venture to say however, these are like “spiritual appetizers” that get you thinking about a specific question to wrestle with. But, usually how you got to that point was from an entertaining film that leads you on a journey to end with the question.
      What a great film, “Schindler’s List”. And I agree with you that a film does have a “point” to it, a purpose, and a revelation. But, to not be first true to its purpose, to entertain us, it would not have made the impact it did. Entertainment does not have to be simply a good feeling at the end of the film, but can be a revelation of the horrors of war. But, to start with that first, and allow that to drive the film, the agenda will be forced down ones throat and the audience will not come away with a personal revelation, but will feel force fed.
      “Saving Private Ryan” was a film that showed war in an entertaining, honest, authentic way, which left you feeling how horrible war is and also reminded of the sacrifices that our vets made and how we all should “earn” the life that was paid for us. Had they simply stated that and not revealed that, we would have a much different film.
      Remember, this article is wrestling specifically with Christian films as evangelistic tracts. Themes will flow from a movie; it’s what touches the human spirit. My point is that when a film starts with an agenda and then attempts to create a story around it, it misses the mark.
      I recently saw a documentary on the Iraq war and 9-11. Now, I’m a former Marine and was a Police officer at the time of 9-11, sent to the Pentagon after the plane hit (I didn’t do much, and it was mostly under control by then). The film attempted to show how Bush had an agenda prior to the war and basically we were partly to blame for the attacks that day. This film, felt to me, that it was simply trying to take quotes and data to prove a point, or an agenda. I didn’t walk out of there feeling a personal revelation, but I felt the filmmaker didn’t care about me at all, they had an agenda and the audience was moot to its purpose. Can you make a film like this? Yes, but should you and will it in fact be effective? I could tell you the title of the doc, and I bet you wouldn’t have heard of it. I would say, it missed its purpose. Had it been shown in an entertaining way, I may not have agreed with it, but I could have walked out of there feeling respected instead of duped.
      You raise some great points though Jim, and I freely admit that I am simply a filmmaker trying to wrestle with this myself amongst my fellow Christ-followers, so I thank you for some food for thought.
      God speed,

      • Jim Watkins says:

        Ron, thanks! Your comments are very helpful. I think that you are working with a concept of ‘entertainment’ that is much broader than I would have expected. As Wes said, to call Schindler’s list, or Saving Private Ryan for that matter, entertaining, then the concept of entertainment would need to be stretched a bit further than people normally use it because those movies are not pleasurable or enjoyable in the sense that one might normally associate with ‘entertainment’. I do not say this to point out a problem, but simply to draw attention to the special way you are using the word ‘entertainment.’ Your comments have suggested ways that this concept could be expanded, and it might be interesting to do so in some other time and place.

        One feature of entertainment that you do draw out in this comment, but not so much in your post, is the idea that an entertainer is very concerned with the way that the audience will receive the entertainment. You wrote about the 9-11 doc that “I didn’t walk out of there feeling a personal revelation, but I felt the filmmaker didn’t care about me at all, they had an agenda and the audience was moot to its purpose.” Perhaps a major deficiency of the so-called ‘agenda driven’ film is that it neglects the fact that films are embedded in personal relationships. Perhaps a film director with an agenda is more concerned about his or her agenda than the person. This problem with agenda driven films would seem to be a nice parallel with the tract strategy of evangelism, especially the sort of tract that is left, for example, in the mens room in the hopes that a curious passersby will read it. This sort of evangelism that neglects personal relationships, in favor of passing on information, is, as you suggest at the very end of your post, antithetical to the life and ministry of Jesus.

        • Ron Newcomb says:

          Some really good insight Jim. And “yes”, we could definitely branch off in to many conversations here. As many of these things tend to do, there are several areas of overlap.
          Yes, I would say entertainment is an appreciation for the film, regardless if you may have walked out feeling good about the subject matter. Did it bring you on a journey? Did it challenge your thinking? Did it make you laugh? All of this can be “entertainment” as the way I see it.

  • Wesley Vander Lugt says:

    Thanks for your post, Ron, and I have some questions similar to those Jim just asked. The first one relates to the dichotomy between entertainment and edification (or the movie having an agenda and being about something). Do you think it is possible for a moving to edify through a message while at the same time entertaining? Also, is it possible that both entertainment-driven films and agenda-driven films are easily duped by the same danger: making films simply for the profit?

    I can see how agenda-driven films could be manipulative, but It seems to me that if someone really wanted to make a film to express an idea or a perspective on the world, this film could be a genuine expression of belief or conviction, rather than a ploy to make money. What do you think?

    Also, what about films that we might not classify as entertaining, but are in fact very moving? Actually, I would put Schindler’s List in that category. Unless we have a different understanding of ‘entertaining,’ I was not entertained by this film. But I WAS deeply moved and affected, and rank it one of the powerful films ever made, along with its definite message.

    I look forward to your thoughts!

    • Ron Newcomb says:

      Greetings Wesley!
      Thanks for the response. Great stuff here, I believe that a film can fall hard into too much of a profit agenda that it fails to entertain and thus thwarting its agenda for profit; ie. “Catwoman”.
      And to establish what I mean by entertainment, I would say you are entertained when a film reached you in some way. To watch a movie that wrestles with the horrors of war, and in the end makes you feel happy, then it probably was not true to being a war movie. When wrestling with such strong subject matter, a war movie must be true to the subject matter. If you walk out not wanting to go to war, or have a war, it probably did what it was meant to do. Did you like the characters? Did you root for them, and care about whether or not they lived or died? Did the film take you on a journey, even an internal one? Did the film cause a personal revelation? If so, then I would say you were “entertained”. So, to say the movie is “one of the most powerful movies ever made”, I would say you were entertained. It touched and impacted you.
      Did they tell you “Nazism was bad and the Jews were treated horribly, but in the midst of this an unlikely hero arose”? Or did it show you this, and allow you to come to this conclusion on your own by taking you on a journey?
      Again, my purpose of this article is to wrestle with the question, should we be making overt Christian agenda movies to be used like a tract we hand out on the streets? Even without a personal connection, without an authentic relationship or loving someone?
      There’s a term in the “biz”, and it is “show don’t tell”, if you try and force Christ onto someone by telling them without a personal relationship, that spells – agenda. Or you show the love of Christ to someone by loving them so that you might speak the truth in love – that’s showing them. Can you do the first? Yes, but I would say the second is more effective.
      When a film first starts with, “Let’s make a film that saves people.” And then the story is developed…Agenda – big warning flag. To show/tell a story that is entertaining then the by-product can be that many spiritual conversations were created – great.
      I know I’m walking a fine line. Films have themes, but it all starts with a good story, not with an agenda – and that’s my point.
      I’ve seen people leave a tract on a table thinking this will “save” someone. Does it happen? Well, as a Christian of course I have to say “yes”. I know God can use anything, and there are those who have come to Christ as a result of a tract, but how many? I would say a very small percentage. I actually enjoy some tracts, and they can be used to start some spiritual conversations or are great follow ups to a conversation you’ve had, but they should not be thrown at a person to leave them with this tract without a personal connection and commitment to them.
      We seem to want to come up with a formula to create a movie that converts people to Christianity. But should we? Is it the most effective; in fact is it what we are called to do? God called us to be His hands and His feet, to go out into the world – to love Him and love others. A film can be a tool, but it can’t accomplish what God has called us to do.

  • John says:

    My thought is that while evangelism is the responsibility of the believer, there is another tool in the shed for getting the message out by showing it via film?tv/music. And in regards to “return on investment” I read in earlier posts, NO evangelism should be looked at in those terms. Evangelism is the sowing and watering of the Truth. Rarely, in the big picture, is it about the harvest specifically. While it is true that evangelism on a big scale (i.e. tent revivals or gatherings of huge crowds where standing out isn’t quite so conspicuous to the newly redeemed), the harvest seems to be “The Thing”, evangelism in itself is about sharing the Truth and being prepared for the harvest if it is that person’s individual harvest time is now. So anyone looking at movies or TV or music concerts in terms of “return on investment” and if they’re “worth the effort and expense”, is missing the point. IT IS WORTH THE EFFORT AND EXPENSE!!! IT IS A VIABLE TOOL OF EVANGELISM!!! Most people who think in “terms of investment” are really thinking selfishly in “Their investment” and whether or not “They See” an immediate return on their investment.

    • Ron Newcomb says:

      Greetings John!
      I do feel your heart for the Lord. When I created my LLC and set out to raise money for my indie film, I made a promise to my investors and have a responsibility to those investors to turn a profit. This is not the love of money, but good business. When you go in to business, the point is to turn a profit; in fact I would say it’s your responsibility to.
      Plus, I don’t want to make one film and then slip off quietly into the night, never to make another film. I want to make an impact and have staying power.
      In the film, “Chariots of Fire”, Eric Liddell says,” I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” God made him a runner, and when he did the thing God made him for, it pleased Him. When we do what a business was created to do, God is pleased. When we do what a film is meant to do, to entertain, God is pleased.
      I fully believe films can be great spiritual conversation starters, a great tool – yes, but they are not meant to replace the human responsibility for personal evangelism, that is my point.
      Many Christians are now putting a lot of money into creating Christian films, thinking it’s evangelizing to the world. I would say it’s missing the mark. It’s not evangelizing, as to my example with “The Passion”, and its wasting many peoples hard earned money. If you are going to make a Christian film – great! Let it be to the Believer instead, much like most sermons are. They are meant for the Believer, not evangelism. Sure, there are exceptions, but most Sundays, the message is to the Believer. Why? It’s so they can be equipped and motivated to go out and do personal evangelism.
      Show “Business” – is in fact business.

  • Kenneth Altman says:

    A well considered article Ron. I agree with most of your points. Let me shine two more “perspective” lights on the subject.

    Every piece of fiction, whether written or visual, contains bits of the world view of its creator. We are constantly having our opinions and ideals challenged, even altered, by entertainment. With most secular entertainment we are so engrossed in the experience we fail to question our agreement with the perspective of the person who created the film/book/show/etc. However, if a film (or book or TV show) is labeled Christian by its creators or by the audience, everyone immediately begins to question motive and world view – – including other Christians.

    As a filmmaker there are a number of stories I want to tell, some with very obvious Christian world views, some not. To do so I need financing and here’s what I’ve discovered – – “Christian” investors want to see blatant Gospel messages that concur with their personal take on Christianity or they won’t put their money in; secular investors prefer not to see any mention of “religion,” even when the actions of the characters in the story can only be explained by a Judeo-Christian world view. Two examples of the latter are “The Blind Side” and “Soul Surfer.” The families depicted in both films were motivated by faith to do those things that inspired the film but the studios behind those films insisted that references to Christianity be removed at every turn. There was even a test screening of “Soul Surfer” where they digitally removed the words Holy Bible from the cover of a bible.

    So, what’s a filmmaker to do?

    • Ron Newcomb says:

      Greetings Kenneth!
      Thanks for chiming in. Definitely true, whoever the creator is, a part of them is spilled out onto the screen/pages.
      And I definitely appreciate another filmmaker working through the rub. As I’m finding exactly what you are with trying to raise capital.
      You and I both know, in order to get your film done; there is a certain bit of “politics” that need to be played out in order to get the film in the can.
      Working on anything lately?

  • Tommy G. Kendrick says:

    You make some great points in your essay Ron. I think the’re great because I agree with them. 🙂 Your piece addresses one of the big failings historically, IMO of course,of so many ‘Christian films’. If a filmmaker only wants to preach to the choir, then a multi-media sermon is fine, I suppose. Time consuming, expensive and difficult to do well, but fine. Part of this mindset (sermonizing on film), again IMO, has spawned far too many films that have been terribly substandard in the areas of story construction, production quality and performance quality, subverting the power of the medium. If I want to hear a sermon, I’ll got to church or turn the TV to a preacher or listen on the radio or download a podcast, etc. If I go to a theater to see a purely secular movie, I expect to be able to get lost in the story and yes, be ‘entertained’ with all the nuance that word can carry. I expect no less from a film that has a great story told by filmmakers who have a Christian’s perspective.

  • Tommy G. Kendrick says:

    Sorry. Wrong link in my response above.

  • Christa Geno says:

    Ron, Thank you for your thoughts. I agree with you, and am glad we’re on the same page. I think that if I want to produce a film to evangelize or promote any topic, I’d do it as a documentary. That way, people know exactly why they are coming to the film.

  • Christa Geno says:

    Ron, thanks for your thoughts. I agree with you, and am glad we share the same viewpoint. If I want to share an evangelistic message, or promote any topic, I would prefer to make a doc. That way people know why they are coming to the film, and choose to do so.

  • Andrew says:

    I interviewed an overseas missionary for my church newsletter some time ago and he indicated to me that regular handout tracts don’t work, so I wonder if the same applies here. I would think if word got out that a certain film was being preachy, then only the “choir” would go see it. But like all movies, if it has a good story line and the acting and directing is top notch, then people will see it.

  • Ron Newcomb says:

    Agreed Andrew. Thanks for the comment.

  • Gaile says:

    From the beginning of my journey back to Jesus, I’ve felt that film is a perfect venue for sharing faith, information and/or Christian values, whether it’s obviously evangelical or totally without spiritual references. Since when in America is any form of expression off limits to anyone of any belief? It may be true that immediate conversion is unusual, but that’s usually true with any method of reaching out. The point is, to plant the seed, and inspire thought. You’re right that most Christian films are low budget, and the resulting movie quality is bound to be affected. “Passion ” is a masterpiece, made by a genius who I pray will bless us and repeat the process. I used to be an agnostic.
    I admit to previous revulsion at any mention of Jesus. It was a combination of hearing a couple radio programs combined with not so coincidental personal experiences that led me to honestly seek truth. I watch and study many movies, and look forward to seeing the Christian genre flourish. True evangelism takes any form that inspires us.

    • Ron Newcomb says:

      Greetings Gail ~
      Very cool story, thanks for sharing. I could go to another thought on exactly what is a “Christian” film. I believe many Christians are making film, which are not effective evangelism, but instead should be targeted towards the Christian community. I’m not sure why Christian filmmakers believe that all films have to have an evangelistic component to it. There is a huge Christian audience that should be targeted towards Christians, I believe “The Passion” did this, along with “Fire Proof”, “Soul Surfer”, etc. That is smart business.
      Christian radio in fact is targeting Christians, not focusing on evangelism. Do non-believers listen? – sure, but that is not their target market. They target to the believer, and are sensitive that non-believers are out there; much like a preacher does on Sunday.
      Again, let me reiterate, I’m not saying films can’t be used as a tool, and in fact, that is my point. But, we should not be trying to create them to take the human responsibility off us with personal evangelism. Films are great tools, not an evangelism “pill” to be swallowed and the result is a follower of Christ. As you said, it’s usually over several “mini-decisions” that one comes to Christ.

  • Karl Udy says:

    Ron,
    Thanks for your well-though out post. As someone who both creates and uses short films to aid evangelism I agree with your main points that 1) it is relationships that are key to the spread of the gospel and 2) a film needs to have a compelling story and be able to hold its own in its storytelling value regardless of agenda.

    In terms of my approach to the value of films in evangelism, I think Aaron Sorkin’s comments related to the ambiguity of The Social Network on whether Zuckerberg or the others were telling the truth, that ‘That’s something I want them to talk about in the parking lot after the movie’. Films can be a great way to start conversations and they are a natural way for people to share ideas in relational contexts. But to be truly useful for our evangelism they need to be conversation-starters, not conversation-stoppers.

    • Ron Newcomb says:

      Greetings Karl!
      Thanks so much for the feedback. Your response is spot on. I was never really a big proponent, as filmmaker, to spend all of the time and resources on short films; though I’ve done my share of them. That is until now. Short films are fantastic ways to share and have those conversation starters. Thanks for bringing that up.
      If a church is looking to do something, short films would be the place to begin. They can be used in many settings, which are followed up by discussion. In my own small group, we don’t want to spend the entire time with an hour and a half movie, but a quick ten minute short followed up by discussion is perfect. So, I’ve now seen the light, and have really become to appreciate great shorts. Sadly, there are not a lot out there to choose from that meet this need; that is one that has all of the story elements, and is not just a music video.
      Great reminder Karl, thanks for sharing.

  • Karl Udy says:

    Ron,
    check out www.globalshortfilmnetwork.com. They’re colleagues of mine. Also check out www.yesheis.com. And www.iamsecond.com is great too.

    For churches and ministries, short films also have the advantage of being able to fit into the time and money budgets for many more than a full feature. With the right preparation you can shoot in a day or two with a cost of just a few thousand for something of very good quality.

  • Gina Marie says:

    I don’t agree that Jesus Christ would “use film” as much as He would call filmmakers – those who have been graced with creative ability – to be fishers of men… among the seventy. The Passion of Christ is a biblical story which, IMO, differs from a faith-base story; regardless of the faith. So the results of the Barna study you reference don’t surprise me because that film’s “agenda” was illustrative of the final days for God’s purpose to offer Jesus Christ as the propitiation of Salvation. So, yeah, fellowship, discipleship, and servanthood are effective tools for Evangelism, but is it the only method of Soulwinning?

    All Believers who bring the good news of the gospel are Evangelist. I believe that we have been created for such a time as this, to utilize every available tool to fulfill The Great Commission: in that Evangelism is fulfilled. Nevertheless, It’s all about motive… what motivates anyone to do anything? I simply want to create entertaining films that illustrate a universal experience while bringing honor Jesus Christ and glory to God.

    Thanks for sharing your insight!

  • Pencil says:

    I myself am a young Christian filmmaker, and I think I agree with most of the points being said of having entertainment being the driving force in a film. It does not have to be “Happy” in order to be entertaining, I am tottally on board with that. I believe for the most part the most powerful movies are the ones with a clear message. In order for a movie to have a clear message, usually the message is interwoven with the plot, so it is entertaining, and able to showcase its agenda at the same time. However I find agenda to be a negative word most of the time.

    This being said I do not see an argument against blatantly christian movies as helpful. Sure it may be considered more clever story telling to use parables… However I wish people would nut up more and shoot the scene when Jesus makes a whip, throws over tables, beats people and animals out of the temple with the whip while screaming at the top of his lungs. Instead we almost always get the insipid, blank, unpassionate character who seems only capable of lovey dovy wuv instead of also having wrath, pain, and relatable sarrow.

    C.S. Lewis writes about historical Jesus’s and the different twists we put on him every “thirty years or so.” Many use to compare Jesus to Carl Marx, now we have more of this man who is not “Religion” and is “Not a God of rituals” which incedently completally slaps the great commission. This is why we have a blank Jesus most of the time. We didn’t get to see him physically, so its hard for actors to assume a direct powerful role as him. People also don’t want to be offensive. Tough, if you’re a Christian people will be offended. Many people would rather have KKK speak open hate than have quiet optional prayer time in schools. Notice people say “seperation of Church and state” Not “Religion and state” small rift, but it grows in the mind and community.

    Gina, I feel I am right where you are when you say ” I simply want to create entertaining films that illustrate a universal experience while bringing honor Jesus Christ and glory to God.” I hope we get to work together someday.

    Cheers

  • Alan Noble says:

    Gospel tracts shouldn’t be used as Gospel tracts.

  • John says:

    The Passion of Christ was an unspeakably vile exercise in sado-masochistic pornography, in which the “hero” was systematically beaten to death in close up graphic detail. It was effectively a snuff-splatter film.
    None of the “events” depicted in it are described in the Bible.
    My advice would be to flee as fast as you can from such unmitigated vileness!

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