Being a Christian in the Entertainment Industry
Throughout the history of the church, the message has been the central, defining feature of evangelism. Our services have been entirely built around this foundation—everything from announcements to worship to ministry serve as a kind of buffeter to the man (or woman) standing on a platform and telling us things that are supposedly important.
While this has been quite effective for a long time, something new is being birthed in this generation—and that is the concept of media playing a central role in the spreading of the gospel message. Almost from the very beginning of cinema the story of Christ has played out on movie screens and (eventually) televisions around the world, and for the longest time the same concept as the church service has reigned supreme. The message is the thing. It doesn’t matter if it’s a terrible movie as long as the message is there.
Unfortunately, this is no longer good enough.
Being someone who makes movies for a living, I probably hear more than most the great lament of countless Christians in America: why are so many Christian movies so terrible? To get to the bottom of this, we must first drill down to realize what exactly they mean by “terrible.” Sometimes it is bad acting, other times bad cinematography. But more than anything, if we’re honest with ourselves, is that these movies usually lack the single most important element of all great films. They are simply not very entertaining.
The problem here isn’t that the stories we are coming up with aren’t inherently entertaining. The problem, I think, stems from the very thing that Christianity and evangelism is founded on—namely, that the message is the most important thing. As much as I dread the backlash that this could bring, I have to say it. For any Christian in the entertainment industry, the message is NOT the most important thing.
Without question, the most important element for all stories is that they must be, first and foremost, entertaining. If they are not entertaining, well told stories, then no one is going to stick around long enough to actually hear your message. Not too many people get up and walk out of a lame sermon, but EVERYONE turns the channel if they re bored with what they are watching. Unfortunately, though, most Christian artists have grown up with the mentality that “the message is the thing”, and this is a difficult boundary to break. So we become hamstrung into trying to make our stories fit into some unnatural box, and the story always suffers when you treat it with a heavy hand.
I once heard a respected Christian filmmaker admit that for his films, he comes up with what he wants the ending to be based on what he wants his message to be, and then he creates a story designed to get to that ending. The only problem with this kind of mentality is that any story designed first and foremost to preach to people is always going to feel phony. The 21st Century audience has grown up on media and has gained a sophistication for consuming media unparalleled in history. Put it this way, my KIDS can identify cheesy dialogue when they hear it.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that the message is not important for the Christian artist. It is absolutely essential, for without any kind of message our art is ultimately stillborn—it carries no life. It’s just pretty pictures that mean nothing. What I am saying is that it cannot be the MOST important thing. If your film, for instance, has a great message but very little entertainment value then the only people who will pay attention to your film will most likely be people who already agree with your message. Those who don’t will have clicked to something else long before it ends. So you haven’t created a compelling story, you’ve simply created Christian propaganda.
I have created some of the most hardcore “message” films out there with my documentaries, but my team can attest to the fact that when it comes time to put these movies together, my primary goal is to entertain you. I’m a documentary filmmaker who doesn’t really like documentaries. So I figure if I’m going to have to make these things because God is asking me to, then it better be entertaining! I have left some of the most amazing message material on the cutting room floor because it simply didn’t serve the story or move things along.
Ultimately, I think this all boils down to trust. Most Christian artists simply don’t trust themselves. They don’t trust that what they believe will come through in their story if they just let go and try to tell a rip-roaring yarn. But they forget that what they believe makes up the very essence of themselves. Therefore it will have no choice but to come out in what they create. It may be hidden, but it will be there.
How does an atheist sit through a Christian documentary, and then decide they no longer want to be an atheist (as has happened many times with my films)? I think it’s because the documentary is entertaining. Now I still have a long way to go as a storyteller, and my hope is that my next film will always be more entertaining than the last. But the last thing I need to worry about is my message, because my art comes from my very soul. And my soul is found in Christ alone, so I know that if I can just create something that keeps you riveted, the message of Christ will be seeping through the screen and into your spirit.