CreativityEngaging Culture

The Power of Great Stories

“How can you be a Christian in Hollywood?”  The question still gets asked by well meaning believers, and I’m often stopped at conferences and workshops and asked to share the experience of how I ended up in the entertainment industry.  I was raised a “preacher’s kid,” so early on in my life, I understood the power of great preaching, and the importance of communicating effectively – although I never had the slightest desire to be a preacher myself.  But it wasn’t long before I discovered the
power of the “media pulpit.”

Today, in a culture where few attend church anymore, the moral climate of this country is determined by movies, radio, and prime time television.  In my book, “Branding Faith: Why Some Churches and Non-Profits Impact the Culture and Others Don’t,” I write that the U.S. Census Bureau reports that the average teen will spend nearly five months of this  year watching TV, surfing the web, and listening to personal music devices.  The reality is, television programs, rock & roll radio, and movie theaters are “church” for this generation – sadly, that’s where young people today learn their morals, and codes of behavior.

But in spite of that great need, most films, television programs, radio specials, and websites produced by Christians are still poor quality, and have a limited audience.  That’s because for most Christians, the message is everything, and we’ve forgotten the power of a great story.  It’s interesting that when you study the life of Christ, you discover he didn’t give theological lectures or teach doctrine.  He simply told stories – powerful stories that changed people’s lives.  Stranger still, he usually only explained the meaning in private with his disciples – not with the larger audience.

I’ve always found it fascinating that Jesus Christ came to establish a faith that would transform the world, but was willing to risk just three years of ministry on telling stories.  Today, most of us would have started a university or Bible College, created a statement of faith, written a systematic theology text, gotten involved in politics, started a non-profit organization, or at least started a partnership program for fundraising.  Don’t get me wrong, all of these things can be critical in ministry, but the fact that Jesus’ priority was storytelling should tell us something about its power.

A great filmmaker once said that facts go straight to the head, but stories go straight to the heart.  Most Christian filmmakers spend all their time trying to force a Christian message into the film, and they forget the most important thing – to tell a great story.   You might take issue with that statement, but the fact is, no matter how great the content of your message, if no one watches long enough to see or hear it, you’ve failed.  So that’s why I tell preachers, teachers, writers, artists, filmmakers, and media professionals – tell a great story first.

I think it was old time movie mogul Samuel Goldwynwho said: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.”  Great media projects aren’t about sending messages, they’re about telling great stories.  Jesus understood the power of a story, and it’s something we need to be reminded of today.

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  1. This is SO TRUE!

    I remember watching a Christian film on creationism with a couple of friends with science backgrounds – both meteorologists – sharp guys.  The movie was doing fairly well when inexpicably, an altar call was presented.  I never forgot their reaction – both shook their heads – “Inappropriate,” they said.  “It’s the wrong thing to do.”

    Now many would take issue with me over that.  When is offering salvation EVER inappropriate?  What’s more important than the gospel?  Problem is from a writers point of view – it is what I call a dissimilar element.  Doesn’t fit, breaks continuity – it’s just plain bad and ultimately it becomes more valuable for our culture than for the people we’re trying to reach.

    Great post brother!  Story is king!  We have the greatest story ever told – we’re just not telling it very well.

  2.      I believe most people feel that Christian movies are “fake” movies.  In other words, they don’t really believe that the movie has the same type of value that “real” movies have, because “real” movies are made for the purpose of telling a story, whereas a Christian movie is merely a teaching tool used to promote propaganda. 

        A similar example would be the fake $100 bill tract.  When many Christians go to a resteraunt, the waiter or waitress may do a great job at serving them, refilling their ice tea 10 or 20 times, and treating them kindly.  Then the Christian leaves them a fake $100 bill with bible verses on the back, as if the waiter is going to drop to his knees in repentance at this “generous” gift.

         I believe it is the same way, when people plunk down their hard earned $10 for a movie ticket and then an additional  $7 on sodas and popcorn, only to find out that this was some lame “fake” Christian propaganda film.  We are not supposed to go around jipping the lost, but showing them the way, and by showing them the way , I don’t mean to rob them or swindle them in the name of evangelism, because I’m not sure that that would be an effective method.

         Having said that, I’m not sure that most Christian movies are really that bad.  I just wanted a good laugh dissing on them haha.

  3. I completely agree with Phil.

    Example: I had seen endless news reports about third world poverty, heard stirring political speeches on the subject and been bombarded by (and become increasingly desensitised to) countless World Vision commercials. But the first thing I did after watching About Schmidt was sponsor a child (through Compassion – a great charity).

  4.      I believe what needs to happen in the film industry is to have Christians who are willing to write stories that are mainstream in nature, but that “push the envelope”.  In other words, make movies in all the same popular genres that people flock to (romantic comedy, action thriller, drama, etc), and to have the same positive message that many movies already have, but then to push that positive message just a little bit extra-not so much that it puts the movie in a different class, i.e. the “By Christians for Christians” class,  but not so little that it doesn’t make an impact.  You always hear about films “pushing the envelope”, and unfortuanately the only ones doing that are the ones that are pushing it the wrong direction.  What I do learn from these films though is that society is Ok with the envelope being pushed.  Why not be different and push it in another direction?

  5. Honestly, who doesn’t love a good story!?  People will sit for hours at a good story, but after 20-30 minutes of a sermon, people tend to get a little fidgety.  Where’s the sense in that?

  6. Haven’t heard this mentioned so would like to emphasize: The essential source and foundation for this important storytelling is God’s Word. Gotta know the Word as a storyteller sharing God’s grace – 2 Timothy 2:15, 3:16. Of course there’s a need for communicating truth in creative ways/stories that are growing out of the imagination well rooted and grounded in scripture. Change is needed in the Church…however, some of the “emergent” believers are downplaying scripture – and that doesn’t need to happen in order to share the love of Christ in new directions.

  7. I would also draw a line here between “conversion” movies that end up in the video department of the church library (that thing with the Jesus who looks like the singer of the BeeGees), and “real” movies made by Christians. I heard that some of the Pixar writers and directors are Christians. Don’t know about the conversion rate of their movies though :o) But isn’t the mistake that we are so conversion-fixated? Doesn’t God work in a million other ways we don’t know? Blessings, Armin from Berlin

  8. Then the Christian leaves them a fake $100 bill with bible verses on the back, as if the waiter is going to drop to his knees in repentance at this “generous” gift.

    Especially when you consider that waiters are DELIBERATELY paid less than minimum wage and are expected to make up the difference in tips.  It’s called “Tip Credit”, and I remember it from my first IT job doing payroll for a restaurant chain. 

    Your “Fake $100 bill” tract in lieu of a tip has not only deprived them of income/livelihood, but you have raised and dashed their hopes and stamped a Christian (TM) brand name onto both.

  9. I have been beating my head against the wall about this for years in my chosen field (and hopefully secondary career) of science-fiction writing.

    The Lost Genre Guild and Marcher Lord Press (google them sometime) were formed to get away from the CBA monopoly of “By Christians (TM) For Christians (TM)” in genre writing (SF, Fantasy, Horror, Adventure, etc).  But they’re small professional associations and small presses, and the reputation of Christain (TM) has already been established.

    You see, the Christian (TM) market is as full of formulaic “money shots” as porn and as full of fanservice as Twilight or Furry Fandom.  Drooling fanboys don’t care if it’s good or not, they just want fanserivce — what floats their boat.  Whether what floats their boat is Bible Verses and Altar Calls, Sparkly Emo Vampire porn stars, or Fur, Tails, and Yiff.

    I’ve been active in the Lost Genre Guild for a year or two.  I’ve been one of the most vocal advocates of “mainstreaming”, getting out of the Christian (TM) market and into the mainstream, whether that mainstream is SF, fantasy, or horror.  My standards are “Could my stuff have gone head-to-head with Poul Anderson or Beam Piper in the pages of Analog?”  Not “Could I do the next Left Behind?”

    There’s an urban legend among SF writers of a rejection slip from author/editor Marion Zimmer Bradley:

    “Stop showing me how stylishly you can write and TELL ME THE STORY!”

    Christian media could heed a variant of it:

    “Stop showing me how Born-Again Christian you are and TELL ME THE STORY!”

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