I’m Conflicted About Sermons Focused On Books and Movies

Something that never happened at the church where I grew up has now happened in every single congregation I have attended since:

The pastor preaches, or arranges his/her sermons around, a book or a movie.

Let me explain. At most churches I’ve attended, the pastors teach sermon series: a group of sermons (usually 6 or so) that all address a particular topic or theme over the course of a month or several weeks.  But in this case, instead of choosing an original topic or theme from the Bible, the pastor chooses to focus the sermon series around a book (like Francis Chan’s Crazy Love) or around a movie (like, as with one of the churches I attended, Fireproof).

This has some benefits, obviously, or it wouldn’t be happening.  For starters, it means that all the church life groups and study groups can be on the same page as the pastor – literally.  The entire church, as one unit, can go through a study together – which can make for interesting revelations and activities from group to group, from demographic to demographic.  So it’s democratic, in that sense.  And the study also often addresses topics or areas that “regular” sermons often don’t.  Plus, centering your sermon series around a piece of contemporary media makes the church seem as though it’s keeping up with current times and current Christian thought.  It’s a good way of exposing believers to new authors and ideas.

The problems with this approach, though, have left me feeling conflicted about it.  For starters: what if people in your congregation have already seen the movie, or read the book?  By the time a previous pastor of mine decided to preach a sermon series on Francis Chan’s Crazy Love (a good series, and he was a good pastor), I had already read the book six times.  It was all I could do to stay focused on the sermons, or to get something – anything! – new or enriching out of the material.  And how do you handle drop-in visitors or non-believers who may have no context for the book, or for what is being taught?  If they’re not “following along,” will they be able to make much of the sermon at all, or will it simply serve to leave them feeling alienated and confused?

The second issue is that sometimes, and in some cases (though certainly not all), focusing a sermon series around already-developed material means that the sermons can become a bit…thin.  In one church I attended where several sermon series focused around movies, the pastor showed extensive clips of the film, then summarized them briefly and offered a sentence or two of analysis…then showed more film.  We spent more time watching film clips than learning!  And in cases where the book/film’s lesson is blatantly obvious (as with Fireproof) lessons from the sermon can feel redundant or even unnecessary.   I can say as a professor that it’s a dangerous game to extrapolate lessons from materials that aren’t necessarily intended to be teaching items, and it can lead to long summaries, shallow thinking, and repetitive conclusions.

It’s not that I think this should never be done; I just think it’s challenging to do well.  It’s not something I saw happening much several decades ago, and the fact that it’s more frequent now makes me wonder if it’s part and parcel of the “small group” attitude that has gripped so many churches: the idea that “real growth” occurs in cells and that the Sunday morning gathering is simply a place to dwell on and further address previously-learned truths. The “real” work is happening while you “do life together” with other people on weeknights, while Sunday services become a sort of weekly summary and endnote.

But to me the most frustrating aspect of this trend – and what I think is at the heart of my issue with it – is that I really struggle when book and movie interpretations comprise the bulk of what could otherwise be focused on…you know, the actual Scriptures.  There’s nothing wrong with bringing in thinkers or writers or artists to supplement a sermon (I love it!), but I find that focusing on a book or a movie as “proxy Scripture” – as a way of easily digesting pre-chewed spiritual insights without having to do much work on our own – can do damage to our ability to study and learn and grow.   In the church we’re already facing a loss of Biblical literacy – I suspect more Christians than you’d think would have a hard time parsing out what Jesus actually taught versus what they’ve absorbed from other sources – and I worry that we’re walking into the dangerous habit of assuming that reading/watching something “Christian” is the same thing as learning what is actually in the Bible, or dwelling on Christ’s teachings, or developing our own critical thinking abilities.

I’m fortunate that, at my current church, these sorts of sermon series are few and far between.  Because of that, I don’t mind them.  But if it turned out that this was a regular occurrence, I think I would struggle.  And them more I see it popping up in the churches I attend, sometimes as a monthly occurrence, the more I hope it’s a trend that fades fast.

 

 

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7 responses to “I’m Conflicted About Sermons Focused On Books and Movies

  1. Sounds like these Pastors are distracted by stuff, work etc. that can tie one in ministry up so that they get away from the most important part of time with God which enables them to do the work of the ministry. Or they are just plain lazy about their Bible study and prayer times with God or maybe are in the wrong place and don’t have the God appointed gift or call to pastor, definitely do not sound like Holy Spirit powered and inspired individuals. Without time with God there is nothing for them to give but warmed over leftovers.

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    • It’s tough. I like to assume best intentions, and so my general idea is that pastors are approaching this sort of thing from a hopeful and right-minded sort of place – and yet I still struggle with it as a teaching tool (though maybe others benefit from it to a great degree!) (And I am sure there ARE pastors and teachers out there who are not being so right-minded). With that being said, especially in churches where there’s one pastor shouldering the burden of pastoral work (which isn’t the case at many churches I’ve attended, but I know is true in some places), I can see where having the “relief” of being able to do this sort of sermon series might end up encouraging someone (not just a pastor, but any teacher!) to lean on it far too often!

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  2. If you read my blog much, you will probably guess that this trend troubles me too. Cant think of a time I focused on it, exactly, but I am sure I have sideswiped it many times.

    I went to Bible school with the preachers out there filling our pulpits, not with an ideal of preaching myself (so I took the minimum required course work in homiletics), but I certainly got a feel for it all. And now that I am an old guy (in young eyes anyway), I have a son in school studying these things now. (He is Youth and Family oriented…)

    He came home recently discussing with me how the youth pastor is competing with football practice and games. I recognized that as a very old idea actually, just repackaged for this generation. But if your football playing youth members have practice or a game when there is a youth event (camp? mission trip? etc) they will opt for football over youth group.

    I have seen pastors in recent years preach 5 minute sermons on Super Bowl Sunday – or reschedule worship around it. I have seen pastors show up to church on “game day” (used to be called “Lord’s Day”) wearing the team colors. I never heard a sermon that actually favored the team or the sport, but I have heard the opening/closing remarks cheer on the team. And of course, I have heard pastors make a lot of football/basketball analogy out of “run the race” in 1 Cor. 9:24 and so forth. All on Game Day of course.

    Is this a Jesus message? Or a Dallas Cowboys message? It feels a bit hijacked to me.

    Then several years ago, I found a trend (seems to have come and gone now) of seminars and Bible classes watching episodes of the Andy Griffith Show and then “applying” it to Scriptures. I even participated a couple times, but I found it to be ridiculous. Glad its gone, personally.

    Of course, what I have described is not exactly the same as preaching Crazy Love or Fireproof.

    Actually, I see it as part of the same package, but I will acknowledge that there is a significant nuanced difference. At least Crazy Love and Fireproof start off aiming to honor God and even be biblical after a fashion – the examples I put forth don’t even try.

    But I see two aspects of this that cross paths on the issue you bring up.

    Consumerism for one, and lame homiletics for the other.

    Consumerism is everyone’s discussion. But mostly it goes un-noticed or un-discussed. It is so big and pervasive, that to criticize it would be like asking us to all stop using automobiles. Yes, they do damage to the environment and kill people in terrible accidents every year, but NO ONE seriously suggests we rid society of them.

    Consumerism is at that kind of level. We all engage in it. We cannot imagine our world without it. It pervades EVERYTHING we do and does so pretty much every day.

    I don’t know if you realize it, but you are not thinking for yourself nearly as much as it feels like. Someone else is thinking for you before you have a chance to.

    Consider this:

    You go shop at Walmart and get a whole bunch of groceries and needful things. You want to pick up some shampoo among other items. The shampoo shelf is full of more that 30 kinds of Suave Shampoo. And that is just the Suave! Seriously, go count them sometime. And they all do pretty much the same thing. And I haven’t even mentioned the other brands yet. Why do we need so many?

    Okay. Maybe you have dry hair and I have oily. That MIGHT account for 2 or 3 different kinds if we really think we need them.

    How about Pepsi? Does anyone drink a regular Pepsi? You have Cherry, Cherry light, cherry light- sugar free… and on and on it goes. And there is no dry hair/oily hair explanation for this one. But count how many different kinds of soft drinks you find on the shelf. And while there, count how many different kinds of WATER too. It’s ridiculous.

    You maybe thinking: What does any of that have to do with preaching?

    Well, it shouldn’t but it does.

    Stay with me. I am talking about how you don’t think for yourself nearly as much as you think you do.

    So, your buggy is loaded up and you head to the check out stand. When you get there, you fall in line. There are two full buggies ahead of you. This is going to take more than 10 minutes to get yours started. You don’t actually speak to a soul there, though you are surrounded by people Jesus loves and died for. But you cant even make eye contact with them. It would all feel a bit awkward except Walmart has been video recording your every step and every move since your drove up on the lot. And they have security people watching and keeping you safe. But somewhere along the way, some psych students in the Univ of S. Cal or Berkley or NYU or wherever got an idea to start watching these videos to see what is happening in the American mind. And they started writing papers and books about it. Then some marketing students at grad schools in Philadephia and Texas started watching them too and formulating ideas about what you are thinking and wanting and how to manipulate you into purchasing more from the Walmart while you are there anyway.

    Ever hear about why they put the milk in the back aisle? Yeah. They know you will come to their store for the cheap milk, but they will force you to walk past every bright and shiny pretty little thing or morsel of food you MIGHT possibly want on your way there to get it. And you are likely to get enchanted and pick up a few more items along the way. It translates into money in Walmart’s pocket, so they hire the grad students to develop more and more of this kind of stuff, and they stay up late at night thinking of ways to separate you from your money without you even thinking about it.

    And so there you are in the checkout line waiting. And they have a gauntlet of magazines, candy, and trinkets begging for the last 2 or 3 dollars of your disposable income. And of course, you don’t dare look a stranger in the eye, so your eyes are all over that story about Sandra Bullock that you don’t really even care about anyway, but suddenly you kinda do. So you wind up throwing the mag in the buggy.

    Think I am some conspiracy nut?

    I have another son who is in SALES. He is apparently pretty good at this stuff and now trains other sales people to make sales. I hear him taking calls from them sometimes and coaching them to memorize the closing pitch. You gotta Always Be Closing! And memorize the rebuttals!

    Memorize the rebuttals?

    Yeah. They already studied the 4 or 5 most common protests a potential customer will make, and so they have a handful of standard rebuttals that you twist this person into.

    See what I mean? You are not thinking for yourself nearly as much as you think you are. We have hifalutin people out there with their fancy high power marketing degrees and psych strategies staying up late at night thinking your thoughts for you about 3 or 4 steps ahead of you before they even hit you up with the pitch!

    What were you doing last night? Sleeping? Eating some junk food you know you shouldn’t, but the pump at the gas station had a little tv on it that was marketing some gum gum worms that you haven’t had since you were seven and it just sounded so good and they are only $2 anyway… and so here you are at midnight eating them?

    Yeah.

    Consumerism.

    And your pastor is trying to preach something to you. Not just you personally, but 200 or 500 or 10000 other parishioners that meet here. And they are all subject to this stuff everytime they turn on a radio, a TV, a computer, or an app. EVERY TIME! And we are all a couple pounds over weight. We are all lulled into that latte, that shoe store, that porn site.

    And if it comes to a choice between football practice or church, football wins!

    So what is pastor to do?

    Well, he tries to join the fray. He is being beaten with these tactics, so he tries to employ them. Even reschedule WORSHIP of ALMIGHTY GOD so you can be free to watch a game! (Sorry God!)

    What kind of priorities is that?

    The other aspect to this is lame homiletics. Not all preachers are really that talented, and that is part of the problem alright, but really only a small part. Apparently Moses was a lousy speaker and even St. Paul laments his own speaking abilities. But that doesn’t mean God cant or wont use them.

    But pastors have an inside track on this that regular church people do not. They went to school to study homiletics, most people did not. They know the difference between preaching expository sermons or topical. They have been exposed to the power of expository and the weakness of topical. And sometimes topical is appropriate, but that is actually rare in comparison. Largely because you start getting more pastor and less God when it is done that way… and so only mature pastors should do it and even then sparingly.

    But of course they know (and so do you and I even without having been schooled in it) that your Bible is an ancient book. It needs interpretation for these modern ears JUST TO MAKE ANY SENSE a lot of the time. And then there are issues of how relevant or attractive a message might be. And these are serious homiletical issues that pastors should have received training in. And you can find some of the text books that address this stuff yourself and study up on it if YOU want to. It will open your eyes to the challenge the pastor faces.

    In the meantime, I encourage you to pray for your pastor and his challenge. Even Moses needed his friends to hold his arms while he held the staff while the armies of Israel fought. Church and preaching is not a consumerist game. We have a part to play in participating here. WE do not just sit back and judge what Pastor says. We come here to WORSHIP GOD ALMIGHTY. At least we were supposed to.

    Anyway, your post strikes a nerve with me too. And I am thrilled to see I am not the only one. And I hope my offering here is not just a mere hijack of your post, but opens worlds of insight as you think for yourself about what is actually happening here.

    Because in my opinion, Pastor (not always, but frequently enough) is a little discouraged and overwhelmed at the prospects. It becomes a little too easy to hitch the sermon wagon to the latest buzz some book seller or movie maker is promoting out there – even if it is of a Christian variety. And that ultimately is adulterating the Word of God that God wants to Speak to YOU and your flock this week.

    Hope that helps.

    Agent X
    Fat Beggars School of Prophets
    Lubbock, Texas (USA)

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  3. Oh man, your point about consumerism is spot on and I hadn’t thought about how that in particular might tie in with it – or with ideas of marketing of branding, both of which relate to this issue as well (especially when it comes from the pulpit!) And it is very much an issue that pervades the church (I am often startled by the ways in which the ways the church is run/approached mirrors the way in which my husband’s job in corporate America works) – not just in this regard, but also in others.

    You’ve hit the nail on the head, too, with the idea that pastors are struggling to compete with A LOT to get their message heard. (The football message being particularly potent here – it is HUGE in my area, and yes, I attend a church where commentary on it is often made during services!) I really do believe these sorts of sermon series come from a good place: this hope that what you’re doing, or focusing your words around, will prove to be a “draw” that can out-compete or at least be as interesting as the 4,000 other options people have.

    Praying for the pastor and pastoral staff are always the first/best options we have, and every believer ought to be doing it if they haven’ started already. It really is a difficult situation, and navigating our way through the distractions of modern life and trying, at the same time, to remain relevant, is difficult stuff to do for sure.

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  4. In the case of Fireproof and it’s sibling movies – their makers intended to create study books for the movie, so it was designed to be shared through small group lessons and sermons. I don’t like them for being so overtly preachy.
    But some movies or even episodes of t.v. shows lend themselves very well to an exploration of religious themes. This one – for example – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1-ip47WYWc – could facilitate discussion and open the floor to take the conversation in a couple of different directions. If it were thoughtful – I’d be okay with that.

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    • I thought that was the case with Fireproof! I know that w/some media that sort of stuff is prepackaged and pretty natural now (because it doubles profits, among other things).

      And yeah, I think “thoughtful” is what’s key here. A lot of times this stuff can work as conversation starters and as supplements, but it’s something that the pastor/facilitator really has to think through and make meaningful.

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