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So Your Church Wants to Make a Movie
by Scott Nehring, first presented in the Mid-May 2011 edition of Movies & Culture Report

Fall 2011, Christian filmmakers Stephen and Alex Kendrick will release their fourth film, Courageous, about a group of cops who experience personal issues with their families and learn to become better fathers. This production follows the Kendricks’ financially successful film Fireproof (2008) about a fireman who experiences personal issues with his marriage and learns to become a better husband.

Expectations are for Courageous to meet or surpass Fireproof’s impressive box-office take of over $33 million. This is a reasonable expectation given the Kendricks track record.

Alex Kendrick, associate pastor of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia, founded his film company, Sherwood Pictures, in 2002 as a ministry for his church. He collect $20,000 for the film ministry and made his first film, Flywheel, about a slimy car dealer who comes to Jesus. The film found limited release and limited success. Their second film, Facing the Giants, made on a budget of $100,000, caught the attention of Samuel Goldwyn Films through Goldwyn’s newly minted Christian film distribution branch. When a controversy erupted over the film’s PG rating (mistakenly blamed on the film’s religious tone when it had more to do with the open discussion of infertility), the production caught national attention and found a broad audience amongst cinema-hungry Christians. With their third film, Fireproof, the brothers upped the ante with a budget of $3 million. The production was wildly popular in Christian circles.

The success of Sherwood Baptist Church’s film production ministry is impressive by any standard. The Kendrick brothers exhibited influence over the Christian film industry and became inspirations for numerous other cinema-minded pastors across the country.

With the Kendricks’ success there has been a rise in the number of churches who have considered following Sherwood’s lead. Why not? In an era where anyone with a camera can find attention online, it seems everyone can become a filmmaker; so, everyone has to try.

With the rise of our on-demand culture and the ever-expanding outlets for media consumption, the push toward media-centric ministry is a natural path. But as a film geek and a movie critic, I see a number of potential dangers in this trend towards church-based film making that I believe must be brought to the forefront.

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Why do churches consider making movies?

Financial Success. When I or other media professionals speak of the Kendrick brothers, we justifiably focus on their success—their financial success—the reason most people, especially secular media, are interested in their story. When church leaders see the success of the Kendricks, it is their commercial success which seems most to attract.

With an eye set on finances, on the potential for fame and fortune, even in the limited sphere of the Christian film industry otherwise-well-meaning filmmakers can become confused. There can be a thin line between working for the Lord’s glory and working for their own.

Cultural Influence. Yes, one may argue that the Kendricks’ films have had wide influence. Certainly some married couples have been prompted to reevaluate their relationships. On more than one occasion I’ve heard a Christian claiming they are “fireproofing” their marriage. “Fireproofing”—a term based on the Kendricks’ movie that has become modern Christianese for “I’m going to try to stop being a jerk to the Mrs.”

Means of Ministry. But how many people have been “saved” through one of these Christian films? To my knowledge this central support for why Christians should make films has never been studied. There are anecdotal claims of people being saved after watching a movie, but how deep is the faith produced from viewership? How informed is their decision? Do they truly understand what they’re doing, or are they reacting to the emotions of the moment?

Do not allow promises of money or influence to blur truth. These issues can and will lead many churches to pour scarce resources into film productions that soak up dollars like a sponge, use up inordinate amounts of time, and still fail to reach a worthwhile audience.

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Chances for success in this industry are slim at best. It’s common for the uninitiated to assume that making movies is easy and making money from them is a sure thing. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In reality, making a film—particularly one worth watching—is a difficult, painful process full of sacrifice, frustration, and hard work—and that’s when you know what you’re doing. What are the odds anyone beyond your friends and family will ever see your movie once you’ve spent that year or two working on it? Essentially nonexistent. Today anyone can make a movie, but almost no one gets it screened.

A shoestring film budget can easily run into the multiplied tens of thousands of dollars, usually much more. For the average church to invest in this extremely high-risk venture with unverifiable benefits (saved souls) is ill advised, particularly when that money can go to help so many others who are out of work, struggling to feed their families, and suffering through desperate times.

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Is your church thinking of making a movie?

Christians, after decades of being outside culture’s mainstream, have fantasies of breaking into the big time. These dreams become more common as a few find some success, but the dreamy ambitions of many need to be punctured before they step into the market. It’s better to be poked in the eye by friendly advice than mugged by reality.

Despite my warnings, I find movie making to be a respectable and fulfilling endeavor when done for the right reasons and conducted with a clear understanding of the risks.

If your church is floating the idea of making a movie, you have some tough questions to ask of your leadership and of yourself:

  1. Is your church making the movie to “glorify God”? If so, can your pastor and the producers clearly, Scripturally, and specifically define what makes up God-glorifying production standards?
  2. Do the pastor and production team have a coherent vision for how “glorifying God” looks being played out on film? Have they specifically outlined on paper the missionary impact of the project? If not, you need to ask why the film is being made.
  3. If the pastor or main investors install themselves or their families in lead roles or in the director’s chair, is this about God or is it about them?
  4. What is the scope of the project? Is the budget unnecessarily large? Be wary of anyone outside of Hollywood who claims that huge things are ahead if you only hand over large amounts of cash.

You’ll notice the Kendrick brothers began relatively small and built their way into larger productions. This is a common path for independent film companies.

Start small. I mean your own, personal camera small. Post your short films on YouTube, GodTube, and other free, online distribution sources. If you’re any good, you’ll find an audience. Build from there.

If you’re making movies to deliver the message of the Lord, understand He doesn’t require a million dollar budget. He requires faith and hard work on your part.

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Of great concern is the quality of the works coming from this movement. If churches slave away to produce films inspired by other Christian filmmakers, they will only replicate the mediocre-to-awful results we’ve been forced to witness over the past forty years.

A chef who subsists on fast food and soda is probably not a genius in the kitchen. When filmmakers aspire to follow those who make substandard works, their own efforts will likewise fall below average.

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If someone at your church floats the idea of making a movie, move cautiously. The best practice when approached with a film project is to decline it out of hand. If God intends for the project to move ahead, it won’t go away—the congregation will be compelled into action.