No one would argue that the diversity of Christian films has come a long way since the original “Ben-Hur” and “The Ten Commandments.”
“It started with the Kirk Cameron movie, ‘Fireproof.’ That really opened floodgates, and everyone started to think there was big money to be made here,” says Corbin Bernsen, the former “L.A. Law” star now at the forefront of the movement. “We live in a screwed-up world. We want something to believe in,” he says.
Michael Scott, CEO and co-founder of faith-based studio Pure Flix, agrees. “The increasing number of Christian films coming out of Hollywood speaks to the audience’s hunger,” he says. “They’re tired of sex and violence. They want to see something that will lift their spirits.”
The box office numbers prove that Bernsen and Scott are on to something. At $370.3 million, 2004’s “The Passion of the Christ” holds the title of the highest grossing R-rated film in the United States, according to Forbes. A sequel is reportedly in the works, reuniting director Mel Gibson with star Jim Caviezel.
Last seen playing the apostle Luke in “Paul, Apostle of Christ,” Caviezel says films based on the Bible typically serve a higher purpose. “I think, inevitably, it will bring people back to reading the scriptures again,” Caviezel says of the faith-based film boom.
Blockbusters like “The Chronicles of Narnia” series, “Courageous” and “I Can Only Imagine” add to the impressive profits from the Christian film industry while also broadening them beyond historical adaptations to genres like fantasy and realistic nonfiction with Christian themes. More recently, “The Star” was a big hit in the animation world.
Scott likens the growing popularity of Christian films to the Christian music industry, which he says began small but now encompasses multiple genres such as gospel, contemporary and rap.
“We’re seeing different types of films now, and the production quality is getting better,” says Scott, whose studio released “Samson” in February. “As the audience supports these films, they will see them improve with better stories and production values.”
The Need for Faith-Based Content
What inspired filmmakers to begin producing Christian films, and why are audiences flocking to see them? A 2015 study by Ohio State University psychologist Brad Bushman found that violence in films has nearly quadrupled since the 1950s. Further, the study revealed that modern PG-13 films such as “The Hunger Games” and “The Avengers” contain more violence than R-rated movies from the 1980s.
The mature content allowed in most present-day PG-13 films seems to create a gap—especially for families with older children or Christians of any age who simply don’t care to watch adult content—with film offerings going straight from animated children’s films to movies with violence or sexual scenes. Those audiences often are doomed to be bored by movies targeted for young kids or be exposed to graphic content, with nothing in between.
Scott says Pure Flix is bridging that gap by producing and distributing films with “no sex and zero or light violence.” In addition to producing eight to 10 original films annually, Pure Flix has a streaming service a la Netflix that only offers family-friendly films for download.
“We’re sharing something the entire family can watch with no one covering their eyes,” he says. “We show things that are fun, entertaining and have great lessons to be learned.” More than 350,000 people in the United States and Canada subscribe to Pure Flix and have access to the approximately 7,000 titles in the studio’s library.
Helping or Hurting?
Despite serving an audience that already adheres to Christianity, are the increasing Christian films inspiring people or are they simply ineffective? Some think Christian filmmakers have not taken advantage of their platform to ask hard questions and have settled for cliche instead, furthering negative stereotypes about Christians.
The King’s College faculty member and Christianity Today film critic Alissa Wilkinson wrote an article for Thrillist called “I’m a Christian and I Hate Christian Movies.” In her post, Wilkinson shares that “the glaring problem... is that instead of exercising and challenging the imagination of their audience in ways that would make their audience better Christians, they shut down imagination and whisper sweet nothings into their ears instead.”
She continues, “Audiences shouldn’t expect to leave the theater comfortable. Movies should change our lives and expand our imaginations. If it just reinforces our prejudices and lines in the sand, then it’s just a feature-length infomercial. And nobody... needs more of that.”
Critic Andrew Barber agreed and cited two problems with Christian films in an article he wrote for The Gospel Coalition. Barber said that Christian films are dishonest because they attempt to convert non-Christians, and “they are evangelical fantasies” because “these films are meant to assure us that our view of the world is correct.”
No film can take the place of a conversation with a pastor, Barber says, nor should they exert the opinion that Christians are better than others.
Another train of thought is that Christian films can be powerful but need to be effective. Some, like Bernsen, say they must possess higher doses of real-world problems instead of shying away from the hard stuff.
Eric Wilson, who wrote the novel adaptations of Christian films “Fireproof,” “Facing the Giants,” “October Baby” and “Samson,” believes there could be great value in addressing some of the issues Christian filmmakers seem to avoid. He says that by ignoring certain issues, filmmakers and writers fail to give “God an opportunity to work through them.”
“I love Christian movies and appreciate what they are doing, but I think there’s a place to push those boundaries more,” Wilson says. “I’m not saying they need to include more sex and violence, but there’s no one I know who hasn’t been affected by sexual sin or violence in some way. All these things we tend to avoid, yet they are a part of our shared experience.”
Bernsen agrees, citing shared experience as a driving force to star in “My Daddy Is in Heaven,” the 2018 film about the effects of losing a loved one. “I think what is really important is truth; not ‘Pollyannic’ truth, but truth,” he says. “It’s not, ‘If you believe in God, everything is going to be OK.’ You are going to have to dig a little bit deeper. Get down in the trenches, roll up your sleeves and get dirty. You have to be real.”
Takeaways for Events
Faith-based event planners can channel these reactions into events that are produced and received better.
From observing the reception to faith-based films, it’s clear that the better something is produced, the more seriously audiences take it. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the bar is set lower for the production value of Christian events.
Why not wow your audience with cutting-edge technology and stunning visuals, showing that excellence is a core value of your organization? Investing a little more of your budget into the look and feel of the event will certainly not hurt your organization’s reputation or reception.
Further, Barber’s feedback conveys how crucial follow-up conversations are to events. We’ve all experienced a “retreat high,” where we have an emotionally charged moment during an event, but the elation can fall flat quickly. Who is following up with your attendees afterward? Big moments onstage can be powerful, but real change happens over time in mentor or pastoral relationships. Make sure your organization has a clear path for following up with individuals post-event.
Similarly, Wilson and Bernsen’s reflections on adding more “meat” can be applied to conference content. Millennials value authenticity and, unlike their baby-boomer parents, do not view vulnerability as a weakness. Powerful testimonies resonate with them. Incorporating speakers who have “been there, done that” and are not afraid to talk about it is one way to marry Christian values with more controversial—but very real—topics. Even better: Produce a high-quality video of testimonies.
Lastly, is your event merely preaching to the choir, or are you opening the minds of your participants, engaging diverse viewpoints and asking challenging questions? Are you pushing the boundaries, as Wilson said?
It’s good for attendees to leave an event more assured of their beliefs and encouraged in their faith journey, but there’s more than one means to that end. Consider provoking them to sincerely reflect so you can send them out more confident than they were before. Obviously this can happen through radical keynote speakers, but booking a musical act from a genre that may be new to your audience could be an effective method as well. Schedule a spoken word artist to recite scripture or an orchestra to play an instrumental medley of hymns—change things up from the expected and see what resonates.
Just as Christian films continue to grow in popularity and diversify in style, Christian events aren’t going anywhere, so make sure you’re keeping things fresh while staying on message.