Churches Evangelize Through Film
Growing Number of Christians — Including Catholics — Making Movies
Editor’s note: This article has been updated.
ALBANY, Ga. — It’s been six years since Mel Gibson released his epic film The Passion of the Christ. The faith-based movie trend that some expected to follow never quite materialized.
But galvanized by the success of The Passion, and spurred on by the example of Sherwood Baptist Church’s films, there’s been a proliferation of pastors-turned-producers, each trying to put his own stamp on Hollywood.
Sherwood Baptist, one of seven Baptist churches in Albany, Ga., began its journey into filmmaking simply enough.
“Movies are the stained-glass pictures of the 21st century,” said Michael Catt, pastor of the 3,000-member church. “We realized that we have a generation that is influenced more by media than by the church and its pastors. We decided that we weren’t going to give the devil our children and grandchildren by default.”
That’s what led the screenwriting team of brothers Alex and Stephen Kendrick and Catt to seek the support of Sherwood’s congregation when they decided to make their first film, Flywheel — a modern-day Zaccheus story about a car salesman — in 2002.
“Once we made the decision to make Flywheel, I made an announcement at church, and we were able to raise $20,000 to make our first film,” said Catt.
Although Flywheel never opened nationwide in theaters, Nielsen Soundscan reports that more than 400,000 DVDs of the film have been sold, largely through word of mouth.
Since that time, the Sherwood team has produced two other films that were distributed in theaters — Facing the Giants and Fireproof. They’re also set to release their fourth film, Courageous, in the fall of 2011. The film about fatherhood tells the story about a group of police officers.
Facing the Giants cost $100,000 and grossed more than $10 million in box-office receipts. The DVD sold more than 2 million copies. Fireproof cost $500,000 and grossed more than $33 million, making it the highest-grossing independent film of 2008.
Still, the filmmakers at Sherwood say that it’s not about money, but mission.
“Our motive isn’t to make a big movie with eye candy or big stars,” said Alex Kendrick, writer and director of Sherwood’s previous films. “It’s a ministry with movies. We’re trying to reach the masses with content that matters.”
Sherwood has not put the money it has made into future film projects. Rather, the church has used the money to start churches in Baltimore and San Francisco, for local ministry projects, and to build an 82-acre sports park to serve Albany and southwest Georgia.
“It’s about more than financial success,” said Kris Fuhr, vice president of Sony’s Provident Films. “We look at this not as a financial enterprise, but we want to make an impact for the Kingdom. With Fireproof, we prayed that there would be a million children who could say that their parents are still together because of the film.”
That spirit of prayer is evident on the set of their films. Churchgoers, actors and the director gather to pray before, during and after shooting.
But Sherwood is not alone. In addition to the existing faith-based production companies — Fox Faith, Mpower, Origen Entertainment, and Promenade — other evangelical churches are forming film production companies.
Sherwood’s example has inspired other churches to try their hand at filmmaking. While their techniques differ, they all have the same goal in mind: evangelization.
Following Sherwood’s lead, Calvary Church of the Nazarene in Cordova, Tenn., has produced a film. Their movie The Grace Card stars Louis Gossett Jr. The motion picture is about reconciliation and forgiveness and has also been picked up by Sony’s Provident Films.
In Chicago, Harvest Bible Chapel has entered the business by hiring director Dallas Jenkins, son of Jerry Jenkins, author of the popular Left Behind book series.
Jenkins has been critical of Christian films.
Jenkins told the Register, “I’ve been critical of Christian films in general (see my article), but I admire what Sherwood is doing and applaud their success. They’ve paved the way for all of us.”
Yet, Harvest Bible Chapel pastor James MacDonald wondered if they could improve on the product.
“He wants to improve on Christian films in general and combine the church’s resources with Hollywood talent,” Jenkins explained. “We’re especially noticing and admiring the Tyler Perry model.”
Jenkins directed the films Midnight Clear and What If …, which opened in theaters Aug. 20, before he came to Harvest. “We held the premiere of What If ... with the lead actors at Harvest, and 5,000 people showed up,” he said. “And we of course hope that the theatrical success of What If ... can give some momentum to what we’ll be doing at Harvest, but we haven’t announced our first film yet.”
Other congregations are doing likewise. The Faith and Power Worship Center of Apopka, Fla., formed Faith and Power Pictures and is producing Heading Home, a film about love and redemption starring former “MASH” actor Gary Burghoff.
T.D. Jakes, pastor of the 30,000-member church The Potter’s House, has formed TDJ Enterprises for the purpose of producing Jumping the Broom, a film about a couple from different backgrounds getting married.
Jakes’ explanation for why he wants to get into moviemaking is similar to what attracted Sherwood to make Flywheel eight years ago. A banner in Sherwood Baptist Church’s lobby reads: “Whoever Wants the Next Generation the Most Will Get Them!”
“There are millions of people who are going to theaters who would not come to church, and we have an opportunity to just break down barriers and to reshape how we are viewed in the mainstream,” Jakes told The Christian Post. “We can go in there and bring our message.”
With so many Protestant megachurches getting into the business, can Catholics be far behind?
The Church is no stranger to films. In 1930, Jesuit Father Daniel Lord, a drama professor at St. Louis University, was asked to help draft the Hays Code, and the Catholic Legion of Decency attempted to hold movies to a moral standard. Yet, some saw the Church’s involvement as censorship.
Since the abandonment of the Hays Code in 1967, the Church’s involvement in films has been sparse.
Film reviewer David DiCerto had some thoughts as to why the Church doesn’t get behind moviemaking.
“First, the individual communities of Protestant megachurches are generally more ideologically homogenous than most Catholic parishes, making it easier to agree on a project,” said DiCerto.
Furthermore, DiCerto added that being independent entities, megachurches have the “autonomy to green-light projects that Catholic parishes, as members of a regional, national and global organization, do not.”
DiCerto also said that Catholic parishes do not have access to the considerable financial resources that many megachurches do. Finally, he admitted that evangelical communities have “displayed a more committed, media-savvy approach to engaging and using popular entertainment to spread the Gospel message than has the Catholic Church.”
That’s not to say it doesn’t happen; it’s just rarer.
Interestingly, the few cinematic releases that have been made have each had some financial backing or the support of a particular religious order. The 1989 film Romero was financed and produced by The Paulists. The 1996 film Spitfire Grill was privately financed by the Sacred Heart Fathers of Walls, Miss. Those involved in the making of the 2007 film Bella received spiritual support, direction and promotional support from the Legionaries of Christ. The forthcoming Roland Joffe film There Be Dragons, which tells the early life of St. Josemaria Escriva, has received indirect support from the personal prelature Opus Dei, which Escriva founded. Ignacio Sancha, a member of Opus Dei, created an investment fund to help pay for the film. The film team also asked Opus Dei for help in gathering information and documentation.
Sister Helena Burns, a former film student and nun with the Daughters of St. Paul, described such examples as “anomalies.”
“The Church used to be one of the biggest patrons of the arts,” she said. “The Church also used to be more united. The disunity has affected where the Church puts its money.”
Furthermore, she added that Catholics on the whole tend not to patronize religious films, but rather spend their money on the same films as the secular world does.
Still, she sees films as worthwhile projects for the Church. Her order is devoted to spreading the Gospel using the media.
Blessed James Alberione, founder of the Daughters of St. Paul, writes in his 1944 book The Publishing Apostolate: Handbook of Formation and Apostolate, “The motion picture has a psychological, one could say, a suggestive, power over the human spirit, because it takes hold of the whole person and influences all his faculties, physical and spiritual.”
“What better way to engage the culture?” asked Sister Helena. “With the renewed emphasis on evangelization in the Church, hopefully more funding will go towards the funding of films. I think the future is bright.”
Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.
Other Forthcoming Faith-Based Films
What If… — opened Aug. 20
Like Dandelion Dust — opens Sept. 24
The Grace Card — opens February 2011
There Be Dragons — opens spring 2011
Courageous — opens fall 2011
The Mighty Macs
Ryann Watters and the King’s Sword
Jumping the Broom
The Great Divorce
Mary, the Mother of the Christ