Spoiler Alert

by Bob Turner on March 05, 2024

Did movies get worse? 

Over the holiday I saw Wonka at my childhood movie theater. That cinema features one screen, no online reservations, and seats reminiscent of jury duty. However, I walked there from my parents’ house and got admission, candy, and a drink for $10. Not bad. So, I’m not knocking the theater experience, but instead the actual movies. 

Last year’s slate was more predictable than grandpa’s breakfast. The ten highest-grossing movies were: Barbie, Super Mario Bros, Oppenheimer, Guardians of the Galaxy 3, Fast X, Spiderman, Wonka, The Little Mermaid, Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning, Part One, and Elemental. It’s hard to know if that slate was produced in 2023 or 1993. Oppenheimer and Elemental were the only top movies that were original—and that’s not a compliment one would expect for a film about World War 2. 

The top movies when I was twelve were The Lion King, Forrest Gump, The Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction, Dumb and Dumber, Speed, and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.  If you went in January of that year you could’ve seen the tail run of Mrs. Doubtfire or Philadelphia. Absolutely loaded. It was the film version of the LeBron, Melo, Wade draft.

Great year, huh? The previous year might have been better, since 1993 had Jurassic Park, The Fugitive, The Firm, Sleepless in Seattle, The Pelican Brief, Schindler’s List, Free Willy, Cool Runnings, Dave, The Sandlot, A Bronx Tale, Tombstone, Groundhog Day, Groundhog Day, Groundhog Day, Groundhog Day.

Don’t “Ok Boomer me. I’m not a Boomer. Or even a Gen X. I was born in 1982 and fit into the category known as Geriatric Millennial. Yeesh. That sounds like we’re going to die before our first colonoscopy. We’re not cool. But we’re also not old.

But back to the movies. Why the repetition? Why are we singing the same song, eighth verse? When did finding your seat at the AMC become like walking down the aisle to Just as I Am? Some insiders say studios would rather release a small number of big-budget projects than a larger number of modest ones. Others have blamed the decline of the traditional movie star who can carry a movie. So, we don’t need to risk an artsy Keanu Reeves flick when we already know John Wick will work fine. It’s clear that movie studios have elected to steward brands rather than to take risks on original content. Curation of existing ideas has surpassed development of new ones. There is no CGI that can dress up the fact that our tastes have become boring and predictable. Actors aren’t taking chances; studios aren’t encouraging them, either. 

This is terrifying news for church leaders who are trying to disciple emerging generations. 

Safe and boring are not words that need to be associated with the most revolutionary message in the history of the planet. So here’s the question: have churches gone the way of Hollywood and peddled a predictable version of discipleship that looks really attractive but isn’t very effective? 

Before you guess that this is some idea for offering livestream through Marco Polo be patient; it’s not. Instead, we need to admit that many of our basic church offerings have become really stale and ineffective if they aren’t paired with an insistence on a radical discipleship.

If church was a theater with a marquee, it would say:

  • Sunday worship experience,
  • Age-based groups,
  • Programs for young children,
  • Interactive tools for engagement (website/social media), 
  • Occasional service opportunities in the neighborhood. 

That list of offerings is absolutely standard. But there is only so much it can actually do to effectuate change in the human heart and engagement in the community. One worship leader recently told me, “After seven Sundays with us, someone has seen about all we can do.” Yep. But that doesn’t stop us from going back to this list of offerings again and again. 

Church leaders try to meet these expectations, often with failure, which then results in cycles of hiring, firing, revisioning, and rebranding to match the anxiety of the room. We double down on stuff that didn’t work in the first place. Freshen up the facilities, upgrade the technology, improve the worship experience, fire people, hire people, take more pictures, make more videos, maximize social media, and humblebrag more about work among the poor. Get your popcorn.

We’ve seen repeatedly that this entire process is largely unsuccessful at making new disciples, though it will inevitably encourage a few Christians from other churches to transfer their membership, which will cause anxiety at their former church, which will prompt them to make upgrades, which will attract a few more people back to them. Enhanced worship. Better facilities. Splashier kids program. It’s the same list every time. And it often gets two thumbs down.

We have no idea if such tweaks actually encourage discipleship (growing churches in 90% of the world suggest otherwise), but that doesn’t stop us from trying. We worry so much about losing people to other churches that we break the bank trying to convince people from other churches to come to us, and totally lose sight of any rigorous sort of disciple making. 

Parents get anxious that their kids are walking away from faith, so they reason that the church is somehow responsible. They suggest the church should’ve been more active on Instagram and meet students where they are. Sure, it’s brain poison for adolescents, but this goes ignored because it’s easier to tell the pastor to get on social media than to tell their teenager to get off of it. In response, the church gets stuck in uncreative, uncritical, and often unspiritual attempts to reach people. It’s all programs and paint. It’s Marvel movies, sequels, and Disney redos. We refuse to imagine new ways of doing things because we have reduced our intake to the same predictable stuff that we aren't even sure works. 

What should we do? Let’s try this: if our objective is making disciples then why don’t we say that and insist that all of our programs do it?  Very few of the best efforts of a church will come from big programs, especially programs that seem better equipped at attracting people than discipling them. Most of our best efforts will never fill out the attractional church bingo card. Instead, we need to release people to be creative. We need to greenlight Christians to disciple their friends and neighbors, otherwise they’ll get bored and spend their time in fruitless conversations about how the livestream quality is the real problem (Fast and Furious 19, anyone?).

I love how some of this is happening at White Station right now.

  • One shepherd does not consider himself a Bible scholar or a Bible teacher. So he asks men to join him for a group where they read the Bible together and then pray for one another. That’s it.
  • One newish person noticed there wasn’t spiritual vitality among students at a local university,  so he emailed university leaders and coaches to see if they knew students who would be interested in studying the Bible with him. It’s working.
  • A woman noticed we have very little for women who were single (by death, divorce, or lifelong singleness). She started a group. New people came immediately; some had not been in church for years.
  • One leader started a discipleship group for an underrepresented population.

Flashy? Probably not. But I’m not sure calling twelve men to hang out with you and preach the good news is very attractive, either. Guaranteed? Of course not. Even Jesus had detractors. But the fear of getting a Judas should not prevent us from looking for Peter. We need to be ready for some flops. We need to build the resilience to handle failure. And we need to extend grace to our coworkers and not blame them for every misstep or failure. Most of our efforts will fail.

But we need to take chances.

Frank Dabaront tried to make it in Hollywood writing scripts for The Blob, Buried Alive, and some niche horror films. Nothing clicked. Then a studio trusted him with a $25 million budget on a film that only showed in 33 theaters on opening weekend. Its opening return of $727,000 was fine, but not phenomenal, and still in the red. Word spread and people started coming to see it. That film was The Shawshank Redemption.

For churches, it probably comes down to a simple choice from that film:

Get busy living or get busy dying.

But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14-15)


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