Theater as Church

We want to know that we are genuine, relatable characters in God’s story.

Movies move people. Remember the last time you cried during a dramatic scene, felt inspired by a triumphant act or got so captured by a story that you forgot you were in the theater? Great movies connect with audiences on a personal level while pulling them into the experience of the film.

But movies are more than entertainment. They offer an opportunity to process life issues and search for deeper meaning in life’s events. In his book Reel Spirituality, Dr. Robert Johnston from Fuller Theological Seminary notes: “Along with the church, the synagogue, the mosque and the temple, [movies] often provide people stories through which they can understand their lives....”

In fact, many people find their most religious experiences in a dark theater where they can, for the moment, live vicariously through the characters onscreen.

Films wield the power of make-believe—that is, they mean to “make you believe.” You can envision possible realities, sympathize with characters, identify with issues, or try on new values and beliefs that are not yet your own. Through story, you can live out the struggle of finding hope in evil times (Lord of the Rings), discover triumph in your own voice (The King’s Speech) or bask in the wonder of paradise (Avatar).

The science-fiction adventure Avatar raked in $467.9 million in 2010 alone, but no one expected its deep psychological impact. CNN followed an Internet thread of more than 1,000 posts from viewers suffering from depression when the movie ended and they realized that the beautiful, pantheistic Pandora was not real1.

How do we reach a culture that finds spiritual experiences in the theater?

The first is simply to remember that you interact with this culture both inside and outside your church walls. The second is to understand the power of story itself.

Stories: wrapping the objective in the subjective

Propositional approaches may be the most direct and simple form of communication for those of us who teach, but they are not the only pedagogical means. When you contextualize truth in story form, you create experiences where those truths can be tested vicariously and tasted imaginatively. Subjective experiences can then be powerful conduits for discovering objective truths.

We see Jesus employing such practices when he couched truths in parables and when he interacted with real people. We can imagine ourselves as Martha, as the hemorrhaging woman or as the leper.

We, too, can tap into this story-loving culture by telling stories that indicate God’s common grace or illustrate biblical truths, or that simply tell the truth about humanity. Listen to the stories that others are telling—the stories in the news that capture people’s attention. Look for the virtues, worldviews, values and beliefs that drive the story, or where there’s a lack of such things that halt the story. See how characters and people wrestle with and exercise their worldviews. If a story touched a person, he/she resonated with the worldviews undergirding the story.

At the very least, stories may reveal to us what society is thinking—that in itself makes films a point of conversation.

Telling stories in church?

But what if our sermons and worship services also followed a story structure? Instead of treating the components of a service (worship, message, tithing, etc.) as separate agenda items, could we see them as chapters that allow our service to tell a story? Might we incorporate a narrative structure in both our sermons and services to forge a scenario that makes truth palatable?

Great stories have a beginning, middle and end. They take the audience on a journey with the main character through an encounter with a problem/challenge, a call-to-action, the facing of obstacles, the overcoming of trials and failures, the learning of universal lessons, the experience of inward change, and the achievement of a worthy triumph that comes at a cost.

The narrative experience creates a process of discovery. Imagine taking people through a narrative experience of worship from the moment they enter your Sunday service doors.

(Here’s where I should make the point that learning about the craft of stories is crucial. If we have great content but don’t tell our stories well, we surrender a good story experience. This all sounds like more work, but that tends to be the case with creativity.)

In our movie-going culture, people want to see and experience the truth we profess. They want to see that we are genuine, relatable characters in God’s story.

But just as in the films they watch, people don’t want to see their own lives mirrored exactly; they know they are far from perfect. Instead, they want to see some redemption and triumph. They want to see something extraordinary arise out of the relatable ordinary.

That’s what our worship and church experiences can offer. Through our redeemed stories and lived-out worldviews of truth, may we offer an experience of the gospel in our churches and in our day-to-day conversations—not arrogantly, as one who stands outside of The Story we profess, but as honest sinners saved by grace within The Story to which we are witnesses.

1, “Audiences experience ‘Avatar’ blues,” January 11, 2010.

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