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Making Movie Nights Work: Part One -- Planning

No one doubts the entertainment value of a popular Hollywood film. Millions of people turn out every week to pay to see them. Many churches have used film as one of the lures for junior high school “lock-in” nights. But the Scriptures do not demand that we entertain our youth, we are to be equipping them for the work of the gospel. However, that doesn’t mean that we are barred from using winsome methods like movies to introduce that training.

Many youth pastors, college leaders, small group facilitators, and pastors would like to leverage film for something more than filler or a social night out. Unfortunately, there isn’t much help out there for those who want to do it. Telling pastors to “pick a film, promote the event, and do a study,” (without providing any details), leaves a lot of gaps – causing some leaders to think that they just can’t do it. Others try, but are unsatisfied with the results.

Our next series of blog posts will show you how to strategically plan for a movie-based Bible study event, how to leverage existing sources to promote the event, how to conduct a movie night that accomplishes your goal, and how to engage in follow-up to make sure that your goals were met and springboard you into an even better subsequent event. Today’s post is on strategic planning.

There are 7 key elements to successful planning of a movie Bible study event: prayer, identifying your audience, setting ministry goals, determining the frequency of your movie Bible study, movie selection, choosing the right venue, and determining the format of your study.

1. Pray. Prayer should be the beginning of every phase of your planning, promotion, event, and follow-up. We labor in vain if God is not with us. Pray that God will guide your planning, that the right people will show up, that the study facilitators will be sensitive to the students and attentive to God’s leading, and that the event will meet God-honoring goals.

2. Ask “Who do we want to reach with this study or series?” A generic movie night will get about as much traction as a generic job resume. All preparation should be done with a target audience in mind. That doesn’t mean that everyone in attendance will be the target audience, but the event needs to focus on that group of people.

Often, the answer given to this question is that the event will be used for a “general outreach,” and the idea is to use movies to attract parents and children. It is possible to make this work by selecting films that are simultaneously lively and deep. Good examples can be found in Pixar films such as the Toy Story series. Questions may have to be modified to accommodate the different levels of maturity in the audience, and if young children are present, the study will have to be short (the last blog post in this series will show some ways you can still reach the adults).

It is better to start with a more specific target audience. Because these studies require some ability to speak about characters, plots, themes, and issues, these kinds of studies are used best with high school students, college/career singles groups, small group fellowships, or adult special interest groups – for example, you could do a series based off of classic black and white films, or a popular genre (science-fiction, fantasy, documentary, etc.).

3. Ask, “What do we want to achieve?” Saying that you want people to know more about the Bible is too general. Do you want to use a movie-based Bible study as an innovative way to introduce people to the Scriptures, especially for those people who have shied away from traditional Bible studies in the past? Do you want to use movies as a gateway to create a conversational buffer so that a group might more easily touch on difficult subject matter? Films such as Soul Surfer can help teens to understand why bad things happen to good people – which is another way of referring to the problem of evil. Documentaries such as Supersize Me increase understanding about the sin of gluttony, in addition to other topics. Movies such as Bella and October Baby allow students to explore the sensitive subject of abortion by looking at the lives and choices of the characters. And for those interested in introducing apologetics, films such as God’s Not Dead address the existence of God and, for those willing to work through it, so does The Polar Express.

An additional positive outcome of combining movies with Bible study is that participants will become more media savvy. Once student recognize that films have characters, themes, and plot-lines that incorporate moral, ethical, and spiritual viewpoints, it won’t be long before they begin to see, and even anticipate, those elements in other media they consume.

4. Think in terms of a Summer Outreach or School Year Monthly Event. Some people like to use a movie night as a way to maintain contact with people over the summer. These can be monthly, or bi-weekly events. They can be a large, Church-wide outreach or something a youth group, college group, or small group does in a home. Or they can be held at a theater to take advantage of the release of a summer blockbuster. Some people have, through careful selection of films, put together a series throughout the regular school calendar. These movie nights may take the place of one group meeting a month, or they may be an additional event that occurs at regular intervals as a combination social event and study.

5. Selecting the right movie. The temptation of many leaders is to select “Christian” films for movie nights. The problem is that Christians are pretty new to the feature film business, and so many of the films simply aren’t very good. And because these films have not been widely viewed, they don’t work well for outreach. Movies, like any type of storytelling, work best as a metaphor for something else. Films that are “preachy” end up feeling forced, harming the story and often putting off the very people they are trying to reach. For a while it seemed as if every Christian-backed film ended with an altar call. While there are some exceptions – films such as Bella, October Baby, and God’s Not Dead have good to excellent production qualities – but most others simply can’t compete with mainstream Hollywood film. Choose films carefully. The first consideration is age-appropriateness. For some churches, the only acceptable film is rated G. There are a limited number of great contemporary films that fit this criterion, most of them made by Pixar. Other churches feel more flexibility in the ratings game, and will show PG or PG-13 films. Some might even show certain R-rated films – The Passion of the Christ is the top box office grossing R-rated film in history. If leaders know their audience, and understand the group’s tolerance for language and violence,, they can choose films that will not offend or stumble, but which will contain enough deep content to spark significant spiritual, moral, and ethical discussions.

The one place we believe all ministries should draw the line is with nudity or sex, and unfortunately we are seeing both becoming increasingly explicit, even in some PG-13 films. Most people hear foul language as part of daily life out in the world. The violence in films is not real. But even if sexual intercourse in a film is fake, it does not change the fact that those really are those actors’ body parts on display, and they really are touching each other in inappropriate ways. That the actors don’t mean it, that they are merely “doing their job,” doesn’t change these facts. Movie Bible Study does not provide studies for films that depict sexuality that includes nudity. Do not trust the MPAA ratings. At Movie Bible Study we try to be as accurate as we can in our content advisories, but for complete incident-by-incident comprehensive coverage of potentially objectionable material, we recommend either Screen It (which is a paid service) or which offers a fairly good parental advisory for many films. If there is any chance that a film might have objectionable content in it, the leader has an obligation to preview the film. Ultimately, the responsibility falls on the leader to select age-appropriate and group-appropriate films.

6. Choosing the right venue. Another consideration in film selection is your venue. You do not want to select blockbuster, special-effects laden, action films if the only screen you have is a 26-inch flat-screen monitor. (It’s like going out for Halloween and only getting “disappointment-sized” candy bars.) But there is no problem watching a courtroom or family drama or comedy on a smaller screen. If you are going to commit to a movie night ministry, you should invest in a large screen to make it an event.

Viewing in a home or church can give you maximum flexibility regarding times, and what you can do directly before and after a showing. It is inexpensive – the cost of the film is the same whether your group has five people or fifty. But you will be limited to older films that are available on DVD or a streaming service. There are a few exceptions when films currently in theaters are simultaneously available online, but these films are usually smaller, art house films. Choosing to see a blockbuster film on opening night can turn a study into a real event, and you can build anticipation and excitement as the date for the opening approaches. If you intend to do the study directly after viewing the film, make sure to pick an earlier showing. If the movie looks like it will sell out, collect money for tickets early in the week (it is always a good idea to have some “scholarship” funds available for group members who may not be able to afford to pay the ticket price), and go to the box office early to get the tickets. Then plan a meeting time so that people can stand in line so you can all sit together in good seats. Opening night in some cities for film franchises such as Star Wars, Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games attract large, excited crowds, many of whom dress up as their favorite characters. This carnival-like atmosphere can create a must-see vibe in your intended audience.

7. Creating the right format. There are a number of ways that you can format a movie-inspired Bible study. You can arrange for all of the participants to see the movie themselves in the week before the event. The advantage is that you can use the entire meeting time for the study section. The disadvantage is that people miss the group dynamic of watching together, and if the film must be rented, the per-person cost goes up. You can bring the film to a home or a room at your church and watch together. This method makes the study a three-to-four hour event, but it is inexpensive and preserves the group dynamic. More adventurous leaders might make the film into an event. For example, you could choose The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe and kick the evening off with an early dinner made up of traditional English fare (don’t forget to include some Turkish Delight), take a break, watch the film, and have the study. One Movie Bible Study leader I know chooses to have his group watch the films in parts. They look at the first section of the study, watch the film up to that point, and then pause it and discuss. This has the advantage of retention – they are immediately discussing what they have just watched. The major disadvantages are that it breaks up the continuity of the film, and keeps the students from discussing the film in context. Another approach – one that can work very well if you choose to see a film at a theater – is to watch the film on one night, and then do the study the following week, or even break the study up, dealing with two or three sections a night over a couple of weeks. There is a lot of flexibility. Choose what works best for the goals of your group.