Why and how should we use film discussions in evangelism?
Using films within our communication is very helpful because film is an extremely popular medium. Long-form television is arguably more popular, but film remains immensely important. Second, film is powerful because it is ‘multimodal’ – it doesn’t communicate in a single mode (images, spoken words, music, etc.) but in several at once. This means it connects with us in a very different way from having someone simply speaking from the front. Third, films connect with our culture very well. In evangelism it is vital to make a connection with the world of the audience, and films of course do this automatically. Fourth, films raise big questions. They are about all the stuff of life: happiness, freedom, love, purpose, spirituality, life and death, religion, politics, sexuality, morality, identity and many more. These are all vital issues about which the gospel has something to say.
Finally, people love films because they love stories. Stories matter deeply to us because, it seems, they are deeply ingrained into our natures – we are inherently story-telling beings. As Stephen Lawhead writes in Merlin, ‘Perhaps it is how we are made; perhaps words of truth reach us best through the heart, and stories and songs are the language of the heart. This is surely connected with the fact that much of the Bible is in narrative form; God has revealed himself within a huge narrative of his actions in history from creation onwards, and that still looks ahead to the new creation. Madeleine L’Engle says,
‘Stories make us more alive, more human, more courageous, more loving. Why does anybody tell a story? It does indeed have something to do with faith. Faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically.’
The stories within films matter – and are great for discussing – because they do more than simply communicate the narrative itself. There are deeper levels. As the British writer Philip Pullman says,
‘All stories teach, whether the story-teller intends them to or not. They teach the world we create. They teach the morality we live by. They teach it much more effectively than moral precepts and instructions.’
Because there is something deep in in the human heart that connects with stories, films a good way well to tap into that and and a good way of connecting with people. And because films (and other stories) explore life’s big issues, it is possible to have immensely fruitful discussions after watching them.
Three steps to good film discussions
There are three main steps to running effective film discussions: organise it well, prepare well, and execute well.
If you’re running a film discussion, there’s a number of aspects you need to think about well in advance of the event. I have led many film discussions over the last twenty five years, some of which have been brilliantly organised; some of them have not.
One of the key things is is to get some good people involved in the planning and organisation so that the person leading the discussion is not also trying to sort out all the practical details. They need to be committed to getting the details right in advance so that the event itself runs well.
b) Date and time
It may be stating the obvious, but choose a date and time when there is a good chance of people coming. I have known groups pick a date that is convenient for them without thinking about the fact that they will be competing with another significant event to which their friends are likely to go. Make sure the date and time are clearly communicated to everyone involved well in advance.
It’s important to find a venue that works for a film discussion. It should be comfortable, without significant barriers to people being able to see the screen or the person leading the discussion. You also want to avoid venues which have acoustics that make it hard for people to hear either the film or what people are saying during the discussion. If numbers are going to be small, then you could make it very informal in someone’s home. If it’s a larger-scale event, you may want to find a neutral setting, rather than a church. Investigate whether you could hire a screening room in a local cinema if you think you could draw enough people.
You need some means of showing the film, including sound amplification. If the venue you’re using has built-in equipment, clarify in advance that you are allowed to use it, and find out how to use it. If you’re bringing equipment, be sure you have everything – including cables – and that it works. Set it up well in advance of the event starting in case of problems. It’s useful to have someone around with some technical ability who can sort out any problems you run into.
You need a licence to show a film to an audience (if it is not in your own home with friends). In the UK, there are two different licences, which cover different distributors: CVLI and Film Bank. There may be equivalents in other countries, but if not, you will need to approach the film distributor directly for permission.
Word-of-mouth may be enough but you are likely to need to something a little bit more formal. Copyright law is likely to prevent you from using images from the film in the publicity, though the distributor should be able to make some publicity stills available to you. Your screening licence may also forbid you from advertising what film you are planning to watch, which is very frustrating,
It’s a good idea to have some nice things for people to nibble on – preferably quiet food like chocolate rather than noisy nachos! If you sit around tables, you can put bowls of food and maybe some drinks, possibly even a few flowers or other decoration to create a nice atmosphere for the film discussion. You want people to feel relaxed, not that they are there for a lecture; you want them to enjoy the experience of the film first, and then you are likely to have a better discussion.
What are you going to do afterwards? It’s vital that this leads on to something more; don’t see a film discussion as an entirely stand-alone event. In the context of a university events or mission week, that is effectively built int the structure of the week, but plan the film discussion to be early so it leads into the other things. Films are easy to invite people to, so it makes a lot of sense to have them as a first step for people. If your event is a one-off discussion, think about how you might connect with people afterwards.
You need to do a significant amount of preparation in order to lead a film discussion well. People often assume that you can run a film discussion by simply deciding what film to watch and then just starting a discussion about it afterwards. Then they wonder why the discussion was quite difficult or didn’t reach where they wanted to get to. The fundamental reason is, they have failed to give any prior thought to what is in the film and what it is saying.
a) Choose the film
Choosing the film is something that requires careful thought; it is not something to decide on five minutes before you start (unless the context is a very informal discussion among a group of friends). You need to reflect carefully on what kind of people are likely to attend, what’s going on in the world or what the current zeitgeist is, where you will be showing the film, maybe even the history of the city where you are. Some criteria for deciding on films include:
- Relevance: Does the film raise good questions? What opportunities might it generate to connect with the gospel (but don’t jump into this too quickly – see below)?
- Theme: The film you watch needs to focus on issues which you are happy to discuss. Some themes are ideal for discussion – those mentioned in the first paragraph, for example – but others will be less appropriate. You need to decide this based on your context and particular areas of knowledge.
- Appropriateness: Is the content suitable for your audience? Some films will be fine to show to certain groups, and in certain venues, which would be inappropriate in another context or with a different audience. Bear in mind, too, that there are some films that, even if your audience is very familiar with them, may be best for a Christian group not to show. It does not reflect well on the Christians if they show a film with lots of explicit sex scenes, for example. Where to draw the line is a difficult question, however, and you need to balance questions of appropriateness with considerations of thematic content.
- Popularity: A good film for a discussion need not be a popular one, but you need to consider whether it is preferable to go for a mainstream film or something more obscure. The advantage of a mainstream film is that it may more easily attract people, but there are plenty of people who would prefer to see a more arty independent film which they have not seen before. It’s always good to be able to introduce great films to people, and they may well engage in discussion differently from how they would if you showed a blockbuster that they’d seen before. You could even run a small film festival with film discussions over five evenings, using a mix of popular and obscure films.
- Length: I recommend no more than two hours because you need to allow time for quality discussion afterwards, without making the event to long. Something closer to 90 minutes is better.
b) Get to know the film
Do not arrive without having seen the film – preferably more than once. Reflect on it carefully, noting key scenes or sections of dialogue which open up the theme well. Read some reviews of the film to know what aspects of it others have connected with. Don’t just read Christian reviews. You could get away without doing watching the film first if you have plenty of experience of analysing films and you have plenty of general questions in your mind. In that case, you could probably lead a reasonable discussion after the first viewing of a film because you would be going through the same process with others that you go through on your own with any film. Even so, you will have a better discussion if you know the film already as you will have a deeper understanding of it. The other time when you may not need to see the film first is if the discussion is a very informal thing with a few friends. In this case, it may be appropriate for you to share your first responses to the film on the same level as everybody else but, again, you still need some frameworks for thinking about films already in your head.
People mostly watch films on a simple surface level, seeing them as merely entertainment. If you want a good film discussion, you clearly need to go below the surface, below the entertainment level, to see that the film has a theme or a message. What is this film fundamentally about: happiness, freedom, identity, love, or something else? We really need to dive deeper still, however, to reflect on what the film is saying at the worldview level. I focus on five dimensions of worldviews (see my introduction to these in Focus: The Art and Soul of Cinema):
- The nature of reality: Is the physical world all there is, or is there a spiritual dimension as well? Which is more important? Or is the physical world an illusion? Why is the world like it is? Where did it come from? What kind of God or gods are there, if any? Is time linear or cyclical? Does time even mean anything?
- The nature of human beings: What are the distinctive things – if any – about human beings? Where did we come from? What happens when we die? Are some human beings more important than others? What does community mean?
- Knowledge and wisdom Why do we believe the things we do? What are good and bad reasons for believing? How do we know what is true? Can something only be true if we have scientific evidence for it, or are there other kinds of truth? Where does wisdom come from? Where does meaning come from?
- Ethics and morality: Is there such a thing as good and evil? How do we know what is right and wrong? Should we be concerned primarily with the consequences of our actions, with ethical principles, or being a good person? What values should we live by? What do goodness or beauty mean?
- Redemption: What is the basic problem which stops us being fulfilled? How can we overcome this to be fulfilled? What do we most need in life? What is the nature of evil? How can we be saved from it? Note that I’m using the word ‘redemption’ in a very broad way, in line with the idea of a ‘redemptive’ narrative being one in which the central character moves from a place of difficulty or brokenness to a place of well-being. How the central character of a film finds restoration or rescue is very often a clue to what the filmmakers see as the deepest needs of human beings. This opens up consideration of where redemption comes from at a deeper spiritual level. Do human beings need enlightenment, or should we simply accept the meaninglessness of life, or do we need rescuing from sin?
You can only effectively draw in these deeper dimensions if you have spent time with the film in advance of the discussion.
c) Find the connection points
Paul’s speech to the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:22–31) shows clearly how he found bridging points from the culture to the gospel:
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship – and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.’ (Acts 17:22–23)
Note that Paul says he ‘looked carefully’ at the Athenians’ objects of worship. Paul was not doing this in some casual way; he found this brilliant point of connection because he had spent time looking for it. He also clearly spent time getting to know the Greek poets, playwrights and philosophers. He has two direct quotations in Acts 17:28, and five or six allusions to other Greek writers – and what we have in Acts is just Luke’s summary of Paul’s summary of what he actually said.
For seven common connection points, see my article on ‘Seven stories we keep telling’.
d) Anticipate alternative perspectives
It’s important to spend some preparation time thinking about other perspectives which people may have on the film, or on the connection points you want to explore. It’s important to let people in a discussion express their views, so it’s vital that you are at least somewhat ready to engage well with some of the things people might say. It is, of course, impossible to anticipate everything that might come up. Nevertheless, doing some advance thinking about some of the possibilities will be a great help to you.
e) Plan your concluding remarks
During the discussion, you must give people an opportunity to express their own perspectives – they must not feel that you are closing down all alternative views. However, you will need to draw threads together in the last 5–10 minutes and point people to the gospel. This will be the time to make the gospel connections explicit, if they haven’t already become so during the discussion. Although you cannot fully predict where the conversation will go, you should know some of the themes you will explore and therefore how to pick up on those in your concluding comments. This needs planning.
As with any other Christian communication, all the preparation in the world is no substitute for spending time asking God to be at work by his Holy Spirit, to direct the discussion, to give you the words to say and an attitude of grace, an to open people’s hearts to the gospel.
a) Set up the event
Ideally the team will deal with most of the practicalities, leaving you to focus on the content of the film and discussion, as well as to chat with people beforehand (which makes leading a discussion much easier).
b) Introduce the event
Explain what the format of the event will be, introduce the film (just a few sentences, maybe a little more if it’s an obscure film), and encourage people to watch the film at a deeper level than they normally do. Sometimes I give people three simple questions to keep in mind as they watch the film:
T: What did this film make me Think and feel?
N: What basic human Need is at the heart of this film?
T: What is True (and false) in this film?
c) Show the film
All that prior checking of equipment comes into its own at this point! I think it’s a good idea to always show films with the subtitles on for two reasons. First, there may well be people there with some hearing difficulties, but they may be reluctant to ask for the subtitles to be turned on. Second, there may be someone for whom English is a second or third language language. It’s very helpful for them to be able to read the words as well as hear them. Third, if the acoustics aren’t great or there are some issues with the sound system, it can help everyone.
d) Lead the discussion
Leading the discussion well requires you to be very active in chairing the discussion. It is a skill that takes practice. You may find it helpful to have someone with a roving microphone, which both allows people to be heard and gives you a second person watching out for who wants to speak. It’s also an extremely good idea to write brief notes on things that are said so that you can pick up on them at the end.
- Move the discussion on: Work through the five aspects of responding to films: emotional (how has the film made people feel?), aesthetic (what do they like or dislike about the film?), intellectual (worldviews: what is the film suggesting about reality, humanity, knowledge/truth, and morality?), moral (what do people see as morally good and bad within the film, and why?), and spiritual (what is this film encouraging us to believe or to see as the point of life?).
- Be alert to group dynamics: You need to be alert for people who want to say something – not just those who have raised their hand, but people who look like they’re on the point of saying something, but aren’t quite comfortable to put their hand up.
- Give opportunity for many voices to be heard: Watch out for those people who are quick to speak up and cut off the more patient people who have raised a hand. Don’t let one or two people dominate, but don’t pressurise quiet people to speak. Allow as many voices as possible to be heard – including your own, but you must take care not to dominate the discussion yourself.
e) Summarise and conclude
With ten minutes or so to go (depending on how long the overall discussion time is), invite one or two final comments from the floor before concluding the event. This is the point at which you need to draw the threads of the discussion together: you may be able to follow directly on from the last things that have been said, or you may need to pick up on a couple of threads from earlier on, from which the conversation moved on. These need to be things that link with the concluding remarks you’ve prepared, but it needs to feel natural so try to avoid using a pre-prepared script and base your comments instead on things you have jotted down during the conversation as well as on your prepared notes. The most important thing is make clear the gospel connection points and express simply and clearly the good news of Jesus Christ. You can acknowledge the alternative perspectives, but don’t let them make you shrink back from expressing your Christian perspective on the issues raised in the film. Making use of one or more of the seven big themes is very fruitful at this point.
f) Offer follow-up
Give people a call to action – invite them to follow this up in some way, perhaps by simply talking to you or by attending another event, joining an Alpha course, or something else.