One Montreal church tried a different approach to a Lenten study series this year, one which lends itself to endless possibilities for outreach throughout the year.
“What’s So Amazing About Grace?” Our church applied itself during Lent to contemplation of this exuberant question that Philip Yancey posed as the title of one of his books. In addition to emphasizing grace in our sermons and in our Adult Education, we went to the movies . . . right at church!
Each Friday at 6 p.m., some fifteen parishioners and friends gathered in the church boardroom, where chairs were arranged theatre-style, to watch and discuss a feature-length video. Pizza was ordered and enjoyed during the film so that the evening would not run too late.
Grace in action
Yancey’s book poses this question: “If grace is God’s unmerited favour and love for the undeserving, then what does it look like in action?” We had discussed where we could watch and discuss grace in action in these present times. Besides the sermons and learning sessions, what other activity could we call on? The approach I chose sprang from a seed planted at a conference some three years ago, where a speaker showed several clips from feature films and, in each case, commented on the recognizable presence of our Lord in those scenes. “See what he looks like and what he is doing,” we were told, “and show this to others.”
Evangelism and the movies? It might seem an odd pairing considering some of the movies being made these days. We were reminded over the six weeks of Lent that God is wherever people are, in whatever circumstances they land. Many movies are hard to take. Much of life is hard to take. Each film showed us the human condition through story, the medium Jesus himself used to catalyze heart and mind, bringing people to plumb their own depths for understanding. We need informed compassion in order to serve.
Grace showed up in some unexpected people and places in the films we saw. We finally got quite good at seeing when it was there and when it was not there. In watching the protagonists ascending and descending through their situations, we gained an intimate look into the unknowns underlying each character’s visible attitudes and behaviours. Most of the films left some of us in tears–not always because of the tragedy portrayed but because we saw grace in the midst of it all. “How precious did that grace appear,” indeed.
A messy Christian
The films challenged our inner response to the people depicted. Take The Apostle, for example. What a messy Christian that Sonny is–no self-control, a holy “talker,” a lustful womanizer, and eventually a criminal on the run. But wait! Is there any falseness in his preaching? Does he not persevere despite himself, and grasp or create opportunities to give glory to God? He is a faithful servant in some ways, but not in others. Does that describe anyone we know?
By the end of the film, I could only ask God’s forgiveness for my judgment of that fictitious man, because it was the same judgment I sometimes bring to bear against those in real life whose biggest flaw is being human. The lesson I learned that evening was underlined a few days later when a Christian friend was anguishing over how readily people stand unengaged on the sidelines, criticizing and mocking others who stumble along the way, struggle to their feet and keep going in his service until they stumble again. That’s The Apostle.
Besides The Apostle, where else did we see grace in action?
- In the response of eighteenth-century South American Indians who chose death rather than leave their Christian mission and way of life to return to the safety of the jungle (The Mission);
- in a boorish young genius who composed heavenly music and was opposed by a cultivated “gentleman” who, consumed with jealousy and lacking in grace, swore himself the enemy of Mozart and indeed of God (Amadeus);
- in the Jewish father who courageously turned the horror of the Holocaust into an exciting game in the eyes of his son so that the little boy might survive intact in body and spirit (Life is Beautiful);
- in the angelic messenger, family and friends of a harried young bishop (The Bishop’s Wife);
- and in our final movie, where we watched grace relentlessly hounded by law and, ultimately, law defeated by relentless grace (Les Misérables, 1935 version).
The discussion was relaxed. Indeed, sometimes there was little to add to what had been “said” by the film. St. George’s mission statement is “To know Christ and to make him known.” Our movie-goers entered more fully into the first half of this statement to become better equipped to pursue the second half. We had seen, and so now can go out to be and do. Having had concrete portrayal of grace and its absence, we can also go back into Scripture and revisit some difficult concepts with fresh insight. By 9 p.m., we had given thanks for a fine time and were heading home, replenished.
A continuing ministry
When the series was over, there was unanimous agreement that we want to continue our Friday movies once a month (with the pizza, of course), alternating venues between St. George’s and an affiliated community centre a few blocks from here. And now that we have learned the ropes, so to speak, we can choose some more difficult movies, more themes and more variety, perhaps even a comedy or two! We will also be distributing fliers inviting people in the surrounding office towers to come share movies and fellowship with us.
There are several matters to work out, however. Should we announce that we will be looking at specific themes in the films or simply allow discussion to flow freely? How do we reach out through the films so as to encourage and attract? How do we balance an evening of fellowship with our desire and our mission To Know Christ and to Make Him Known? Fortunately, we know that, as in all things, he will be with us at the movies, too.