Movie Illustrations – A Risky Business

Some churches absolutely oppose any illustration from hollywood or TV.  Actually, some churches oppose any attempt to be relevant to contemporary listeners at all.  Now if you preach in a place that is not so restrictive, you’ll be tempted to use movie illustrations sometimes.  They can be very effective.  But there are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Not everyone will have seen it. Simple, but true.  Some films have been seen by most people, but we can’t presume everyone has seen any film.  This means that any reference to a film will require some explanation  Be aware of that and prepare accordingly.

2. Not everything in it may be appropriate. The part you are referring to may be precisely illustrative of what you are saying.  But remember to think through the rest of the film through the eyes of others present.  Are you endorsing everything in the film by referring to it?  What about the lewd scene later on?  What about the underlying paradigm in the story?  What about the language used?  What about . . . what about . . . You might as well think it through before you use it, because others may have immediate reactions without much thinking!

3. Will it take too much explaining? Sometimes a movie provides the ideal example for the point you are making.  Perhaps it explains the point.  Perhaps it proves it.  Perhaps it demonstrates application.  But if it takes too much explaining, then it might just undermine the message.  Background explanation will diminish momentum and energy, it will sabotage a potentially powerful point.  Sometimes it’s just not worth the time and effort needed.

4. Will it overwhelm the text and the message? Sometimes you have the opposite problem.  The image is simply too powerful, too emotional, too overwhelming.  What if the listeners go away with the movie scene resonating deeply, but the text overlooked and the message ignored?  Hollywood are masterful creators of emotional experience.  They know the power of this.  They know what effect it has in conveying their strong agenda.  Very few preachers get the importance of this.  Often our “agendas” fall short (not because we lack visual stimuli – throwing money at a film and adding effects doesn’t guarantee any positive reaction!)  Often we underwhelm, and a movie example can overwhelm, even without showing any of it.  Think it through before you use it.

5. Will it create inappropriate association? What if a movie gives a great example of a principle, but does so in a setting that inappropriate in association with Scriptural truth?  Consider all the great love stories that move so many people deeply, but are actually tales of unfaithfulness, impropriety, stirring the viewer to hope the marriage can end so they can find true love, etc.  Or what about the plethora of potential illustrations in the series that has captured so many of the younger generation . . . Harry Potter.  If you don’t raise a query about the appropriateness of the HP narratives in connection with biblical truth, someone else will.

This post sounds anti-movie illustration.  Not at all.  I use them sometimes.  It is anti-unthought-through movie illustrations!

3 thoughts on “Movie Illustrations – A Risky Business

  1. Here’s an important one:

    Don’t give away a major plot twist for a movie that hasn’t been released for very long! (I’d say a minimum of 2 years.)

    I can just see a cool, hip pastor in 1980, about 3 weeks after “The Empire Strikes Back” saying something like, “You know, Josiah wasn’t the only one who had a villainous father. Luke Skywalker’s father, Darth Vader, was certainly not someone who followed his same path.”

  2. Good thoughts.

    I think much that happens in sermons needs to pass through this kind of filter. An image shouldn’t just be thrown in just because the church bought a projector. Any media needs to be well thought out before making an appearance in a sermon.

    As to making sure that everyone knows about the movie – sometimes the clip will work without people having seen the movie. A powerful monologue (e.g. Morpheus from the Matrix: “What is real . . .”) can stand alone without any explanation or context.

    I think it’s important to avoid shifting the focus (as you said so well) – if the clip, picture, quote, etc. takes the focus away from the sermon that’s bad, if it clarifies the sermon, that’s good.

    @Jake – that Piper clip gets me angry. He belittles the work and thought and prayer that go into a sermon that uses video or drama. I respect him, but on this point I think he’s wrong. The power of preaching is not tied to the person speaking – it lies in God. God is not bound by a guy in a suit behind a pulpit – he can preach through any media he chooses.

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