Stinky Christian Films

56


thumbsupthumbsdown.jpgSeveral months ago, I talked with a man on the phone who ended our conversation like this: “Bob, my giving for 2012 and 2013 is pretty much set in stone. But beginning in 2014 my wife and I want to take a closer look at funding a Christian film—in the neighborhood of a million, perhaps 2 million dollars. Let me know if you run across a film that really needs to get made.”

It’s not every day that I talk to someone who wants to give away a couple million dollars. Interestingly, this man was not trying to impress me. He just thought I might have access to scripts and story ideas that he wouldn’t.

But this man is hardly alone in his farsightedness. In the past  several years, a number of philanthropic-minded believers have realized that one very significant way to share the Gospel and help change the culture is to “tell stories” by way of the big screen. As I’ve scanned the landscape of today’s media, this surge in Christian film has been one of the highlights of all things entertainment related. But just having a vision (and the money to back it up) doesn’t always translate into a great Christian film.

While there are a lot of great Christian movies out there (Courageous, The Chronicles of Narnia films, Not Today, Soul Surfer, Amish Grace, to name just a few), and the quality continues to get better every year, there are still a number of films that miss the mark so terribly that I have to wonder to myself, “Isn’t there anyone in that director’s life who can shoot straight with him/her about the film?” By the time I get a screener DVD in the mail or an invitation to attend a film screening, it’s entirely too late to give my critique on plot, acting, special effects, dialogue, etc. What’s needed is feedback earlier in the process.

Now before I go any further, I need to also point out that this problem occurs on the secular side of films as well, as anyone who’s seen Penelope or The Tooth Fairy can attest. That’s not my issue: That’s something for Hollywood to deal with. My main concern is that well-meaning, generous people of faith have been investing in (Read: wasting their money on!) “stinkers” that either fail to warmly invite nonbelievers to the faith or do so with plots so disingenuous, acting so subpar or storylines so fake as to make me cringe while watching.

This is probably on my heart right now because just last week I screened an upcoming film that made me want to gag. As a Christian, I want to like it. Because the Gospel is presented in the film, I want to glowingly advocate this movie. But I just can’t. I don’t question the director’s motives, and I certainly don’t fault the investors. But it just wasn’t a good movie, and I couldn’t say that it was.

Similarly, a few weeks earlier, I saw another dud due out later this year. The family bankrolling this one is currently digging deeper into its bank account to fund the distribution—sending good money after bad! It breaks my heart because this film will not even come close to breaking even because hardly anyone will show up. And those who do will turn up their noses. Once again, the people behind this film are wonderful, wonderful folks with super-big hearts. But the end product was, sadly, pretty weak.

Near my computer I have a DVD promoting another potential faith-based film. Most likely, the DVD was produced to garner funding. From a friend close to the project, I found out that the film has already incurred several millions in expenses and all anyone has to show for it is an elaborate set that’s been in a state of atrophy the last few years. Even if this film eventually gets made, just rebuilding the set will be costly. Never mind that millions of “faith” dollars have been flushed down the toilet.

Personally, I’d like to stop the bleeding. What I would like to propose is that one of those generous philanthropists fund an independent Christian screenplay evaluation agency. As I see it, scriptwriters and movie directors would (for a fee) submit their movie script to a panel of gifted writers/critics (at least four) to get unbiased feedback about its potential. Does the script have potential? Does it need a rewrite? Does it just need some minor editing? Is it unsalvageable? Is it well written but tells a story that will be forgotten minutes after viewing? As I foresee it, this independent panel would give scripts a thumbs-up or -down, and directors would essentially agree to not make any film whose script didn’t receive unanimous approval. (Even if they didn’t agree, investors could use the board’s recommendations when deciding where to funnel money.) And while it might cost some investment dollars to fund such an agency for four or five years, the money saved by not continuing down the route we currently use for funding and distributing Christian films would far and away pay for it—particularly as far as Kingdom dollars go.

The man I spoke to back in March wants me to keep my eyes open for a great script. I plan to. But honestly, I could count on one hand how many scripts have come my way in the 21 years I’ve been here at Plugged In. But if something like what I’m proposing were to come to be, I think this man could find his script there. Furthermore, I think it would be a win-win situation for the Church. Talented believers would have a means of getting their work into the hands of producers and directors. And well-meaning, generous people of means could begin to fund exclusively worthy projects without worry that their money would be squandered. And the embarrassing films that shouldn’t have been made would no longer see the light of day, er, dark of a movie theater.

Who wrote this?

Bob Waliszewski is the director of the Plugged In department. His syndicated "Plugged In Movie Review" feature is heard by approximately 9 million people each week on more than 1,500 radio stations and other outlets and has been nominated for a National Religious Broadcaster's award. Waliszewski is the author of the book Plugged-In Parenting: How to Raise Media-Savvy Kids With Love, Not War. You can follow him on Twitter @PluggedInBob.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  devo:

Thank you so much for having these opinions. I work with kids in detention and have four grown kids of my own. I am sending fireproof to my scientist son who is "athiest". He is getting married and the message is great. I m putting a 50.00 bill in there and asking for a review in return.He is getting his PHD and will watch it for me plus the cash will be helpful.  Gurilla marketing, don't judge. I know my kids-production value does not count but acting/lighting and sound do. They don't have to be fancy just real.I My 82 year old christian mom and I wantched the first half and she said do we have to finish this, I am not married anymore?I am sorry I am picking on Fireproof, I had a similar experience when I took my family to the theater to see Narnia. In my humble opinion Tyler Perry is making headway . We need to put him on a prayer list,. Does anyone know of a forum/wiki type place these sort of things are discussed. I have been in professional theater for 30 plus years and would like to be involved on some level. I am not rich enough to produce, but I want to keep track and help as I can. I do not know film but I do know theater and some things are elementary. Good Will Hunting, Chasing Amy and Garden State are some of my favorite films not christian but well done with small budgets. We should take a clue from them.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Lanette:

I think that ActOneProgram.com does script doctoring for believers.  It seems like each indie film company does one thing great, but not everything.  Why not combine talents.

I read something about Joni Eareckson Tada only being able to minister to people less handicapped than herself.  This made me think of the Christian films I've seen with little substance and faulty doctrine.  I think the reason we all like CS Lewis is because he was brilliant and understood the Christian experience and scripture in very deep ways, which can appeal to so many of us who are less brilliant.  Are there some genuine research scholars out there who can also think/write creatively? (We must resist making God in our image.)

I think if we set up a reputable website for some of these scripts that pass independent screening in all sorts of genres, that the Christian public might begin to contribute funding to the genre of their choice. 

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Bob:

I think this review board is an excellent idea. However, I would like to see a couple of "laymen" in addition to the professional critics. Sometimes in reading the reviews of critics (especially those in our major newspaper), I make a decision based on the negatives he points out. In other words, he is such a dark personality that if he really pans something as being "sappy" I figure I might like it. If he gushes about something being "edgy" "dark", etc. I definitely put that on my "don't see" list.

Secondly, as others have said, there are plenty of movies made by major names and studios which cause me to wonder "who ever thought that was a good idea?" Extremely lame.

Thirdly, while I agree that we need to be careful in how our message is presented, I think we are overlooking the fact that many of us love movies but have just gotten tired of having our sensibilities assaulted - and trying to convince ourselves that the message justifies the violence, sex and language. So, while the Christian movie may not be "Saving Private Ryan" it may well provide a pleasant night out for a family just looking for decent entertainment.

Finally, I agree about the goal of quality. Speaking of Sherwood, they have consistently striven for improvement in each film they make. "Courageous" was light years above "Flywheel". I personally enjoyed "Flywheel" for my own viewing pleasure but I bought tons of tickets to give away to "Courageous" because it had an incredible message - one that my own ministry has increasingly convinced me is the greatest need in our culture. Some of those tickets went to non-Christians who thanked us for opening their eyes to their own need to be better fathers.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Jason B.:

That is a good idea. I proudly own Soul Surfer and To Save A Life and would recommend them to anyone who doesn't like Christian movies but want to something edgy without preachiness (even my agnostic brother who hates religion likes those two along with The Book of Eli). And while there are Christian movies I don't really care for (Saving Winston), there are movies that, I agree, are a total waste of budget (2012: Doomsday). Would there be a way to separate the movie into genre, though? There are ways to make a faith-based movie in genres people wouldn't normally associate Christianity with that can be done like horror, sci-fi, etc.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Anon:

Actually, I'm just an English student with an overly strong interest in the business and future of artistic media. I play with creative writing every once in a while, gotten some things published in really, really small venues, but that's about it. My interaction with art tends to stay on the academic/critical side of the line. Reading your reply, seems to me we just disagree in our usages of the word 'quality.' Some of my personal favorite indies use whatever differences in sound quality, etc. in a way that actually benefits the film (in my opinion) instead of hindering it. That's part of what I meant by 'creativity.' But then, for the most part, all I can judge are the finished films. Really do admire your dedication to your projects, and do hope those work out for y'all.

And, speaking as primarily a media consumer who only knows what he's read and heard from those that are/were involved in Christian media, if I do at some point manage to stumble upon an idea worth dedicating years of my life to putting on paper/film/whatever (I would really like that, I think, at some point), I wouldn't consider for a second attempting to do so through the Christian media scene. Both due to countless philosophical/theological differences and the fact that, for many of the reasons you're pointing out and more, I really don't think that industry has much interest in helping their artists create the best works they can. Actually wish I could read more about your experience, this sort of thing fascinates me (not that I'm happy you're having so many difficulties, just that I like hearing about the inner workings of these sorts of industries). If you don't mind me asking, why did you/would you/do you continue to decide not to accomplish your goals through the secular industry? What do you think the Christan scene offers you that the secular can't? Anyways, hope things turn around for you.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Gumblefur:

I don't disagree with you there about it being only about money, but realistically $10k will not get you (without some miracle) a Hollywood quality feature!.  I do disagree with you a little on indies - you can see the lack of budget in a lot of them if you know what you are looking for but these lacks are made up for in other areas - note that I'm saying lack of budget, not lack of quality.  I would love to be proven wrong and be shown a whole host of feature length films that have been produced with a final budget of less than say $20K.  I mean it, because we could all learn from it. I think I made it clear in my post also that it's not only about money.  We are in that place of being so into what we are doing too.  I'm not just gushing hot air in the forum while others do the work!  Currently living off credit cards as all of our resources/avenues have been drained!  Got about two months left unless some of our projects start to pay off.  Money is an issue when it comes to feeding the families, paying the rent, paying the workers, renting/buying equipment etc.  Integrity is also key for the Christian in this field and it is an area that we have found sadly more lacking than funding!  Very disheartened right now with Christian ministries in the arts in general and am coming to the conclusion that it may be the better route to be involved with secular business and be an influence from within because the Christian arena is so full of hypocrisy and double standards!  At least in the secular arena you know what to expct AND are more often surprised in the oposite direction! Seriously fed up and not used to dwelling here!  (rant rant rant) Fighting cynicism and holding on to that which called us in the first place. It sounds like you, Anon, are also in this business.  I hope things go bettter for you than have done for us (so far) and pray that in all of these things God's glory will be the first and final impetus!

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Joanne D.:

I've read through everyone's postings, and no one has mentioned the San Antonio Independent Film Festival. Their 8th annual film festival is coming up in early 2013.

http://www.saicff.org/

Yes, some of the material is sappy, but there are some pretty decent films coming through here. It provides a venue for independent filmmakers who are believers to connect and learn from each other. It also offers newby filmmakers an opportunity for their films to be viewed and critiqued by folks who might have a sense of the worldview behind the film. The festival isn't stinkin' rich, but they do offer cash awards for some of the categories..

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Anon:

Personally, I don't care much about production value if the movie's any good.

When critics/indie watchers call a film 'indie,' they're not attempting to apologize for it or any aspect of it. A good indie is on par with a good Hollywood film. They're weighed by the exact same scale, by writing, acting, directing, editing, cinematography, etc. (note that very, very few of these qualities correlate directly to budget). Seems to me it's easier to find good indies, actually.

The focus on production value seems to me to be a convenient smokescreen obscuring the fact that the Christian artistic community as a whole doesn't really have much by way of "integrity, vision, zeal and creativity," artistically speaking. Which is why I brought up microbudget films. If you want to know what vision, zeal, and creativity is, don't look at the weekend warriors, look at those filmmakers pouring their hearts and souls into a project they've been working on for 5 years and paying for out of whatever savings and loans they've managed to scrounge up along the way. Just wanted to emphasize that there're much more fundamental problems here than money.

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Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Caroline:

Frankly the modern versions of the Narnia films were very 'pretty' but not at all true to the *characters* of Lewis' novels. I nearly felt violated that they could have twisted some very important character points and features and warped some aspects of the story to seem...modern? trendy?Really there was no reason for it and I refuse to watch any more of them.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Philip:

I agree. I often have wondered what would happen if, say, a Christian radio station stopped looking for donations and competed the way any other station would. They could draw in higher quality employees and produce a product that is more competitive and could eve break into the general market. The same applies to Christian films. There is this idea that the media is a ministry and is too sacrosanct to be profaned as a business venture, but that's just wrongheaded. We in the Christian community are limiting ourselves out of some kind of wanton legalism. There is nothing scripturally that says you cannot use a business approach to spreading God's message. The church/temple isn't to be a market, but otherwise we are to use the resources available to us to achieve God's goals.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Gumblefur:

Yes, I have seen some real bad christian films.  I have seen some really awful other films too.  The question of funding is a real one.  We are so arrogant in the Christian community to think that we can make something on a par with secular films for $10-20k!  Are any of the commenters here familiar with the credits list at the end of their favourite secular films?  Thye go one for about 10minutes and fill the screen almost entirely about twenty times over!  You are just NOT going to get the good quality required to satisfy your need to be well entertained if you expect all the cast and crew to donate their time and skills for free on the spare Saturdays they have!  How selfish the Christian world has become.  I have been watching others around me trying to get funding and win contracts for Christian artistic ventures of several media types and I can honestly say the Christian community needs to get its act together.  I have been appalled at the back biting, stealing and just plain greed evident behind the scenes with many big and not so big names in current Christian media.  I heard with disbelief a few years ago a leading businessman who is a Christian say that he would much rather work with non-Christians than Christians because Christians are such a bad witness in business and I am sad to say that I now fully understand him.  So many issues here:

Entire lack of vision to see Christ and not your name/venture glorifiedPoor business practicePoor integrityCristians demanding something for nothing all the timeThe Critical Christian Consumer drunk on sugary popcorn and nachos demanding comfy satisfaction and also seeking a mates' rates price rolled in too for good measure

We also need to stop presenting cheap films to non-believers as if they are on a par with big budget movies.  People really do "get" the indie film market and that is how we need to be presenting these films to our firends.  Narnia, Passion of the Christ etc great big budget movies.  Courageous, Fireproof etc, great indies.  (Still not as small a budget as some of the commenters thinks is possible.)  Seriously there are issues with sound quality and finish that smaller budgets cannot easily overcome so lets stop pretending.  Rambling on a bit and hoping you can see that this is not a circular argument but a very large arena being covered.  It its really incredibly hard and painful seeing some of these comments and at the same time watching a business with a great deal of intregrity, vision, zeal and creativity on the brink of death (without a miracle).

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  J.T.:

Making a movie is a business venture. The man mentioned in the blog post who wants to give away 1 to 2 million dollars to help make a Christian film needs to rethink that scenario. He should invest 1 to 2 million dollars and expect a return on his investment. I know that sounds unChristian, but the truth is, the cream rises to the top when the milk is churned. No one in Hollywood is handed money to make a film. If you don't produce profitable results, you are replaced. There are countless stories of famous directors who were pulled from a project because they couldn't meet deadlines or stay within budget.

If you give even a well-intentioned director money without demanding results, you'll get a quirky, eccentric film that only his mother could love. I know this to be true even though I am a do-it-alone kind of guy. I once considered going to film school (and still have a latent interest in the craft), but it's a collaborative profession. You have to assemble the best team. And you need the creative friction that naturally happens when talented people tackle a project together.

When Christian filmmakers begin to take the process seriously, the great films, the great stories of the faith that need to be told, will emerge.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Philip:

Well said. It seems that there is a big push in churches and among many of my friends to see films just because of their Christian message. I appreciate the efforts of those producing them, but the truth is, I don't want to spend 90+ minutes watching something that isn't at least on par with the quality of film I might normally view. The Passion of the Christ probably set the bar a little high, sure, but it would be amazing to see films produced that have true creative ability. I personally enjoy a number of independent films shot with relatively low budgets that are so creatively written and well-performed that they eclipse more formulaic high-budget Hollywood efforts. Unfortunately Christian-based cinema is falling into the trap of trying to create Hollywood films with indie budgets and getting the quality of neither. And truthfully, unless there is a serious creative vision and skill, these films will continue preaching to the choir. As long as we have the mixture of past-popularity actors tossed in among locals that mean well but just can't act, the product will resemble more a TV movie than a real attention grabbing production. What I'm seeing is similar to Christian rock when I was a kid and teen. There was such a distinction that it wasn't just a metter of message but of quality.Christians listened to Christian rock and whatever other music they liked. Others did not listened to the Christian music, and no one could blame them.

Not to be long-winded, but the first example of this was the Left Behind films. I never bothered watching past the first. My wife and I agreed that it was like viewing a TV movie. It wasn't horrible; it just wasn't good. Even elements like the music focused on squeezing in popular Christian contemporary acts instead of adding to the film's drama. The mindset is the problem. I'm not employing here what may be dismissed as "seeker friendly" talk. What I'm referring to is artistic quality, and frankly, Christian productions need to actually exceed that of their secular counterparts in order to do the job. My music choices tend to be on the heavy side, so this may go over the heads of some readers, but among metal acts (specifically the metalcore genre) As I Lay Dying is generally considered the top of the mountain of acts. And they are Christians. That's a far cry from 20+ years ago when I was a high school kid listening to Barren Cross and Sacred Warrior really wanting to like them as much as I did Iron Maiden and Metallica. Christian filmmakers could learn a lot from what has happened among Christian musicians over the past 15 years or so.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Krista:

I completely get this!  I earned a theatre degree from a wonderful Christian university and am excited about sharing good quality, thought provoking, teaching plays with kids and teenagers. But there just isn't any good scripts out there!  I am not a writer, so I have to go to the public sector to find something that might work, although they just don't do exactly what I pictured. The scripts I've read that are published by Christian groups can be pretty bad. I would live to see something like this for the live theatre realm, too.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  kimana517:

Hey, now! I love Penelope! Saw it in theaters and bought the DVD. Everyone I've shared it with has liked it as well.

As for Christian films... I've seen good and bad. Sherwood definitely seems to be getting better with each film (surely due to the budget increase), but they'd do well to hire real actors instead of continuing to mostly use people from their church who surely have great hearts for God, but who act about as well as kids in a middle school play. I try so hard to like their movies but sometimes the acting is truly painful to watch.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Kyle S.:

Weeelllll...I would be a little disappointed. Mainly because the third book really dropped the ball.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  T.K. :

A story that I think Christian filmmakers should make is the story of how H.A. and Margaret Rey escaped from the Nazi invasion of Paris on bikes. They biked over 400 miles with only what they could carry, including the manuscrips of Curious George. Now THAT is a story I'd love to see on the big screen.http://www.nytimes.com/.../26curious.html

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Steve V.:

Act One is not exactly the same, but it did come out of the same frustration - i.e., seeing poor quality in scripts written by Christians. Act One was formed to train Christians to write good scripts. (And has since added an Executive track.) As, you mentioned, they do have a Script Evaluation service. Somany "Christian" movies could have been improved if they just would have gotten some quality feedback. Act One does not have the kind of Evaluation/Recommendation system that Bob envisions, but it is definitely a valuable service. BTW, for "full disclosure," I'm on the board of Act One.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Anon:

To be fair, Disney was really sappy. Capra had his moments, too. In my opinion, though, what Capra got right usually far outweighed what he got wrong (can't really say the same about Disney, though).

When people complain about "cheap attempts" at something (or at least when me and my friends do, I don't suppose I should extend this much beyond that), they tend to be complaining not about the content itself so much as how it is handled. If it's handled in a simplistic, dishonest, or plot-driven manner when it could've been handled with care, subtlety, dignity, and grace, it'll tend to strike people as cheap. Not to point fingers at the movie in question, I really don't want to argue about that. Just that it's not so much the content as how the content is employed.

And as to mainstream critics not liking Christian films, I take it you didn't pay much attention to The Tree of Life. Palme d'Or at Cannes (arguably the most valuable award a film can be given). Definitely not everyone's cup of tea, but it has no intention of being so.

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As to audience/critic disparity: every movie has its target audience that's going to appreciate it far above the norm. That's why they keep making Adam Sandler movies. How many of those ranking Last Ounce of Courage on Rotten Tomatoes were non-believers? I'm willing to bet it's a very, very small amount. If the film's intent is to proselytize, then, to me, that's a sign the movie, quite frankly, failed.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Hithwenur:

Historically, did the East India Company HAVE assassins? I know they had their own soldiers, but the sneak-and-kill method... I wouldn't have expected that.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Hithwenur:

Not the first, probably not the last, either.

It does look pretty interesting that they are playing with Christian having been an active, knowing member of the enemy's forces before his conversion, rather than a passive civillian with depression in an enemy city. When it comes out I may buy it on DVD or something. But it's still not looking to be... all that one might hope for? It looks like I would be really impressed by it if it was made by a loyal band of YouTubers with a forge, a sewing machine, and a home computer, but it'll have a fight on its hands in theatre with better-budget offerings, should it go to the big screen.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  godsgrl:

Beautiful. Looks like it'll be interesting

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Ken:

I think people forget that even Walt Disney and Frank Capra got slammed by critics for some of their movies for being (in some critics' minds) too sappy, and full of cliches and platitudes.  So I think some of the complaints of Christian movies being "cheesy" says more about the critics than the content of a film.

I remember reading people's comments saying that when a certain character's child died in a recent Christian film (I won't say which one so I won't spoil it), it was a cheap attempt at pulling at people's heartstrings.  And I thought, "But what else could they have done?  If she had gotten better, they would have said that the writer didn't have the guts to show her death and the family dealing with it!"  So with some people you just can't win.

And personally, I think that when most people are calling things like The Sopranos and Sex in the City "critically-acclaimed" and "provocative" and "edgy", they wouldn't like a Christian film no matter what we do.

If you look at Rotten Tomatoes right now, Last Ounce of Courage has a 0% rating from critics, and a 75% rating from the audience.  For comparison, Passion had 50% critics, and 84% audience.  I think that says a lot about what's going on.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  Matthew:

Check out this link- beyondthemaskmovie.com/.../Sure to be a great movie (they even got the acclaimed Paul McCusker to help with the script).  I got to be an extra, and from what I saw of the scenes, it's gonna be good.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Comment by  godsgrl:

And, you'll forgive me for saying this, I feel like you are missing the point of what I was trying to say. I don't believe that I said that I believed that independent Christian film studios (such as Sherwood films) may not have the production value that big budgeted Hollywood films, but they are still very well made for the budget they had. It's true, I wouldn't recommend something that I felt was poor quality, even if the message was good. All I'm saying is that they independent Christian films that I have seen are NOT as poor quality as some seem to think they are.

It is true, there are some films that are "cheesy", but I feel like I need to give every film a chance and watch it before passing judgement on it. I feel like a lot of people write off Christian films automatically if they come right out and deliver a gospel presentation. Isn't that how the gosepel is supposed to be presented, straightforward for the truth that it is?

And, regardless of what others might say, I still stand by the fact that if an artist's heart is aligned with the will of the Lord, the Lord will use his/her work for whatever purposes He has set it aside for. I feel like it is very narrowminded for us (myself included) to assume that we  can predict how our work or our lives will be used by God.

Jars of clay, anyone?