And They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Movies

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Who watches Christian movies? You? Your pastor? That aunt who always gives you throw pillows for Christmas embroidered with Bible verses?

How ’bout the atheist down the street?

The answer might be all of the above, according to LifeWay Research and the National Religious Broadcasters. They say a new survey shows that about 35% of folks who watched a Christian movie last year were “unchurched.”

The figures are fascinating. About four out of every 10 Americans watched a Christian movie in the last year. Southerners are slightly more likely to, while those 65 and older are far less likely to see a Christian movie (31%) than their 35-year-old son (45%) or even 18-year-old granddaughter (40%). Nearly six out of every 10 African-Americans has seen a Christian movie in the last 12 months, way more than the 36% of whites who admitted to doing so.

And as you might expect, the more churchy you act, the more likely you are to see these things. Nearly two-thirds of those who attend church at least once a week said they also watched at least one Christian movie last year. If you ask those who attend church maybe once or twice a month, the rate of viewership dips to 60%. And atheists or agnostics? Well, only 11% admitted to seeing a Christian flick.

But even so, doesn’t that 11% still sound … high? I mean, I can imagine a curious atheist going to see Left Behind on a lark, but 11%? That’s a whole lot of atheists being exposed to a Christian message, it seems to me. And when you look at folks I’d call “underchurched,” those who just go to church on religious holidays, 45% say they’ve seen a movie with a Christian bent.

It brings up what might be the most critical—if unasked—question of all: How many atheists saw a Christian movie and are now regular churchgoers? How many switched their demographic bucket during those 12 months? In other words, just how effective are movies as ways to begin, or deepen, one’s relationship with God?

I know, I know. It’s probably unrealistic to expect any movie—even if it was the Christian equivalent of Citizen Kane—to boast a sky-high conversion rate (unless you count the numbers always reported for the Jesus film). Sure, it happens, but I don’t think most movies work quite like that. Few of us are convinced that Christianity is the right way through just one kabooming spiritual experience: While something big might trigger that moment of conversion, our real walk toward understanding often takes place over the course of months and years, involving lots of late-night conversations and introspective walks and nicely timed meetings with God’s grace and truth. Movies can serve as a step along our path toward faith, but rarely do they make up a heaven-bound expressway by themselves.

But it’s still for that reason that the quality of our Christian movies becomes all the more important—especially those made with the intent to evangelize.

Gods-Not-Dead-blog-middleChristian movies have gotten something of a bad reputation in popular culture. Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas was “blessed” with “winning” the Razzies’ Worst Picture award for 2014, for example. And while I think that Christian moviemaking continues to get better with each passing year, I still wonder what sorts of impressions non-Christians walk away with when they see something we Christians make. Are they moved by the art? Are we asking questions that their own secular worldview can’t answer effectively? Are we showing them the face of Jesus?

Even as more and more Christian movies are made, some other surveys come to mind—surveys that suggest that the United States is becoming more secular with each passing decade, that the younger you are, the less likely you’ll be to claim a faith for your own. About 85% of us identify with a religion, according to Gallup—down from 94% just a decade ago. The religiously unaffiliated—the “nones,” they’re sometimes called—are the fastest growing “religious” group in America. And yet the numbers of atheists in the country has remained pretty constant. These “nones” aren’t rejecting faith as much as they’re simply not being given enough reason to believe.

As I said, I don’t think movies alone can turn around these trends. But I think they can—and sometimes do—give the unaffiliated or under-affiliated some serious stuff to think about. I suspect that a lot of Christian skeptics have heard our apologetics. They’ve heard our testimonies. And yet they remain unconvinced … even as they feel a deep spiritual longing. Maybe the secret to good movie evangelism isn’t so much in presenting the whole of the Gospel message in one tidy package: Maybe it’s simply in asking one or two critical questions. Offering a crucial “what if?” Maybe it’s in pointing out a hidden path and trusting viewers to find their way through. I don’t think movies are great at closing the conversion deal. But opening a conversation? Yeah, movies are great at that.

And isn’t it great that people are watching our movies so we have the opportunity to start those talks? People who, for one reason or another, decide to walk into a theater or a living room to hear about God.

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I know multiple atheists that watch "Christian" films simply for the laughs. That's the explanation I'd believe for why atheists show up so often.
Poetprince More than 1 year ago
Even so, God's Word has power.  Who knows how God might be using that experience for His good?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Actually, most of them hate them because of their quality and because the characters don't even remotely resemble Christian characters. What's worse is that the general Christian market swallows it up, which leads to worse and worse portrayals. God's Not Dead paints a somewhat offensive picture of everyone who is non-Christian or doesn't have the maker's exact belief system, Left Behind's Christians are offensive stereotypes that have no purpose other than to bash others, and Mom's Night Out reinforced some pretty nasty stereotypes. If anything, they are distancing them away from God.
Kal El More than 1 year ago
This is interesting stuff to mull over. I think Othneil Oswald raised a point about how Christian filmmakers need to be less fearful about 'stepping on toes' a little bit sometimes.

The big thing I've experienced and observed personally is that many "Christian films" are just hoaky in their moviemaking. It's unfortunate but it's true, and honestly it's made me pass on some movies, and that's as a sincere Christian. I just can't get excited to watch a poorly acted, written, and/or filmed movie, even if I agree with its intent or core message. And if, as a Christian, I don't want to see some of these things, or am at times unimpressed when I do, why would a non-believing moviegoer sit through it? If the message/intent is the only draw, doesn't that hurt the odds of unsaved folks watching it?

So I think Christian cinema needs to focus on artistic quality more. If you are sincere in your relationship with Jesus, He touches every part of your life, so even if you are writing a not at all overtly Christian story at the outset, His influence will find its way in naturally, and that's always better than shoehorning something in because you are more concerned with a message than art quality.
Some of the best "Christian movies" I can think of are not church movies.
That's usually because they are concerned with not just preaching but with artistic quality and entertaining, which is the spoonful of sugar that makes the message medicine go down without the lacking aftertaste.

I also have some concern over movies with subversive or warped POVs that wear a Christian mask. "Mom's Night Out" undermines men/husbands/fathers as incompetents who can't manage their kids without their wives around for a even one night (part of Satan's continual onslaught against the priests of the homes, something we see A LOT of in secular media).
"Pass The Light" cheers grace and love, which is awesome, but it seems to confuse love with universal acceptance, even of sinful choices. So basically it says 'yay for grace' while it waters down truth.

So basically we need to focus on better quality artistry, while also being mindful not to compromise our core values.
Othneil Oswald More than 1 year ago
I think the key to people of faith creating good films - good art at all - is abandoning our un-Christlike fear that it might not "appeal" to the churchgoing crowd, or even offend them in some respects. It seems to me that Christian filmmakers care just as much as Hollywood does about pleasing their primary audience. In contrast, truly great films (usually independent) challenge an audience rather than pleasing it. We need films of faith that will get everyone's heads thinking rather than just Evangelical heads nodding.
AAML_believer More than 1 year ago
"Wondering what the motivations are behind seeing Christian movies among non-relgious folk."

Maybe something like the same kind of motivation behind a christian movie goer seeing a movie like "Eat Pray Love" or Percy Jackson or something like that?  Maybe they see the christian film as "just a movie" telling a story with an element of a spiritual belief system that they personally do not share?  I imagine that is probably how a lot of non-believers would feel going to see movies like "Noah" or "Exodus: Gods and Kings" or other more explicitly christian films like Left Behind.  I am sure many of them probably can watch a christian movie and maybe enjoy it without actually sharing in the faith, just like most people can watch "Disney's Hercules" or "Clash of the Titans" and enjoy them without needing to actually believe that the Greek Gods are real.
MikeTime More than 1 year ago
Wondering what the motivations are behind seeing Christian movies among non-relgious folk.

Are they doing it because they are film reviewers who have to see it?  Are they those who want to mock Christianity and see it for a laugh and to point out everything that's wrong with it?  Are they going because their SO wants to see it.  Are even some of these "Christian" movies really as such?

I wouldn't look into these numbers too much.