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.
Christian 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.