Why Movie Altar Calls Rarely Work

Josh Larsen

September 16, 2011

In the movie "Places in the Heart" --all about redemption, forgiveness--there's an absolutely moving and a bit surreal scene at the conclusion, as all the principal characters share communion in church.  Not overt evangelism, but moving to all hearts and perhaps an agent for seekers to start asking questions of themselves, of others, about faith.

September 16, 2011

Thanks.  I never get tired of blogs from Christians mocking other Christians.  Nobody is making you watch it.  It's just amazing how much time Christians spend stabbing each other in the back.  Movie altar calls rarely work.  And you know this how? You've done a study?  If a "Christian" movie doesn't line up with a person's theology, then it sucks. Is there harm in this movie?  If your answer is yes...how?  If people who follow this type of theology, (which I don't) then they will enjoy this movie -- they've had an enjoyable experience...good for them.  It's like pointing at Dune and calling it stupid because you don't like science fiction. The problem is...mocking other Christians always seems to work so we keep doing it.   I admit, being preachy doesn't seem to work in this culture, but SO WHAT if someone is being preachy...it doesn't hurt anyone.  Phillipians 1:15-18

September 16, 2011

This reminds me of a movie shown at a junior high school retreat (middle school, more or less, for you under 35s - junior high was 7th through 9th grade). It wasn't a school retreat of course, it was a church retreat. We were all Presbyterians proud of our new RSV Bibles, and whoever picked out the movie didn't pay attention to what it would present. We called it "The Burning Barn." The climactic finale had the high school foot ball team captain and all-around nonbelieving bully drunk in the loft of a barn with his girl friend Rhonda when the barn caught fire in the middle of a party at the end of football season. Subtle allegory. We laughed for a year afterward. No, I don't think movies can convert anyone. Marjo was preaching to the choir too, only the other way around, even though it unmasked real acts of earthly corruption in the church.

As for altar calls, having witnessed some moving ones, although never having felt called, I doubt a movie could ever even present one well. It the spirit isn't there, it isn't there, and no amount of rehearsal or reshooting will generate it.

September 16, 2011

My problem with a lot of these attempts is that the presentation lacks a cruciform authenticity, the kind of authenticity you actually find in the Bible. Defining moments within the New Testament are seldom as clear as the joyful, blissful breakthrough of a cinematic altar call. They more often look like a terrible defeat. Consider the crucifixion, mocking and some shameful wonder at the catastrophe they witnessed. Consider Stephen's death and the Jerusalem Christians having to leave town. Consider Paul singing praises in stocks on the floor of a Philippian prison. 

American evangelical depictions of conversion too often smell like a narrative from the best wishes of a self-help book. These presentations tend to shape expectations in ways alien to the kinds of cruciform promises the Bible's pretty clear about.

September 16, 2011

And yet, as an 11 year old boy 50 years ago I sat in the pew and watched my mother go forward at an altar call that looked pretty much like this. It was corny and hokey maybe, but she just turned 80, loves the Lord deeply, served as a missionary in Eastern Europe in the 1980s smuggling Bibles into the USSR with my Dad, persuaded her parents, her kids, grandkids to Jesus and created quite a legacy. I sat through a Billy Graham crusade at 18 feeling alternately sarcastic and terrified. I finally gave into Jesus in my apartment alone in Berkeley 3 years later. I hear what you are saying...it may seem in-authentic, storybook American and even embarrassing to us who are more sophisticated but don't discount what the Holy Spirit can accomplish how ever Jesus is presented. It is certainly not what I would do in film...and I have done quite a bit of work in film...but isn't the Lord good and surprising!

Tim Hendrickson
September 17, 2011

I'm not sure Josh is mocking another Christian; rather, he seems to make a very cogent point regarding the quality and authenticity (or lack thereof) of Christian art. If one of the goals of Christian art is the spreading of the good news, then the artist must take into account the sensibilities and intelligence of his/her target audience. If the art comes off as clunky and heavy handed, my sense is that non-believers may be more inclined to tune it out. From my own youth, the "Christian Rock" of the 1990s was never really of interest to me (or my friends) because it seemed so cheesily--yes, I made that up--manufactured. It was see through; thus I ignored it.

September 20, 2011

I agree. There is not "THE recipe" or "The method". The command is go and preach...different ways to different people in different circumstances, leaving the results to Holy Spirit action.  The Lord will give the fruits according his will, in a way that most of the time we will not see. Our duty is just to talk to everybody, every time we have the chance."Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season..." 2 Tim 4:2

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