war room

War Room, Christian Filmmaking, and Encouragement: An Evening with Stephen Kendrick

Christian filmmaker Stephen Kendrick (one-third of the Kendrick Brothers film team) recently spoke at North Boulevard Church of Christ. The presentation was a part of the church’s initiative entitled the School of Christian Thought, a ministry dedicated to challenging fellow Christians “to think about what we believe and why we believe it,” as per the School’s mission statement, “hoping, of course, that this will lead to engaged citizens who bless their communities because of their convictions.” This event was the first time I had ever heard of the School for Christian Thought, and I must admit that I am very intrigued by their endeavor and look forward to attending more of these kinds of presentations.

I honestly wouldn’t have even attended Mr. Kendrick’s lecture had it not been for two different people inviting me. One sent me a text, and the other reached out to me via Facebook. Being one to make the majority of his decisions at the last minute, I didn’t decide to go until that day. But I mean, really: how many others chances will I get to drink in some of this man’s wisdom? to listen intentionally to someone who is making a living doing something that I want to do? Not many.

The evening started off well enough. The acapella praise team led those in attendance in some congregational singing, and it all sounded lovely. I found myself singing along with what I did know and humming along with what I didn’t know. Then teaching minister David Young introduced Mr. Kendrick with some well-mannered frivolity and some light-hearted humor. Finally, the man himself took the stage.

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Mr. Kendrick began with a bit of personal biography, an interesting narrative which can be found at their website. Just to give a brief glimpse into their childhood, Stephen and his two brothers were the sons of a minister and a schoolteacher. This somehow led them to have enough free time to shoot home movies. What fascinated me was that their parents encouraged them to keep making those movies as long they kept pursuing a personal relationship with God and kept studying His word along the way. Strange how that kind of encouragement can work.

He then lightly touched on the span of Kendrick Brothers films. On War Room specifically, he regaled us with anecdotes from behind the scenes. For example, finding the right wig for Karen Abercrombie to don in her portrayal of Miss Clara was apparently a doozy. Even finding Miss Clara’s house was a surprising answer to Alex and Stephen’s incessant prayers. Such was the case for many of the film’s accomplishments, including the double-dutch sequence at its conclusion.

In fact, one thing that Stephen constantly reminded us of how strongly prayer affected the day-to-day grind on the set. “Every key decision,” he persistently repeated, “must be made in prayer.” And every key decision made for War Room and every other Kendrick Brothers film was made in prayer. Praying on the set, praying before shooting and after shooting, praying during planning period – prayer led these projects. Stephen’s enthusiasm for this one aspect was contagious.

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While he gave a well-informed ten-point guideline to Christian filmmaking – “Power Up Your Prayer” being only fifth on the list – the two points that caught my attention were “Guard the Unity of the Team” and “Shepherd Your Sheep” (but let’s be real: they kinda go hand-in-hand, am I right?). We’ve all seen how horrendous a failed experiment can be because the team grew apart for some reason or because the leader didn’t nurture the team like he or she was supposed to. It’s definitely something I’ll keep in mind as I pursue my own creative endeavors.

Here’s the biggest chunk of wisdom from Mr. Kendrick that I’ve been chewing on: “Jesus spoke parables to the lost, but He spoke overtly to His disciples.” Mr. Kendrick said this when speaking about Hollywood’s collective reaction to his films – films which are often criticized as being too full of Christianity, too exclusionary, and too “overt” with their messages of faith. It’s a criticism that I myself am all too familiar in doling out against Christian films.

My perspective changed when Mr. Kendrick mentioned why he and his brother made their initial film Flywheel in the first place: as an outreach. The film’s very conception had a mission behind it, and such has been the case for every Kendrick Brothers film since. And as much as I want to, I can’t argue with how much of a positive impact these films have had in communities both at home and abroad. It’s a feat that can only be described as miraculous.

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Mr. Kendrick has given me – as a burgeoning writer and storyteller myself – much to think about, and I can’t help but think that I’ve been encouraged by his story. I can’t say that I’ll now go out and start writing Christian scripts for Christian plays and Christian movies. After all, as playwright Dr. Gilllette Elvgren of Regent University once said, “What makes a Christian play? Well, what makes a Christian lasagna? Same thing” – meaning that it’s merely people that brand products as Christian. But as long as the Kendrick Brothers keep God at the helm of their projects and follow Him by praying for and obeying His guidance, theirs can’t be a bad example to follow.

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This image shows a crowd of people in a movie theater watching a movie.

I’m Tired of Bashing Christian Movies

I like bashing Christians movies. It makes me feel like I’m actually doing something good when tell others what I honestly think about them, with no grace in my heart at all. I want to “save” people from having a bad experience like I did, so I do whatever I can to win others from seeing such films.

It started back in the late winter of 2014 with the release of the cut-copied-and-pasted-from-the-History-Channel Son of God. Then the Spring of 2014 with the release of the landmark God’s Not Dead. Later in that very same Spring saw the release of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah as well as Heaven Is For Real (although some would argue that the former of those two is not a Christian film…an arguable sentiment, but valid).

After a summer of phenomenal blockbusters came the gem that is known as Believe Me (which you need to see right now if you haven’t already). The Year of the Christian Film at last closed out with Ridley Scott’s so-so interpretation of the Exodus account entitled Exodus: Gods and Kings.

2015 looked promising with the release of Old Fashioned,  but that hope quickly fizzled out with Do You Believe?Since another summer full of high-octane action and adventure has come to a close, War Room has come out, and I tried showing a little grace in withholding what I really thought about it and sharing only the positive side.

But after hearing that God’s Not Dead 2 is now in the works and is slated for release in Spring 2016, I am preparing for another opportunity to bash it and rip it to shreds. Because I know what’s going to be. It’s going to be the same old plot line of someone who believes in God coming face to face with someone who doesn’t.

It’ll be the same old storytellers telling the same old story of “perseverance in trials” and “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me” and the protagonist will come out on top after having defeated the angry atheist.

Then the epilogue will be at the same old concert, and the same old celebrity cameo will urge the audience of the concert (and, by the transitive property, the audience of the film, too) to text their friends that “God’s not dead” (except this time, they’ll have to do it twice…because it’s a sequel…eh? eh?).

Gather ’round, kids; Uncle Brenden’s gonna learn ya something about Art:

  • Art is one part Content and one part Form.
  • The Content is the Message that the Artist is trying to communicate to an Audience.
  • The Form is the Medium by which that Content is delivered to that Audience.

My discontent with Christian films, then, is not with their Content but with their Form. Because I can and most often do agree with the Message of such films – that is, I agree with the Content – but that Message is unfortunately tainted by the Medium by which it is communicated to the Audience.

That Form could be a weak character development – like a one-sided college professor – or a cliché plot narrative – like making all the main characters of a film come together in only one, too brief moment; whatever the case, I find it unsettling and a waste of my time.

But I need to face the reality that some other people actually like these films. Some other people are actually encouraged by the Message of these films no matter how diluted by the Medium they may or may not be. Some people can actually look past the Forms of this Art and see and understand the Content for what it really is.

That this outlook on films is so indicative of how I should be as a Christian astounds me. If I can’t support a film or any other piece of Art because I only focused on the outward Form as opposed to considering the inward Content, what does that say about how I deal with people? That I’m too alienated by the Form of a fellow brother or sister to even be bothered with considering their inward Content? That’s definitely not how I want God to judge me.

Next Spring, I’ll the opportunity to bash another same old Christian movie; or, next Spring, I’ll have the opportunity to exhibit a little grace in expressing my subjective opinions and withholding my condemnations, find something good in that film (even if I have to dig and stretch), and be a little more like Christ when it comes to engaging the culture.