Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

Using Movies in Preaching

  • John D. Duncan
  • 2013 11 Sep
Using Movies in Preaching

"Hey, let's get out of here and go see a movie. I gotta get some ideas for Sunday's sermon."
I attended a meeting with a few preacher friends. The meeting was almost over when one friend uttered those infamous words. My body echoed a sentiment for returning to the hotel for rest. Yet my colleagues voted for the movie. Off we went to see Kevin Bacon and Meryl Streep in The River Wild.
We purchased our $6 ticket to view the movie. We watched the action-packed film late into the night. Near the end of the movie my friend whispered, "There's some good stuff in this movie for a sermon."
I got absolutely nothing out of that movie. The movie seemed to me your typical motion picture with good battling evil. The only difference was the setting, a wild river with rapids raging, crashing, aiming to devour its floating host.
I now tease my friend, "What movie are you preaching this Sunday?"
As one taught to dissect the Bible, I trained on a steady diet of conjugated Greek verbs, sentence diagrams, and homiletical outlines. Organize a message, then proclaim the Good News from the housetop, was my theme. It still is, but I move in and out with a passage. I travel from the then to the now, from history to present, from where the saints of old were to where the saints of today are. One way to identify with the now is to use movies in preaching.
I hesitated at first, but reality told me we live in the video age. Most of the people in our churches are familiar with the top ten video rentals more than they are the first ten chapters of Genesis. Should the proclaimer of God's Word simply ignore this fact or accept it to communicate spiritual truths?
I believe it's necessary to use the familiar to teach the unfamiliar. It is acceptable to use movies and video (the familiar) to preach the truth of the Gospel (the unfamiliar). But how is this done?
It is done with both creativity and discretion. Creativity because you begin with your text and weave illustrative material into the movement of the sermon. Always make sure the illustration fits the point you try to make. Do not force a good movie illustration on the text simply because the movie has a striking scene or quote.
Using movies in preaching also requires discretion. Before I use a movie illustration I ask myself three questions: What moral does the movie portray? Is the movie too violent or too prurient? What is the movie's rating? Answering these questions tells me whether or not to use the movie illustration in preaching. Generally, the younger the audience, the less risk in using a movie illustration. Approach an older audience with caution. Always, when in doubt about the movie's content, don't use it.
How can you use movies in preaching? The best way to answer this question is to give some examples.
Apollo 13. This popular movie tells the true story of four astronauts: commander Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, Ken Mattingly and Jack Swigert. NASA scratched Ken Mattingly from the original team because of his exposure to the measles.
The astronauts lifted off on April 13, 1970 at 1:13 P.M. Within hours an explosion crippled their spacecraft. The men had dreamed of walking on the moon. Now they faced the uncertainty of never walking on earth again. Their mission changed from getting to the moon to getting home. The astronauts, as well as mission control, improvise to rescue their space-stranded lives. One great line comes in the tension of this improvisation. Gene Kranz, Apollo 13 flight director, tells his co-workers, "Failure is not an option." His determination helps guide the spaceship home.
Another great line occurs when astronaut Ken Mattingly simulates the return to earth in a training module. He becomes the troubled astronauts' salvation. Working against the clock because the spacecraft is running low on fuel, he frantically devises a plan to rescue this fellow astronauts. While trying to develop instructions he furiously tells his co-worker, "Give me only what they have up there."
I recently heard an excellent sermon reversing this quote. The preacher applied it to Jesus. "Give me only what they have down there," became Jesus' cry as God limited himself in human flesh. He alluded to John 1:14, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us..." (NKJV). By "having only what we have" (God in flesh) Jesus became our salvation. This details both the cross and the crux of the Gospel.
It's a Wonderful Life. I love this movie classic. The movie stars Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. Most people remember that famous line: "Every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings." Yet the real story of the movie is how Stewart's friends and family support him in a crisis. Throughout the crisis Stewart feels like a failure. He contemplates suicide. His guardian angel appears to convince him that life is wonderful. His friends collect money to repay his debts. In the celebration of friendship Stewart concludes, "It's a wonderful life."
One of the last frames in the movie summarizes the content. The frame shows a card that reads, "Remember, no man is a failure who has friends."
What about using this in a sermon? You could use the movie to introduce a sermon from John 10:10 where Jesus says, "I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly" (NKJV). Truly, life is wonderful in the abundance of Jesus. Or you might use the passage from Proverbs, "A friend loves at all times, And a brother is born for adversity" (17:17, NKJV). After all, no man is a failure who has friends.
Lion King. Children's movies provide safe illustrative material. These movies cover a wide range of your audience. Children, their parents and grandparents have probably seen the movie or heard of it.
Take Lion King for example. The music creates an easy way to structure a sermon around "The Father's Love." Matthew 11:25-30 speaks of the relationship between the Father and the Son. A key phrase in verse 27 says, "Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son" (NKJV). You might preach the importance of a relationship with your heavenly Father. Jesus had it. You need it too. But why?
You need the Father's love in the circle of life because of our weaknesses. The context of this passage is mockery toward Jesus and woes on two sinful cities. Simba, the key character, shows his weaknesses. One weakness is pride. His soulful singing sounds forth a chorus, "I just can't wait to be king." Isn't this a weakness we fight, too? Pride leads to his downfall. The prideful, both in mocking against Jesus and sinning against him, need the Father's love.
You need the Father's love because the circle of life often leads us into exile. Verse 27 mentions "All things which have been delivered to Me by My Father" (NKJV). Here Jesus alludes to his coming exile to the cross. Exiled, alone, and in the wilderness, Simba loses a sense of hope. He finds two friends, a warthog and a meerkat, who comfort him. While under the stars, though, his Father appears. Mufasa gives Simba encouragement and strength to fulfill his mission in life. Isn't the Father's love what helped Jesus endure the cross? Isn't the Father's love what helps us in exile? The Father's love encourages us to fulfill our mission in life. It strengthens us in exile.
You need the Father's love because you find rest in Him. In hardship and exile, Jesus invites all to find rest: "Come unto Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28, NKJV). When we have a close relationship with the Father we are united with Jesus. This unity creates soul rest, or to use the words of Elton John, "There's a calm assurance."
Using a movie in this fashion gives the sermon a narrative effect. But you could use just a part of the movie to illustrate the Father's love.
Forrest Gump. Key quotes in movies signal messages easy to use in preaching. Remember Forrest Gump, life is like a box of chocolates, and all that? A great line in the movie comes when Jenny, Forrest's friend growing up, walks the road to the home place of her childhood. The white frame house looks dilapidated, decayed and sagging. Jenny relives in her mind some childhood abuse she experienced. She stares at the house. In tears, angry and pained, she begins to throw rocks. Then Forrest says, "Sometimes there just aren't enough rocks."
You might preach a sermon entitled "When There Aren't Enough Rocks." It might deal with overcoming your painful past. You might use a character like Rahab (Joshua 2:1, 6:17; Matthew 1:5; Hebrews 11:31; James 2;25). God redeemed her past. She went from prostitute to servant of God, from unsuspecting hero to a woman of faith according to Hebrews. James tells us her faith and works joined in unison to echo spiritual harmony.
You might develop the theme around a reference like 1 John 5:4-5, which displays how we overcome the world. How do we overcome the world, its pain and its past? By being born of God, by having faith, and by believing in Jesus as the Son of God. The context of the passage is God's love. What better way to deal with our painful past than to overcome it by God's love? You might contrast the many rocks of the past with the Solid Rock, Jesus Christ. Is it any wonder that the Psalmist cried out in adversity from his past "For you are my rock and my fortress; Therefore, for Your name's sake, Lead me and guide me" (Psalm 31:3, NKJV).
Schindler's List. Perhaps my favorite movie illustration comes from this movie. Earlier I encouraged discretion before using movies in preaching. I generally do not suggest viewing R-rated movies. First, their poor content often contrasts with Biblical values. Second, why practice poor stewardship by wasting money on much of the trash Hollywood puts out?
Occasionally, though, a movie with depth and content comes out. I rented this movie because of its subject nature and underlying religious theme. The violent and gruesome concentration-camp scenes turn the stomach, though. Twice during the movie I could hardly bare to watch.
But that pivotal drama near the end of the movie sent chills down my spine. Oskar Schindler shines as the main character. He exploited the war for personal gain, then had a change of heart. He became a protector of the Jews. In a final scene Oskar gives a speech to Jews in a factory. He invites the Jews to remember those who have died in the persecution. German SS guards wait outside the factory. Tension grips the movie: What will happen next? The guards depart, a surprise in the heightened anxiety of the moment. The Jews are free.
A Jew comes forth as Oskar sets the Jews free. Freed prisoners present a ring to Oskar. On that historic day in 1939, one of the Jews gives Oskar a ring with these words from the Talmud inscribed: "He who saves a single life saves the world entire."
I used this illustration at the conclusion of a sermon on salvation. Isn't this what Jesus has done? I asked my hearers as I completed the sermon.
I still dissect my sermons. I wade through the wild waters of word meanings, ancient settings, and original intent. But I add spice to my sermons with good movie illustrations. Then I serve the sermons desiring that people will discover Jesus. I pray they conclude It's a Wonderful Life. I hope somehow I will connect with their ears and hearts.
I'll tell you, though, it's not easy to do. After all, your hearers are sometimes Sleepless in Seattle. Kids squirm, anxious to visit Waterworld after church. Teenagers have their minds on being Cinderella in next week's prom. Dreamers drift off, searching for adventures like Pochahontas. Others think of their checkbooks, somehow searching for a Miracle on 34th Street. Some cannot wait to get Home for the Holidays. Quite frankly, most are Clueless. Still, never forget to keep preaching two noble truths: We're all tainted with the Outbreak of sin; We're Gold Diggers at heart, but Jesus is the treasure we must cherish.
For all this "using movies in preaching," I leave you with Three Wishes. One, be biblically based in your preaching. Movies without a Biblical foundation reduce preaching to another form of entertainment. Two, use movies to draw the listener into the higher truth of God's redeeming work in Christ. Finally, be cautious. Use discretion. Using a movie in bad taste will defeat the purpose of the sermon. Anyway, you never know when some folks might misunderstand you. You certainly don't want a few Grumpy Old Men to show up at your office! And most assuredly you don't want to give the brethren Something to Talk About! After all, the aim of preaching is to get your folks to talk about Jesus, not your latest illustration. Got that, Babe?