If your pastor has preached a sermon centered on Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, it may be time to find a new pastor. In fact, you can extend that to include sermons centered on any movie. Sadly, I’m afraid that my statement applies to many pastors across this country. It’s no secret that our culture is obsessed with entertainment, and many professing Christians are not immune. Trading on the obsession with entertainment in order to fill pews, churches have been turning to Hollywood in order to attract attendees.
On Christmas Eve, The New York Times ran an article titled “Secular Hollywood Quietly Courts the Faithful.” The article delves into the genius of Hollywood’s marketing efforts to churches. For years now, movie studios have packaged many of their movies into tidy sermons for pastors. Complete with film clips, pastors can find sermon outlines that weave thematic elements of movies with the Bible. Of course, the endgame for Hollywood is far from the desire to see Christians “grow in grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). Hollywood is courting the faithful in order to sell more tickets. However, if I may be so bold as to suggest a title change to his well-written and engaging article, I wish that Brooks Barnes had titled it, “Pastors Sell Out the Gospel for Relevancy.”
For the record, I don’t necessarily fault Hollywood for doing this; I mean, it’s not their fault that the American church is largely spiritually anemic. In order to grow their profit margins, Hollywood is merely using professing Christians’ desire to be entertained and have their ears tickled. It will be a rare day that I take “liberal elites” to task for utilizing free-market principles in order to create wealth. Since my citizenship is in the Kingdom of God, my deep concern is in reference to the profaning of the Lord’s Day by those who claim to be followers of King Jesus.
Christians gather on the Lord’s Day in order to worship and praise their Creator. This is accomplished primarily through the preaching of the Bible, God’s Word, and includes the corporate singing of the Word, the praying of the Word back to God, and through the sacraments that God has ordained. Unfortunately, much of what happens in churches across this country falls far short of God-centered and God-directed worship. Bringing a consumer mentality with them, Americans expect to be entertained while at church. And many churches are happy to oblige.
The rejoinder, of course, will be that pastors are simply utilizing people’s fascination with pop culture in order to get them into the church. Well, as Mark Dever, longtime pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church and noted author, frequently states, “What you catch them with, you keep them with.” In other words, if you use The Magnificent Seven to coax people through the doors, you’ll have to continue to entertain them and tickle their ears to keep them in the pews. They ain’t going to like it if they show up to hear about their favorite movies and the pastor begins preaching the Bible and calling them to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Jesus. Denying ourselves is an utterly counter-cultural and societally heretical concept to those who live in red states and in blue states.
Most of the thematic elements of movies used in sermons trade on our self-centered, self-help culture. This fits right in with many of the sermons already being preached across America. You know, sermons like “Five Ways that the Bible Will Help You Have a Fulfilling Family Vacation.” Instead of confronting us with our desperate need for Jesus because we’re sinners who fall short of God’s just and holy standard, many pastors, glossing over the call to deny ourselves, have become de facto motivational speakers. Except neither the Bible nor the church is about us. The Bible is God’s self-revelation and the church is the gathering of God’s people to worship and learn about God.
As God’s self-revelation, the Bible is God’s word. In His graciousness, God speaks to His people. And when God speaks, His people listen. This is bluntly stated in Isaiah 55:11 when God reveals that His word “shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” The power to save sinners and to change hearts and lives is found in and through the preaching of God’s Word. The central focus of church services should be just that—the preaching of the Bible. Sermons centered on movies deny the efficacy of the simple preaching of the Bible and disobey the mandate to “preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2).
Allowing Hollywood to frame sermons and provide the thematic content of sermons is a sin before God who calls us to worship Him in spirit and in truth. The Gospel of John records Jesus’ claim to be “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). Theologian D.A. Carson explains in his commentary that true worship is “made possible by the gift of the Holy Spirit and in personal knowledge of and conformity to God’s Word-made-flesh, the one who is God’s ‘truth,’ the faithful exposition [preaching] … of God and his saving purposes.” If your pastor sets aside or even subordinates the Bible in favor of Hollywood’s marketing ploys, it may be time, for the sake of your soul, to find a pastor who values and practices the preaching of God’s Word.