Most weeks in Film Forum we survey Christian opinion of the country's most popular movies. Our purpose is partly to inform our readers about current films, but more importantly to help reveal the different ways that Christians are interacting with American culture. To that end, we'll occasionally break from our regular format to focus on a particular Web site's approach to culture and purpose in reviewing movies. This week, we're taking a closer look at Movies and Ministry, a site run by a University of Arizona film student to help pastors and youth leaders use films as part of their ministry.

"The church needs to reenter the surrounding culture," says Doug Cummings, editor of Movies & Ministry, about the goal of his online efforts. "Many denominations train missionaries to understand and embrace a specific culture before they're sent abroad. If we want to communicate the gospel to the rising generations of Americans, we're going to have to discern our new cultural framework, and it's my conviction that understanding movies is a key to that process."

Cummings believes the church is mobilizing to meet the challenge. Using movie clips in a service "has actually become a common tool for a lot of 'contemporary' and 'seeker' churches," he says, to "illustrate particular spiritual themes like grace, forgiveness, temptation." As a workshop leader for The Leadership Network, Cummings has been at the forefront of that mobilization, teaching church leaders how to restructure ministry for a Generation X mentality. He explains several ways movie clips interest a congregation: "Some have direct applications, like a scene from a Woody Allen movie where characters discuss God. Some have an emotional application, like the scenes of grace in The Mission. Some can be used in a metaphorical sense, like the Claymation short Balance, which Cummings say "provides an abstract view of how individual greed can destroy a community."

Movies and Ministry offers a variety of these clip suggestions organized by topic, as well as the nitty-gritty details of how to begin using them. Cummings explains the need for an umbrella license for publicly exhibiting videotapes, provides links for renting obscure movies and buying multimedia equipment, and gives practical suggestions for effective use—noting that reaching hearts is not as easy as just firing up the VCR. "Movie clips should be used as an extension of someone's personal experience. … The idea is to encourage people to engage the culture, and that process needs to be modeled." Teaching ministry leaders how to evaluate the images and ideas affecting our culture is more important to Cummings than simply providing movie clips and film reviews.

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"Target those films getting the most critical or popular acclaim," he suggests to newcomers trying to increase their film literacy. "Figure out how they work—why are they appealing? Ask people in your church what movies they recommend. Watch independent films or movies you normally wouldn't see. Ask yourself what deeper issues a movie is probing. What spiritual questions is it asking?" To that end, his film reviews don't try to promote his own tastes, but "offer what I hope are good examples of how to engage films theologically and see them as markers of the spiritual questions posed by our culture. I couldn't care less if people agree or disagree with a review I write, but I'd love it if a church leader read one of my reviews and thought, 'Gee, I can do this.'"

Once enthused pastors catch the vision for themselves, Cummings encourages them to share it with their congregations by launching a church-sponsored film discussion group: "One of the ideal purposes in having church leaders probe the culture and highlight its spiritual messages is to encourage others within the church to do the same." Like a movie clip allows a leader to convey a personal experience to an audience, a feature film discussed in a group allows "participants to share stories from their lives and draw parallels to their own experiences … [helping them] to draw closer to God and to one another." Movies and Ministry resources include several ready-made discussion guides, a bulletin board where leaders can share their results of their efforts, and a practical guide to moderating discussion groups. "First screenings," Cummings explains, "tend to emphasize the emotional reaction that can overpower one's perception of the narrative patterns and subtext that often make up the bulk of a theological analysis. … It can be a good idea to note some things to watch for during the screening, particularly for those who aren't used to actively engaging the material."

Another hurdle for discussion groups is deciding what types of movies to watch together. Cummings recommends bypassing the MPAA ratings as a criterion for selecting spiritual value. "'Harmless' PG-rated comedies often convey a multitude of harmful myths, but an R-rated film like Schindler's List might present spiritually affirming themes of compassion and sacrifice." The responsibility for what's worth watching should be decided by each community, Cummings says, balancing Paul's Romans 14 commands "not to judge others who don't share our convictions and also not to tempt others with our freedoms." Cummings' own criterion is to value movies that reveal a full picture of life: "A movie that only presents sin will be nihilistic and a movie that only presents joy will be superficial. Great films, like life itself, hold the two in tension."

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Cummings wants to help refocus the church on that tension, because otherwise "we could run the risk of living superficial spiritual lives." Growing up in the church, "I realized that the conversations I had regarding the hard questions and emotional struggles that movies were presenting only happened outside of church circles." His efforts with Movies and Ministry, as well as his leadership position in a Tucson Gen-X church plant, is to change that pattern by helping Christians "be equipped to talk about the images and ideas affecting our culture … and desire to dialogue with the unchurched."

Pastors and youth pastors looking to use films in their churches can turn to a handful of less frequently updated Web sites as well. features occasional movie reviews highlighting specific concerns for ministry leaders, including whether it would be appropriate for a youth group setting or if any clips lend themselves to sermons.

Reaching the Generations for Jesus, has posted 27 discussion guides designed for Christian youth groups that introduce the topics teens struggle with most. For a conversation about what movies have worked well in other church groups, visit the OnFilm eGroup and locate threads 1234 and 1254, which probe the pros and cons of several discussion-starting films. And those who prefer good old paper and ink instead of the Web should check out the book Videos That Teach, a youth-oriented movie-clip guide written by Doug Fields and Eddie James and published by Youth Specialties and Zondervan.

Steve Lansingh is editor of, a weekly Internet magazine devoted to Christianity and the cinema.

Related Elsewhere

See's earlier look at Hollywood Jesus, another site integrating film and faith.