Wayne Meisel: Lights, Camera...Church! Lifting Up the Prophetic Voice of Film

Taken with permission from HuffingtonPost.com/Religion

When I was a kid, my parents would not let me go to the movies on Sundays.

Even though I didn't like it or understand it, when I became a parent I tried to enforce the same policy with my own kids. But when they (and their mother!) questioned it, I didn't have a good answer for why Sunday movies would be banned and the prohibition was lifted.

It's not like going to the movies was outlawed in our home. My dad took my mom to Tuesday night movies, partly because that was their only date night, and partly because he was looking for sermon illustrations for Sunday morning. And sermon titles were due on Wednesday.

My father provided a prophetic voice in his preaching -- sometimes with the help of a tale of heartbreak or redemption he had seen at the movies. At the heart of this, though, was an ability to challenge people to become aware, to become educated and to engage.

That is what many do from the pulpit and it is what many documentary filmmakers are doing now. Some filmmakers see their work as an expression of their faith. Others do not. Regardless, when viewed and studied, a documentary film can:

  • Enlighten acts of courage
  • Challenge realities of oppression
  • Educate about failing systems
  • Call us to live differently, through what we eat, think and do

The kinds of films my dad knew and that I encountered as a kid were very different from what's out there these days. I knew nothing about the art of documentary films until being deeply moved when I watched Henry Hampton's "Eyes on the Prize" and Barbara Kopple's "Harlan County, USA." For the first time, I was seeing films that demonstrated emotions and passions running so deep that people -- real people -- were called into action.


For a long time, I was conscious of documentary films only around the Oscars. Selecting the best documentary was always the tie-breaker for the office Oscar pool. I would never have seen any of them and have to guess what they were about and imagine their power. I had no idea how to see them.

This is beginning to change, and rapidly. Documentaries have become a defining expression of creativity, insight, challenge and inspiration. This year's Oscar nominations for best documentary film affirm this reality. "How to Survive a Plague" is about the early days of AIDS advocacy; "5 Broken Cameras" is about nonviolent Palestinian action in the West Bank; "The Invisible War" is about sexual assault in the U.S. military.

And they are becoming easier to access. Netflix and other online streaming sites have scores of documentary films; others can be purchased from online sites like the Hartley Film Foundation.

Parallel to these positive developments in the documentary world, our churches have developed a problem: Attendance is falling, and young people seem to find the church increasingly irrelevant. It doesn't matter if it's a traditional or contemporary worship service. The preaching, the singing, the collection plate, the prayers and the coffee hour are roadblocks for a lot of people.

Enter film, an artistic and prophetic venue that can claim and proclaim.

With the desire to rebuild a church that is relevant and renewed, we turned to one of the great documentarians and activists of our time, Macky Alston of Auburn Seminary in New York. We asked him to create a film series that could be used by churches.

Macky's latest film, "Love Free or Die," about the first openly gay Bishop in the Episcopal Church, won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. His life's work has centered on connecting his faith journey with the topics of his films.

The films in our series were selected by Macky after a number of focus groups and conversations with college students, seminarians and individuals in their twenties who are involved in service and justice work.

This is only a start. The list is not complete, nor does it choose sides on issues:

  • "The First Year" (education)
  • "Baraka" (environment)
  • "Born into Brothels" (human rights, equality, women's issues)
  • "Dark Days" (housing, poverty, human rights)
  • "Food, Inc." (hunger, food security)
  • "Hiding and Seeking: Faith and Tolerance after the Holocaust" (interfaith relations)
  • "If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front" (environment, incarceration)
  • "Long Night's Journey into Day" (equality, human rights, tolerance)
  • "Love Free or Die" (sexual orientation, interfaith relations
  • "Made in L.A." (immigration, human rights, women's issues)
  • "Welcome to Shelbyville" (interfaith relations, tolerance)

(You can access descriptions of the films, along with the curriculum developed for each one, by going to theFaith3 website.)


When the church does things like provide space for showing the films, people to discuss the issues, it becomes more relevant by:

  • Creating opportunities to respond individually and collectively
  • Demonstrating that it seeks to address these issues
  • Becomes a catalyst for coalition-building and action steps

The idea of the church showing films isn't new. Here are some examples of how churches have embraced and integrated film and used it to interpret and engage:


The Reformed Church of Highland Park, N.J., sponsored an Economic Justice Forum about living on minimum wage. The event began with the showing of "The Line," a short documentary about four families struggling with poverty. This was followed by a panel discussion and three more weeks of education, conversation and engagement.

Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, Minn., led by Rev. Kara Root, teams up each summer with St. Joseph Children's Home to hold a Movie Camp. Young residents interpret parables through film and have lunch every day with members of the church.

Fuller Seminary, in California, offers a course called "Theology, Film, and Culture: Engaging Independent Films." The purpose of the course as described by its professor, Kutter Callaway, is to examine the role that film has on theology, spirituality and Christianity. Fuller also hosts an annual conference called "Reel Spirituality." 

Showing a controversial film, even about an issue that the church hasn't taken a stand on, demonstrates that the church is a place of dialogue and discovery, not a place that is set in ways that "shall not be moved."

I encourage people to organize viewings at your place of worship, and to engage in the issue even -- and especially -- if the film takes a different stance than your own experience or goes against some of the assumptions of your community.


  1. Commit to showing a film on one Tuesday a month.
  2. Partner with local college civic engagement programs, high school service learning programs or agencies that participate with AmeriCorps and VISTA, to co-sponsor the series.
  3. When possible, begin the viewing by introducing individuals from local groups that are involved in the issue that is about to be highlighted in the films.
  4. Make plenty of popcorn.
  5. Make sure the popcorn and showing are free.

See you at the movies! ... I mean church! ... I mean movies at church!

At FAITH3, we are continuing to collect a list of films that have changed people's lives, whether it be around the way they live, how they think or what they do. We'd love to hear from you. To include a film that has changed your life go to http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/FTRQJWM and fill out the brief questionnaire.

Follow Wayne Meisel on Twitter: www.twitter.com/waynemeisel12