Movies capture us because of the power of story. Throughout time, stories have given cultures a sense of personhood, identity, and meaning. The power of story is why as children we want to hear the same bedtime story over and over again. The power of story is why you’ve seen Star Wars or Sixteen Candles thirty-six times, and also why you can’t help but watch it again when you happen upon it while channel surfing. It’s why The Lord of the Rings phenomenon has so captivated our time. Stories help us frame our identity.
Stories also gather us into community. Stories of Yahweh’s promises knit together Israel’s exile community held captive in Babylon. The story of all stories, the Gospel story, knits us together as God’s people around Him who is the Word made flesh.
If you want to use movies to minister to your youth group, start with the story. Movies have power when we let their meaning bubble up from within. Sometimes, it is easy to over-spiritualize a movie, to try to box it into an allegory we impose on it, but nearly every good movie can bubble up with sacred meaning, if we let it. Such is the power of the Spirit at work in the world. Such is our joy when we can catch the Spirit in the act. For example: Did you catch the crucifix in Cast Away? How about the baptism in The Shawshank Redemption?
Good movies, which can become God movies, are good because they touch the deepest human experiences, which tend to be inherently spiritual experiences. They cut to the core of our soul. When watching a movie with your youth, start discussing the power of the story and the discussion will naturally lead to spiritual issues. There has never been a better movie than Citizen Kane to express what it means to regret and despair. Watch it with a group of young people and start with these questions: What is your Rosebud? What lost innocence do you wish you could recover? Or watch Casablanca and talk about the necessity of sacrifice.
There are many other good movies with themes, images, and symbols so powerfully human that by inspired necessity snowball into rich spiritual and theological ideas.
Watch The Shawshank Redemption with your youth group, then talk about what true friendship means and where true hope lies. Or watch Groundhog Day and talk about redemption. Or show a marathon movie lock-in of The Lord of the Rings and let the debate rage: Is Frodo Baggins a Christ-figure?
Any of the Pixar-animated Disney movies tell marvelously simple stories through which we can explore sacred territory. It’s impossible to watch Toy Story and not think about church, the people of God, or to watch Shrek and not take joy in the true beauty that only God can see in each one of us.
Other movies are much more subtle yet just as affecting. A River Runs Through It is a great movie, but its power lies in its gentleness. It’s a movie of tender mercies. It could be a tougher sell for youth, but if you can pull it off, send me an invitation.
There are the hidden treasures too. You’ve probably never heard of A Simple Plan, but rent it and let it speak to you its profound truth about human nature and the tragedy of sin.
Of course, there are the pitfalls, movies where language or content may require you to practice the utmost discernment as to whether or not they should be shown in your youth room. One thing is certain, however: for better or worse today’s youth will hardly be shocked by anything. The Shawshank Redemption contains some harsh prison language, but I’m quite sure it’s nothing compared to the harsh language of today’s high school campus.
And there’s always a way around a pitfall. Movies give you great latitude to be creative, especially with the dawning of DVDs and that little tool called scene selection. I’ve used specific scenes from movies in numerous talks and presentations. One sharp and pithy clip can be just as thought provoking as spending the hour and a half watching an entire movie.
(I’ll give my one plug: www.allmovie.com. It is THE Web site for quick, insightful reviews, synopses, and red flags on literally any movie you could possibly want to check out for your youth group.)
Movies are such powerful tools, especially when in the hands of those who care for youth and love the Gospel. So pop the corn and turn out the lights. Make it a movie night in a youth room near you, and together experience the magnificence of story.