A good friend of mine asked me what I think of pastors using illustrations from movies in their sermons. My friend uses them because he thinks they are helpful in relating to a culture that increasingly has their worldview formed through entertainment.
But I don’t buy it. In my experience, illustrations sparked by the golden screen (or Netflix, or what have you) generally fail, and are almost always unhelpful.
Here are some reasons why:
They don’t communicate well
These kinds of illustrations almost always go something like this: “Okay, so I don’t know if you have seen Avengers or not, but if you haven’t, Samuel L. Jackson is this one guy — I forget his name — and he is good, even though he is making other people do things they don’t want to do. Anyway, he has this ledger, but it is not an actual ledger, it is just in his head. And some people have red in their ledger, because they have done bad things. And they need to do good things to get that red taken away. But Jesus, He takes our red away by being our red!” Or something.
It takes a lot of work to communicate an illustration from a movie clearly. The pastor has to tell a story that was conveyed visually, bring the audience up to speed on something they may or may not have seen, and then try to draw out his point — which more than likely was not the point of the original scene anyway.
It is difficult to do this effectively because a movie conveys its message visually, and over the span of 120 minutes or so. There are medium issues here. For a pastor to bring his people into the movie, he has to tell the plot verbally. This takes a while, and is generally confusing and unnecessarily complicated. Ultimately, even when told well, it is a long walk for a short drink of water.
Some people haven’t seen the movie
No matter what the movie is, there will be people in the congregation who haven’t seen it. Just because all of your friends have seen Avengers, and other Christian bloggers have declared it the best movie ever, and you have seen it three times, doesn't mean all of your listeners have.
Even movies that are cultural icons have this same problem. As inconceivable as it is, there may be people listening to you who have not seen Star Wars. If you are a college pastor, you could have international students in your congregation. They didn’t grow up experiencing the ubiquitous presence of The Christmas Story on TV every December.
So if you use an illustration from a movie, you will either lose some of your audience, or you will waste so much time telling the story, that the whole illustration becomes burdensome.
Some people have seen the movie
When you start down the movie illustration road, for everyone in the congregation who has seen it, they are immediately critiquing your version of events. Was Samuel L. Jackson's character really good? Why did he lie to get others to do his bidding? Didn’t he make some of the other characters do bad things?
So you lose/bore those who haven’t seen the movie, while simultaneously distracting those who have — as they spend the next few minutes thinking of all the ways your interpretation of the film was wrong or incomplete.
You thought the point about getting red out of your ledger was cool, and that it would illuminate your point. In reality, it serves as a distraction for some, while leaving others wondering why we’ve spent the last five minutes of the sermon talking about superheroes.
Deriving biblical principles from movies is a one-way street
On the one hand, movies have value and moral intelligibility only as they correspond to a biblical worldview. On the other hand, the Bible does not derive its value and moral intelligibility by corresponding to movies. In other words, this is a one-way street, and using movie illustrations in sermons is not going with the flow of traffic.
In evaluating the themes of movies, applying the truth of Scripture is obviously essential. The Word of God is a flashlight and it illuminates the moral content of every story, even those told in 3-D.
To use stories from movies to illustrate passages in the Bible is to hold the flashlight backwards. Even if the light is on, and even if it is bright enough, it's not going to help you see what you are looking for. The concept of the ledger from Avengers may be cool because it relates to a biblical worldview. But the concepts of atonement and imputation are not illuminated by comparing them cinematic superhero ledgers.
Movies always come with baggage
I eschew the idea of worldly entertainment creeping into the church. I loathe the notion that the church needs Hollywood producers to make God’s plot really come together.
Our people live in an entertainment-driven, visually stimulating world. They are surrounded by movies, art, videos, and a 24-hour news cycle. The church on the Lord’s Day should be an island from that. It should be the place where their instruments are calibrated, and their compass aligns to True North. We should be a refuge from the world, and not act as if we need to borrow from the world's entertainment to make our point.
When you use a movie illustration, you are unknowingly harnessing yourself to the moral baggage that comes with that movie. Take The Christmas Story. Maybe you have only seen the TV version (and that — if you are 35-years-old, times seven viewings per Christmas — equals 245 times). The TV version you remember watching is clean. So you use an illustration from it (materialism never delivers; remember that one time when Ralphie really, really wanted a decoder ring? And yet, he wasn’t happy when he got it?).
But you don’t realize that the actual version of the movie, the version people rent, has offensive language all over it. They cleaned that out for television. And now, on the Lord’s Day, you are using an illustration from a movie that has troublesome language in it. You may not intend your illustration to be a blanket endorsement of everything in a given film. But many in your congregation might assume that it is.
Is that potential offense really worth making a marginally-helpful point about materialism?
Using movie illustrations fosters biblical illiteracy
Instead of telling the story from Avengers to illustrate the concept of a ledger, how about a story from biblical history? Rather than appealing to your congregation's fascination with contemporary entertainment, why not enhance their familiarity with biblical characters?
No, these objections don’t apply to literature
This may seem incongruous, but these same objections are not necessarily true of illustrations from literature. While they can apply in certain cases, it can be helpful to illustrate points in a sermon by using scenes from books, history, the news, etc. With movies, you are describing a visual scene verbally. With other illustrations, you are describing a written scene, which is easier to do with clarity.
People won’t critique your description of the scene, because if you describe it with the same words used in the book, you are creating the same picture that was in their mind when they read it. And illustrations from literature don’t cater to the lowest-common-cultural-denominator. Also, using an illustration from a book avoids offending parents who don’t let their kids watch certain movies. For these and other reasons, I find illustrations from literature to be much less problematic than illustrations from cinema.