The Rise and Fall of ‘At the Movies’

The Rise and Fall of ‘At the Movies’

Every July, churches around the country host their annual “At the Movies” sermon series, in which pastors pull clips from popular films, weaving them into their messages to convey biblical truths through a well known story. 

In addition to the preaching series, many churches also feature special decorations, serve popcorn, and even have leaders dress up as famous characters from films and other media. 

To be sure, different churches execute this vision with varying levels of success. In some cases, what results is downright cringey. But in other cases, churches are able to pull together a fun atmosphere that encourages church members to invite their unchurched friends, or for infrequent attenders to be present during a month that typically records the lowest Sunday attendance. 

Not everybody loves it though. 

This year, a clip from Life.Church, which has pioneered the summer blockbuster worship event, began circulating on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, with many weighing in with strong criticism. 

In the clip, greeters open the front doors to the lobby of the church’s Colorado Springs location to reveal an impressive array of Star Wars themed decorations. From the ceiling hangs a Millennium Falcon constructed from what appears to be painted cardboard and other materials. Near an Endor themed area stands an AT-ST walker that is probably about 12 feet tall. The decorations also include a to-scale X-wing fighter. All throughout the lobby, special lighting heightens the sense that attenders are stepping into an otherworldly space. 

In other words, it looked pretty cool. 

However, a number of people were quick to criticize the church for using donor funds in this way, and others argued that these decorations—and, by extension, the “At the Movies” series—was a distraction from gospel-centered teaching. 

“I don’t know how many times it has to be said that using entertainment’s means will shape us toward entertainment’s ends,” one person wrote. “This is such an expensive way for a church to weaken people’s attachment to the Church.”

Another remarked, “If this is the alternative to Christian Nationalism, we’re in trouble.”

“I’ll say it again, the ‘At The Movies’ series are ridiculous. It turns the gathering of believers into a den of entertainment,” someone else said. “I can’t say for sure but I feel like there would be some tables being flipped by Jesus.”

Others accused Life.Church, one of the largest and fastest growing churches in America, of not knowing “what church is.” Some went as far as to say the church was guilty of “idolatry.”

Jake Meador, author and editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy, posted a screenshot from the video alongside the quotation, “Evangelical churches reduce themselves to vaguely spiritual NGOs instead of bearing witness through word and sacrament to the fact that the life of Jesus means another world is possible.”

Meador was quoting from a recent article he wrote for The Atlantic, titled, “The Misunderstood Reason Millions of Americans Stopped Going to Church.”

While Life.Church has been on the forefront of the “At the Movies” phenomenon, it is far from the first church to think creatively about how to encourage unchurched or dechurched folks to attend a Sunday morning worship gathering. 

The Church Growth movement traces back its origins to “Bridges of God: A Study in the Strategy of Missions,” a 1955 book written by missiologist Donald McGavran that explored the sociological factors that affect receptivity to the gospel message among non-believers.  

By the mid-1970s and early 1980s, the Church Growth movement was in full swing, with a number of influential churches, such as Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois and Saddleback Church in Southern California, ushering in the age of the American megachurch—along with a new way of doing church. 

Part and parcel of these churches’ evangelism and outreach strategies were a “seeker sensitive” or “attractional” model of church.

To that end, church leaders updated their wardrobe and the decor of their worship spaces, changed their music, and thought creatively about how to build churches that people with no church experience (or only negative church experience) would be interested in attending. 

And in large measure, it worked. These churches grew dramatically, shaping a generation of worshippers who otherwise might not have ever darkened the doorway of a church sanctuary—or even the fellowship hall. 

It is worth noting what this movement cost us. At many times and in many ways, thorough discipleship and theological rigor have been sacrificed on the altar of mass appeal. 

It would be dishonest to deny that a crisis of discipleship has occurred within the Church Growth and seeker sensitive movements, something that even very large and established churches would readily admit. In recent years, many have begun to implement new systems that they hope will take people from being mere church attenders to genuine Jesus followers. In many cases, it is an uphill battle.

But does this tendency toward superficiality—which must seriously be addressed—mean that the entire movement itself was a fool’s errand, full of ecclesiological error and theological compromise? Absolutely not. 

Nevertheless, that isn’t a conclusion that is universally agreed upon within the evangelical movement. To some, “At the Movies” is the living embodiment of everything that is wrong with American evangelicalism. 

But as someone who has seen unchurched or only lightly churched friends deeply impacted by sermons delivered during “At the Movies,” and as someone who himself has been provoked to genuine spiritual reflection by the same, I gotta say: I don’t see it. 

Certainly, there are honest discussions to be had about the allocation of church budgets. But those discussions are best had among the leaders of your church about your church, rather than another church you saw online. 

Likewise, there are honest discussions to be had about whether certain seeker sensitive tactics that worked really well in 2008 are equally effective in 2023. Particularly when we consider the spotty execution of these tactics among small to mid-sized churches, church leaders would be wise to consider whether they are making themselves look foolish more than they are attracting the unchurched members of their community to Jesus. 

What’s more is that with each passing year, series like “At the Movies” seem to draw more and more criticism, both from within the evangelical church and in the broader culture. This is worth considering, even if it is not determinative. 

But, again, these are discussions that church leaders should be having about their own church—not about churches two states over from where they live and about whom they only learned through a viral video on social media.

Just because you wouldn’t use the same outreach methods as certain other churches, that doesn’t mean they deserve your judgment or constant online criticism.

One comment that has stood out to me during this whole online kerfuffle about “At the Movies” came from someone who said that Life.Church “would do anything short of sin to see someone come to their church.” Only, he meant it as a dig instead of a compliment. That struck me as strange. 

Are we not called to “become all things to all people so that by all possible means” we might save some (1 Corinthians 9:22)? Is it not the most important thing that we introduce people to Jesus, by whatever means we must draw them, and then to walk alongside them in their journey toward spiritual maturity? 

In practice, how to most effectively accomplish this mission is a complicated question, and we won’t all agree on how to move forward. For instance, some pastors are willing to preach their entire sermon while dressed up as Luke Skywalker from Star Wars or Bowser from Super Mario Brothers. Others sense that another way might be more effective.

Nevertheless, even amid these disagreements, we can still agree on the centrality of the mission. 

Furthermore, I think we can afford to be more invested in how our own local expressions of the church are seeking to carry out the mission, and a little less invested in how other churches—whose pastors, leaders, and members we don’t even know—are seeking to do the same.