Stories that demonstrate love but skip the sermon

Written by Steve Norton

I have a problem with faith-based films.

That may not be what you’d expect me to say in a faith-based magazine but it’s true. Historically, most faith-based films simply lack quality. While good films try to subtly show what impacts their characters, faith-based movies usually become preachy—with Bible studies that shape the action and conversions that feel forced.

Like sermons on a Sunday morning, Christians see the Big Screen as a way to communicate the gospel and help them reach both people who are not yet believers and those who already are. When done well, these films can be a powerful mode of storytelling that helps bring God‘s truth to the masses.

And there have been a few successful examples in the past. Tyler Perry’s Madea franchise, a comedic series of movies and plays with deeper moral messages, is arguably one of the most successful franchises in history. The Chosen, a fictional series on the life of Jesus,and the Jesus Film both became global phenomena.

If we really believe that we know the best Story, we should be amazing storytellers!

But, too often, faith-based films feed us Scripture in overly simplistic or even offensive ways. (For example, I once saw a film where the main character was told that she suffered a miscarriage because she didn’t pray hard enough.)

But maybe things are starting to change.

In 2023 alone, Jesus Revolution and Big George Foreman are both major releases that have made some waves in the faith-based market. Both historical stories, these films have tried to reshape the way our faith looks onscreen.

Jesus Revolution follows the American spiritual revival of the 1960s and 70s and Big George Foreman unravels the fascinating life and career of the former Heavyweight Champion of the World. There’s a number of similarities between the two films. Both stories focus on a person whose life seems to crash and burn and then, shows the transformational impact that faith can have in a person’s life.

These pieces fit very neatly into the “faith-based mold” but then, they do something different. They are more honest.

First, let’s look at Big George Foreman. Directed and co-written by George Tillman Jr., the film focuses on the rise and fall of one of boxing’s greatest legends. George Foreman was a man who climbed the highest of heights in the ring, dropped into obscurity as a pastor and then, later in life, had to begin the climb all over again. (And yes, he sold a lot of grills as well.)

Instead of forcing awkward messages or “altar calls” into the narrative, Tillman Jr. highlights the ways Foreman’s faith gives him strength in the midst of trials. Hope and spiritual belief affects every aspect of his story yet, somehow, Foreman’s beliefs feel more authentic and less forced. In short, the film “shows” faith, not just “tells” about it.

At the same time, Jesus Revolution delves into some themes that other faith-based stories usually neglect. Directed by Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle, the film tracks the journey of American evangelist Greg Laurie as he finds renewal in the Jesus Movement amongst hippies. The story shows the power of the Church when it truly welcomes the broken like Christ did.

Jesus Revolution also begins to delve into issues of toxicity within church leadership. For a genre that traditionally likes to show how great the Church can be, it’s rare for films to show that this holy refuge is just as broken as anywhere else. Coming at a time when church scandals have become horrifyingly common, Jesus Revolution at least feels like it’s being more honest about church culture than other films from the faith-based world.

Admittedly, both films have moments that don’t work. A scene of hippies praying for Laurie’s car to start so that he can go on a date seems unintentionally silly, whether it really happened or not. (And Greg Laurie’s post-credits message feels forced.) Although brief, Foreman’s conversion scene feels awkward in its portrayal.

But both films are definitely a step in the right direction. Each story conveys that faith doesn’t always require a sermon. The very best films show God’s love and power onscreen through action, not merely word. After all, if Christ has truly impacted our lives, it changes everything about our stories. So, let’s get better at telling them.

Steve Norton is a writer and podcaster based in Toronto, ON; he’s also an editor at ScreenFish. Read more from “Behind the screens” column.