I love movies and I love youth ministry. These worlds often overlap when I’m preparing a lesson and use a scene or a movie clip becomes to illustrate my point. The thing is, I’m guilty of using movies as tools instead of first receiving them as art. I’ve talked about movies that no teenager has ever heard of, as well as tried to reference the latest teen-marketed movie in order to appear hip and with it. Neither of these approaches worked very well.

Still, I believe film is a powerful medium, and movies are the most ubiquitous works of art in our culture. So how do we effectively use movies as illustrations in our sermons and lessons? Here are five suggestions:

  1. Review a movie before you use it. Watch the film and become familiar with the story before you use the scene or clip. When we take a particular scene out of context from the rest of the film, we may do a disservice to both the movie and our youth group. Many of the movie-based sermon illustrations I’ve seen had little to do with the movie’s message, story, or themes as a whole. This is simply bad exegesis of a film; it’s movie eisegesis, taking a movie and using it for our own gain, regardless of the filmmaker’s intent. It’s a pop culture proof text. We don’t want to model poor movie-watching with our young people, nor do we want to inadvertently recommend a film neither they or we should be watching.
  1. Start with your point, then find a movie. Illustrate the truth you’re communicating with a movie that explains or illuminates your point, not the other way around. Don’t start with a movie you find cool or exciting then determine how to fit it into your talk. I’ve known youth workers who really liked a particular movie and just built a whole lesson around it, trying to cram God’s Word in between plot summary and movie clips. Or they’ve just shown an entire movie in place of a lesson plan, likely because they ran out of prep time that week. Make sure the film aligns with the truth you’re communicating, and make sure you have adequate time to truly communicate God’s Word.
  1. Don’t use movies as filler. Showing a movie clip as a commercial break for your talk in order to keep students engaged sends an unhealthy message: “Movies are meant for mindless entertainment, so I’ll turn my brain off now.” Youth workers are notorious for using funny stories or YouTube clips which have literally nothing to do with the point of the lesson. This models two unhealthy postures to youth: 1) The spiritual truth you’re trying to communicate isn’t that exciting or important, and 2) Movies are diversions, not thought-provoking art.
  1. Use technology well. If you choose to show a movie clip in the middle of your lesson, make sure the clip begins and ends right when you want. Test the clip beforehand to make sure the image and volume are ready. If you’re streaming from the Internet, load the scene beforehand, and don’t rely on WiFi if possible. If done right, showing a movie clip can be effective and affecting; if the DVD skips, the scene plays too long, the volume is too quiet or loud, or the Internet fails, your whole lesson can be derailed.
  1. Use movie-related resources. There are plenty of websites, film critics, and books that can help youth workers be more effective in watching and using films. Many production companies provide downloadable discussion guides for their movies. Ask other youth workers and pastors about movies they’ve found effective. I know this is totally self-promoting, but I’ve written a book, Jesus Goes to the Movies: The Youth Ministry Film Guide, to be such a resource for youth workers. Don’t feel like you have to figure it out alone or avoid using movies altogether—look to others’ resources and experiences to be more effective.

In fact, let’s create a movie resource here: Share your favorite movies you’ve used as illustrations in the comments below! What was the passage of Scripture or truth behind the movie scene?

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About The Author

Joel Mayward is a pastor, writer, youth worker, and aspiring film critic. The author of three books, he has written for numerous ministry publications, including Leadership Journal, YouthWorker Journal, The Youth Cartel, Immerse Journal, and LeaderTreks. Joel has been serving in youth ministry since 2003 and lives with his wife and three children in the beautiful green-and-grey of the Pacific Northwest. You can read his musings on film, theology, culture, and leadership at his blog, www.joelmayward.com. Follow Joel on Twitter: @joelmayward.