Engaging a New Generation through Media

Twenty years ago, I led a group of young people on a tour through England with the stage show “Toymaker & Son.” After performing on a makeshift stage in a packed room at a local YMCA, I felt inspired to take the microphone and communicate a vision that had been emerging in my life. I still remember the curious looks my wife and several close friends gave me as I proclaimed that “we were called to reach a sight and sound generation with the gospel of Jesus Christ through music, theater and film.” Pretty bold words for the assistant principal of a Christian school in Oklahoma, USA. Now, after three internationally touring live shows, two documentary films, over fifty television commercials, two internationally broadcast children's series, two feature-length movies and the current theatrical release of a new film, I look back in wonder that I’m still here, pursuing that same vision.

Of course the cultural, political and spiritual landscape of the world has changed since that day in England. However, the need to reach a sight and sound generation has not. Saying that today's culture is consumed and controlled by media is overstating the obvious. From films, books, television and videogames, media and the art of storytelling have become the currency of culture and influence in our world. And though it's often an unconventional method within the body of Christ, I can't think of a greater place to communicate the stories and truths of God than through these mediums.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus chose some unconventional means of his own to communicate his message. He toured the countryside and told stories. Though it hardly seemed like an effective means of communicating such important truth, there he was talking about farmers, wedding banquets, wineskins and mustard seeds. Of course our modern Bible translations with their comprehensive footnotes can tell us exactly what each of these stories meant. But the meanings weren't that clear for those who were actually there, not even for the twelve disciples. So with a message so important, why not just come out and tell people exactly what he meant? In the Gospel of Mark we find the disciples asking Jesus a similar question to which he responds, “You've been given insight into God's kingdom—you know how it works. But to those who can't see it yet, everything comes in stories, creating readiness, nudging them toward receptive insight…All my stories work this way” (Mark 4:10-13; The Message). Philosopher and literary critic Kenneth Burke says that “stories are equipment for living.” From his ministry on earth, this seems to be an idea that Jesus understood quite well. And it’s a remarkable thing that the God who incarnated himself as a man also chose to incarnate eternal truths through an equally unexpected means.

If I wanted to convince or educate an audience of the terrible dangers that great white sharks pose to beach-going vacationers, I could probably deliver a moving speech packed with relevant facts and startling statistics. And I might actually persuade a handful of people to spend their vacations away from salt water. But in 1975 a director by the name of Steven Spielberg devastated the beach tourism industry with his thrilling story Jaws. Consider also: Bambi, which tells of the evils of hunting; Cider House Rules, which persuades that abortion is a humane and necessary practice; and Mary Poppins, which reminds busy fathers to spend more time with their children. It seems that a well-told story is the greatest way to make an idea—be it true or false—come alive.


Scene from the movie End of the Spear

End of the Spear
Last year I co-produced the film End of the Spear with Every Tribe Entertainment, which was released in theaters 20 January. The movie is based on the true story of the five martyred missionaries made famous by Elisabeth Elliot's book, Through Gates of Splendor. Countless sermons, news articles and books have told the story over the last fifty years. From the beginning of the creative process, it was our desire to incarnate the eternal truths of forgiveness, sacrifice and love within a well-told story uniquely suited to film. Most people have heard the story from the viewpoint of the missionaries (Jim Elliot, Pete Fleming, Ed McCully, Nate Saint and Roger Youderian), but through the direction of veteran film maker Bill Ewing, executive producer Mart Green, and director Jim Hanon, we approached the story from the virtually unknown perspective of the violent Waodani tribe who killed them. Not many know that in the few years after the missionaries’ deaths, the Waodani changed from being the most violent tribe in documented history to a peaceful people. Even today, many in the tribe call themselves “God followers.” When I look back, I don’t think we could have found a better way to encapsulate the truth of God’s power to change the human soul than through the story of a tribe who lived through such an incredible transformation. After screening the film with critics, church groups and prominent Christian leaders, we were overjoyed with the predominantly positive response. Of course there are some who might have preferred that the film include more references to God or more detailed information on how a sinner can become saved. But as the filmmakers and storytellers for End of the Spear, our focus was just that—to make a film and tell a story.

The Chronicles of Narnia
In recent months C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia entered the cultural landscape with a huge presence. Much has been said of Lewis’ belief that a story can sneak truth past what he called “the watchful dragons” of a hardened heart or unreceptive audience. Judging by book sales and movie receipts from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, one could probably say that Lewis not only sneaked past these “dragons,” he also slayed them. I hope this will serve as a reminder to other Christian artists, authors and filmmakers who desire to express eternal truth to this generation.

In 1988 and 1989, our company, Impact Productions (www.daretomakecontact.com), was given the remarkable opportunity to slip past the “watchful dragons” of Communist Russia with the live dance show “A Toymaker’s Dream.” Before we came, I made sure to clearly outline the symbolic, biblical meaning of our show to the Russian officials who would allow us entrance into their country. I even told them that our reason for coming to Russia was to tell the Soviet people that God loves them. Their response was surprising: “Do you think we are stupid? We could see all that from watching your show. But you cannot say those kinds of things in our country. Do you understand?” Of course we gladly accepted an offer that allowed us to demonstrate the love of Jesus through a story, rather than just telling the Soviet people about it. To this day, I am still amazed at the warm embrace we received from this strongly atheist nation.

As Christians, our countless rapture stories and bath-robed sermons have left a funny aftertaste in people's mouths. We often pack so much message in our stories that they are stripped of enjoyment and effectiveness. Though such heavy handed efforts have been applauded in years past, in many ways it has only encouraged others to tell even more stories through such ineffective means. John Akers, publisher of Christianity Today, bluntly asks, “Where are the creative men and women—the writers, artists, filmmakers—who will capture the imagination of our confused world in the name of Christ?” I pray that many young people will begin to answer this call to the media and engage a new generation with well-told stories. Only when this happens will we reach a sight and sound generation.

Tom Newman is founder and president of Impact Productions. As a producer his work includes the feature film "End of the Spear," the children's series "Pahappahooey Island" and the holiday film "Christmas Child."