Facing the Hollywood Giants — and Winning

Facing the Hollywood Giants — and Winning

There was a girl named Alicia who said her dad had abandoned her and her siblings years ago, but he showed up for her brother’s wedding. When there was a break in the festivities, she and her sister took him to see Courageous. They were sitting in the theater watching the film and her dad began to cry. During the film’s climatic church scene, where men are urged to declare their commitment to become better husbands, fathers, and leaders, Alicia’s dad stood up alone in front of the whole theater in response to the film’s virtual altar call. Soon, other men stood up in front of their seats. Alicia and her sister began to cry. That moment, she said, was the beginning of a needed healing process for her entire family.

In Panama, 700 police officers gathered from across their nation to watch Courageous because they had heard so much about it. When they left the theater, they couldn’t stop talking about how they could follow the film’s call to action and sign a resolution to be men of honor. They said they could change Panama if government servants like them would operate in integrity.

There was a soldier who had served in Afghanistan. He’d gotten hooked on a pain medication that caused him and his family to fall quickly into a downward spiral. He watched Courageous then called his wife and said, “I have to do the courageous thing to save my family, so I’m checking myself into rehab. I now have hope.”

A man had blocked out of his mind that he had fathered a child out of wedlock when he was in college. Now decades later, after seeing Courageous, he realized he needed to reconnect with that child. “God wants to turn the hearts of children back to their fathers and fathers back to their children,” he said.

These are four of the over 320,000 Facebook posts written as a result of people, especially fathers, seeing the film Courageous and sharing their life-changing stories. After a successful four-month run in theaters last fall, Courageous was released on DVD and Blu-ray Disc last week.

SENDING HOLLYWOOD A MESSAGE: 'Courageous' producer and Sherwood Pictures co-founder Stephen Kendrick.

Stephen Kendrick and his brother Alex, both ministers at Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia, are the filmmakers behind Courageous; the brothers co-wrote the script, Stephen produced, and Alex directed and starred in the film as police officer Adam Mitchell. The Kendricks, whose film company Sherwood Pictures previously produced such features as Facing the Giants and Fireproof, have become the Tyler Perrys of evangelical Christian movies, creating immensely popular films on a relatively small budget.

Courageous, in fact, was more successful than Fireproof in its first weekend, grossing $9 million ($2.2 million more than Fireproof), making it the No. 4 movie the week of its debut, and No. 1 if you take into account that the film opened against movies with three times as many screens as Courageous and budgets 20 times more than its $2 million production cost. The film went on to gross $34.5 million at the box office.

God Opening Doors

Stephen Kendrick can’t help but be pleased with the success of Courageous, but contrary to what some might think, he did not go on a wild spending frenzy or flaunt his success as a sign of his arrival in the big time. Instead, with each success he’s become more humble. Kendrick is quick to assign the credit for Sherwood Pictures’ good fortune to God’s answer to fervent prayer. From their first movie, Flywheel (2003), which was produced with $20,000 and ran successfully for six weeks at a single location in Albany; to 2006’s Facing the Giants, which was made for $100,000 and grossed $10 million; to 2008’s Fireproof — $500,000 budget, $33 million gross; and now Courageous, Stephen says it has been God who has opened doors.

Starting with the backing of their church of the movie ministry, and later the backing of Provident Films and TriStar Pictures, success still means giving back to God through supporting their church, their families, and others, with the aim of bringing attention to God’s message of hope.

Kendrick says their goal is to keep improving, and to a large degree they have made much headway in their efforts to do so. However, the stinging reviews of critics such as Rotten Tomatoes, the L.A. Times, and New York’s Village Voice hangs in the air. Stephen, in his customary humility, addresses the critics of Courageous this way: “People don’t need to be afraid of critics and criticism, because sometimes they are your best friends to help you realize how you can grow and how you can do better. When we have read reviews, whether on Rotten Tomatoes or Christian websites, and have seen consistent trends where different people are noticing the same things, then we know that we have to address those issues.”

At the same time, says Kendrick, some of the reviews were clearly anti-Christian anything, good or bad, or so far in leftfield that they did not bear much thought. However, one of the recurring criticisms of the film, from both secular and Christian reviewers, was that it was overly preachy. Kendrick doesn’t back away from that critique.

AS FOR ME AND MY HOUSE: In 'Courageous,' Ken Bevel portrays Nathan Hayes, a dedicated police officer trying to avoid the mistakes his absentee father made.

“Every movie preaches,” he says. “The religion of the world is externalized in their art, you look at James Cameron’s movie Avatar; he’s preaching a message about environmentalism and saving the earth. In our situation, when people know that we are Christians, they automatically are super hypersensitive for any kind of [religious] messages to be in the movie, especially when we have been didactic or use dialogue more than imagery to convey the message.”

The charge that the movie “unabashedly preaches to the choir” is right on target, Kendrick says.

“We do want to preach first to the choir, because the church doesn’t need to tell the world to get their marriages together if we don’t have our marriages together. We don’t apologize for it because we believe that God has led us in that direction. Our number one audience is the church. If you look at the way Jesus taught, he taught parables to the masses and the messages were embedded or hidden in the storyline, and then he taught by preaching, like the Sermon on the Mount, up front and overt to his audience. Our movies have been more like the latter. We’re not against doing the symbolic parable type movies, and if the Lord leads us that way, we’ll do it.”

Aiming for Eternal Fruit

Criticisms notwithstanding, overall audiences viewed Courageous as a life-changing film — not simply one that will prompt an emotional buzz and a superficial tear, but one that truly gives viewers, and especially men, something to think about in their personal lives.

And although Kendrick would love to see Hollywood take note of Sherwood Pictures’ success and begin producing more positive fare, his primary aim is to transform souls.

“Eternal fruit is our ultimate goal,” he says. “We pray for fruit that remains. Movies will come and go. Sending a message to Hollywood, or seeing Hollywood make more redemptive movies, those are nice secondary benefits. But our hope is that people will find a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.”

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Tweet your entries until Monday, January 30, 2012. We’ll randomly select THREE names from among our qualifying Twitter followers and notify the winners the next day. The odds of winning depend on the number of entries we receive. Though you’re welcome to retweet as many times as you’d like, there’s a limit of one contest entry per Twitter follower for the giveaway. Comments must be received by January 30, 2012, at 11:59 p.m. Central Time in order to qualify. The retail value of the DVD is $24.99. No purchase is necessary to enter or win, and the giveaway is void where prohibited.

Truth vs. Penn State

Truth vs. Penn State

SPEAKING OUT: Penn State University students (from left) Evan Ponter, Alicia Archangel, and Ryan Kristobak protest outside of Penn State's administrative building in State College, Pennsylvania., on Nov. 8. Football coach Joe Paterno was fired the next day. (Photo: Newscom)

It is the kind of scandal that just doesn’t belong in the sports pages — the athletic stadium is supposed to be a place for retreat and hope. As in October 2001, when in the thick of post-9/11 perplexity the New York Yankees nourished the nation in a collective daydream. Or in February 2010, when the New Orleans Saints won Super Bowl XLIV, just four years after Hurricane Katrina had devastated their city. Save the conspiracy theories, these and other moments of sports history — think, for example, of Jackie Robinson, Hank Greenberg, and Arthur Ashe — prove that sports often transcend the realm of simple athletics to signify something greater. These moments provide humanity with an opportunity to recess (in the truest sense) and affirm the goodness, or at least the possibility of goodness, in a broken world.

In other moments, sports reveal more broken images of humanity. As in October 1988, when holier-than-thou Notre Dame played then-troubled Miami University, in a game marketed by Notre Dame students as “Catholics vs. Convicts.” Yuck. Or worse: when the stability of a college football program is justifiable reason to cover up the sexual abuse of multiple children over multiple years.

Let’s be clear: There is nothing GOOD about the Penn State story. As an advocate for child rights, I cringe at every new detail. But whether any good comes out of this story depends on how much we pay attention. Even the worst story has a few good lessons. I’ll tell you what we won’t learn.

We won’t learn what students actually learn at Penn State. Not from the thousands of kids who rioted and destroyed their own property in the name of a coach who was complicit in the abuse of multiple children. I’m worried about the lapse in critical thinking that allows college students to be so reckless. That’s formidable ignorance.

DEFENDING JOE PA: Penn State students showed their support for their football team's former coach, Joe Paterno, prior to the school's Nov. 12 game against Nebraska. Paterno was fired earlier that week. (Photo by Matthew O'Haren/Newscom)

We won’t learn about the college football program those students love so dearly. As you may already know, the NCAA is already involved in a vapid hypocrisy around the (unfair?) treatment of college athletes. It goes like this: colleges make a LOT of money, student athletes make none, and can face harsh violations if they even accept a free lunch. I know college life — I’m taking all free lunches.

Penn State is yet another cog in a wheel that needs destroying. They protected a known sexual predator (yes, they knew; we’ll get to that), and for obvious reasons. Think now: Penn State’s football program brings in $50 million a season — on a bad year. That income stream depends upon the stability of TV contracts and bowl appearances. Gotta have a good team for that. Gotta have good players for that. Gotta win recruits for that.

What do you think would happen if a recruit found out that the defensive coordinator of the football team was a child molester? A lot of greasy palms get dry very fast. Can’t happen. So when a family comes forward — in 1998, mind you — with allegations of abuse against Jerry Sandusky, Penn State allows him to retire, quietly and comfortably, with emeritus status. District attorney decides not to pursue charges, police drop case, Sandusky keeps an office at Penn State. In 2010, Jerry leaves the charity he founded — The Second Mile — citing “personal matters” he needs to handle. Here’s what’s personal: another child came forward, told the charity, and they flipped. The only reason they didn’t call CNN immediately? Penn State. It’s not that they want to protect Jerry Sandusky, but they have to protect Penn State football.

In doing this, the university has placed a value on children’s safety — a cardinal sin that occurs daily outside of sports — and Penn State football just made my “Not a Fan” list (your list might be named something different). The bitter irony in all this protecting and shadowing is Penn State didn’t even win a National Championship from 1998-2010! They can’t even do wrong right.

We can’t learn much from Jerry Sandusky, except for how to pass “Go” many times before heading to Jail (a higher authority will deal with our frustration — check Matthew 18). You don’t wanna be Jerry Sandusky.

Neither are the innocent children in the scope of our learning. All they have are my prayers for a fulfilling life to overcome the dark days ahead.

That leaves Joe Paterno, the legendary football coach and resident idol of State College, Pennsylvania (“icon” is too soft a word). He is at the center of all this. Remember those riotous college students? The college football cover-up? The continuous flow of children that Sandusky had access to because nobody wanted to spoil the pot? Keep pulling that string … Joe Paterno is holding the other end.

He’ll have you to think he’s a victim — gotta love those folksy, front-lawn press conferences — but let’s be clear: the ONLY victims are the young boys (now men) who must live in shame of being exploited in their vulnerability. Everyone else here is a casualty of the cowardice of Joe Paterno. Let me explain.

ABSOLUTE POWER: Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. Before his firing on Nov. 9, Paterno had been a coach at Penn State since 1950. It was revealed today that he's battling lung cancer. (Photo by Scott Audette/Newscom)

When families came forward in 1998, the president and board of Penn State turned to “Joe Pa,” and he took no decisive action. When then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary found Sandusky in the showers performing sexual acts with a 10-year-old boy in 2002, the first person at the university he told was Paterno.

The jury is still out on why McQueary didn’t go directly to the police. Did he not know that sexual abuse is a criminal act? More than that: How powerful are you that if someone is being raped, people call YOU before the police? Try to grasp that.

Nevertheless, Paterno had a chance to take immediate action in the 2002 incident but didn’t. Instead, he waited a full day before reporting the information to Penn State’s athletic director, and even then nothing was reported to the police. The administrators who were technically Paterno’s superiors worked to cover up the mess that was brewing, and both have been arrested and charged as a result. But even then, Paterno could have stepped in and made sure Sandusky’s alleged crimes were reported to the authorities. But that didn’t happen.

It’s easy to see now that Penn State’s reputation, and the preservation of its precious football program, were the chief concerns of these adult individuals who could’ve put an immediate stop to Sandusky’s interaction with children.

The teachable moment is yes, absolute power corrupts (and Joe Pa’s power was pretty absolute), but also that genuine leadership means the power and permission to change or destroy lives. If you have enough authority to save a life, you can probably ruin one as well.

Those are the conversations I hope students at Penn State and elsewhere will begin having in the aftermath of this tragedy. For America has an unquenchable entrepreneurial spirit — we are training leaders and affirming the use of power and influence to make this world better. But there is such a thing as integrity and justice. And for a few years, the most powerful man in the state of Pennsylvania lost sight of that. Look what happened.

Future leaders: take notice.

We Need a Higher Standard

Has the Black church lowered its expectations regarding its pastors? According to Rev. Eric Redmond, the Eddie Long scandal provides us with an opportunity to reevaluate what’s required of our church leaders and to reclaim a biblical standard.

The allegations against Bishop Eddie Long are horrifying and disgraceful, but not necessarily shocking. For, unfortunately, many well-known Christian leaders of large ministries have made the choice of stepping outside of their marriages into sexual immorality. Even more unfortunate is that we, as African Americans, often excuse our morally failing leaders as people who are mere men or victims of white conspiracies. But sinners are not victims; they are fallen people who make choices.

Yesterday, in front of his Atlanta congregation, Bishop Long finally addressed the accusations that were leveled against him. He was right in saying the case should not be tried in the media, and it is not my intention to imply the man’s guilt in this space. Until proven otherwise, he deserves the presumption of innocence.

For pastors like myself, however, the allegations against Long should cause us all to pause and seek the Lord for more mercy and grace upon our own souls: “Lord, lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.” But this sad episode also provides an opportunity for all believers to consider what we should expect of our Christian ministers in terms of character and morality, and what to do when pastors make choices that disqualify them for leadership.

What We Should Expect

First, churches should expect their pastors to be men who walk in holiness before God. All of us are called to be holy, for our God is holy (1 Pet. 1:16). But pastors are called to live at a higher standard of Christian behavior than that of the general believer. When the qualifications for pastors (elders) are given in Scripture, the pastor is expected to be a man who meets the full composite of the qualifications (1 Tim. 3:1-8; Tit. 1:5-9). Many of these qualifications concern the pastor’s personal holiness: “self-controlled,” “not a drunkard,” “not a lover of money,” “upright,” and “holy.” These qualifications should characterize the pastor throughout his tenure as a pastor, not simply during his candidate period at a church. This is the only way in which he can remain above the reproach of his people.

Second, churches should expect their pastors to be men who model Christ. Again, all of us are called to follow Christ and our Lord’s walk before God the Father. In a more significant way, pastors must set an example of Christ for others to follow. At all times we must be able to say to our people, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1, ESV). We are to “set an example to the believers … in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12).

Fighting for Survival: On Sunday, Bishop Eddie Long finally addressed the allegations leveled against him by four accusers. The unfolding saga illustrates the importance of pastors being “above reproach” in both their ministries and personal lives. (Image from New Life Missionary Baptist Church)

Believers are commanded to consider how their leaders live and imitate them (Heb. 13:7). If our people cannot see an example of Christ in us — including keeping our bodies pure from immorality — they cannot follow Christ by following us. To put it differently, our stead as pastors is no greater than our ability to say, “You can please Christ; just follow me and I will show you how to do it.” We have no credibility or meaningful role in evangelizing sinners if our message only is “God can change and keep you, but he cannot do the same for me.”

Third, churches should expect their pastors to be men who keep their marriage vows faithfully. Pastors must be “[husbands] of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2; 1:6). The man of God must be one who keeps his marriage vows. This means that he should not be a man of remarriage, adultery, pornography-watching or addiction, or bisexual and/or down-low relationships, for each of these items stands in opposition to fidelity in marriage to one woman. This is an issue where lesser understandings and disobedience to this Scripture are harmful to our churches, and of which we, as African Americans in particular, need to raise our standards, for at least two reasons:

  1. The African American family needs to hear and see modeled the message of the gospel and its significance for the family so that our families and community might be rescued from destruction. The social indicators of African Americans, including high divorce rates, high percentage of children growing up in single-parent homes, and high numbers of single, marriageable-age women — some of whom are now blaming the Black Church for the problem of their singleness — all point toward the need for the strengthening of the African American marriage and family. Couple this with the large numbers of African Americans who are members of churches, and you will see that there is an opportunity for the church to lead the way in repairing the ruins of the African American community. The repair work starts with the church being a place in which marriage is held in high honor. Typically this happens in places where a pastor holds his own marriage is high honor.
  2. The gospel story itself is most readily portrayed and explained by the mystery of marriage. The gospel is the story of Christ giving his blood in death and rising from the dead in power in order to beautify the bride the he will wed in her final salvation (Eph. 5:25-32; Rev. 21:1-4). The gospel we proclaim to the world inherently says, “Do you want to see what salvation is like? It is like a perfect marriage between the Perfect Man and the perfect woman in perfect marital bliss forever and ever! Come get what you have always wanted in life!” We, the believers, are that bride that Christ is beautifying. We are the ones who should be able to say, “Christ will make your life like a great marriage; just look at my marriage” (or “my purity as a single believer,” cf. 1 Cor. 7:32-38; 2 Cor. 11:2-4).

Pastors should be the leaders in their congregation in preaching and living out the gospel — the story of the Perfect and Eternal Marriage. Otherwise, how can his people trust his word on marriage? When he says, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church,” will he have any credibility? Can his members trust that his counsel on marriage will work for them if God’s power did not work for him? Instead of questioning their pastors, congregations should be able to trust their pastors as men who fear the Lord in all areas, including in their bedrooms (cf. Heb. 13:4).

When the Pastor Falls

Many of you might be rightfully wondering at this point, If a pastor fails in his marriage, what should happen next? There are no easy answers to this. Simply put, having not met the qualities of a pastor, that man is biblically obligated to step down from his role as leader of his congregation immediately. If he does not step down, his congregation should ask him to step down. This may seem harsh, but consider the alternative message you are sending to his wife, children, and the watching world that is in need of redemption. The wife and children are, in effect, being told that the church is not there to hold the head of their household accountable to the gospel. Thus, he can live two lives before them and God’s people and there is nothing his family can expect the church to do.

Moreover, we tell the world that our gospel is a sham and powerless. We appear to be people who say, “Well, you do not really have to live like a Christian in order to be one, or be a member of the church. We’ll prove it to you: just look at our pastor!” This is shameful, but it also is what we do when we allow immoral men to remain in their pulpits, and it is commonly accepted in the African American church. We must remember that, unlike King David or President Clinton, a pastor cannot divorce his work from his life, for his work is a message that must be modeled in order to be proclaimed with credibility and the power of the Spirit of God.

Let me be clear that requiring an immoral man to step down from his position as pastor is not a question of the man’s gifts or of his internal calling (which is subjective). It is a matter of his qualifications — his external calling, which are objective and verifiable for every man, regardless of his spiritual and natural gifts. Such a man may be gifted as a teacher and preacher. However, this does not mean he needs a pulpit. Instead, he needs repentance, marital counseling, brotherly accountability, a pattern of faithfulness in his marriage, and to make amends with the congregation that he has harmed. His gifts may be used to do outreach in the community or to teach a Bible study. But, at that point, he is not qualified to lead a congregation.

The fall of a pastor is a serious matter for the church as we seek to glorify God in all things. It must mean the end of a pastor’s tenure as his church’s pastor. Thankfully, because of the blood and resurrection of Christ, it does not mean the end of his salvation. For his fall is only a fall from his qualification for the pulpit. It is not a fall from the grace and mercy that secures our salvation in Christ.