Turn the Lights Down Low and Enjoy the Show: Watching Environmental Films in Church

[Ed. note: This article is part of our weekly series of church activities, called Cultivating Community, published on Thursdays.]

Food, Inc.: A movie only for those who eat.

Some movies are church-audience-friendly: Fireproof; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; and the Left Behind series, to name a few. But unfortunately, the majority of films with creation care-related themes are not created with Christian audiences in mind. Some of the footage, attitudes, and alliances of these movies can be repugnant to Christian sensibilities.

Yet, at the same time, a lot of the content in these films resonates with Christians. After all, the subject matter concerns the very work of our Creator. So we can’t ignore environmental films (see Christianity Today’s recent article on the importance of a balanced approach to movie-watching).

Indeed, followers of Christ have every reason to be informed about issues related to his creation and our reliance on it. As Christians, we can interpret even the most despairing environmental documentary through the lens of hope granted us by the Resurrection, and we can clearly see the work of God’s spirit in beautiful films that might honor only creation, and not the Creator. In short, we can make the conversation around environmental films saltier and brighter by participating in it.

Still, even conversations around movies at church can get a little gnarly and uncomfortable. So here’s a guide to leading an environmental film discussion at your church in a way that will keep the conversation respectful, God-honoring, and even inspiring.

Hosting an Environmental Film Discussion

1. Choose a Film
The movie pick is paramount. Although a lot of environmental films deal with difficult subject matter, it is absolutely possible to pick a movie that will be informative without being gratuitous. A list of appropriate films follows these instructions.

  • Consider your audience. Will this be a family-friendly movie-watching event or a gathering for adults only? While the Motion Picture Association of America ratings system can be helpful in making these decisions, a website like Commonsense Media digs deeper into the what makes a film appropriate or inappropriate given children’s level of development.
  • Pre-screen your choice. This goes without saying if you want to lead a helpful discussion of the film, but watch the movie ahead of time so that you can also give an accurate description and help to others as they discern whether they (or their children) should watch it.

2. Set the Mood
A movie advertised as “an environmental documentary exploring the economic effect of cheap corn development for ethanol production” might not draw the crowds to the box office, so be sure to sweeten the deal by making it a truly entertaining experience.

  • Choose an inviting location—a home, church youth center, or a cozy classroom—in which to screen the film. Make sure the space is large enough to accommodate all the viewers (if you will be in a small space, consider asking church members to sign up ahead of time, and capping the guest list at a reasonable number), and if you are relegated to the church basement, bring some pillows or comfy chairs for people to relax in.
  • Provide good food and drink for the movie-goers. You may want to theme your refreshment choices according to the

    Earth is a great film for kids AND adults.

    movie: Watching a film about community? Have a pot luck. Watching Supersize Me? Well, you can decide if you all want to eat McDonald’s or not.

  • Make sure everything is working and in place ahead of time. Providing a screen large enough to view the movie comfortably and ensuring that the DVD and viewing system work are important parts of hosting a successful screening.
  • Pray and do a round of introductions before starting the movie. Prayer will establish that this event is being held to glorify God and better know him, and introductions will put people at ease, making way for more productive conversation after the film.

3. Open the Floor
Watching films without discussing them tempts us to consume culture as entertainment, instead of engaging with it as art and information. Tips for a healthy and helpful discussion with church members:

  • Set ground rules for discussion. Determine ahead of time if participants can only talk after raising their hands, or if the discussion facilitator has the authority to call on respondents and guide conversation. Most of all, encourage everyone to engage in conversation that is respectful and God-honoring.
  • Present a list of questions to guide discussion. These might include:
    • What did you learn about God, people, or creation from the film?
    • What did you agree or resonate with? What did you disagree with or not understand?
    • Do you have any stories or experiences that relate to the thematic content of the film?
    • How should Christians approach the issues covered in the film?
    • Will you change any aspect of your lifestyle, behavior, or thinking after seeing this film?
    • What is one thing from the movie that will stick with you for a few days after this screening?

4. Fill in the Blanks
Although a movie screening is a singular experience, the purpose of it is to encourage ongoing learning and development. Here are some ways to extend that learning beyond the two hours spent in front of the screen:

  • Provide handouts that contain supplementary helpful information. These can be a list of statistics cited in the film (statistics are easily forgotten, and it is often more helpful to see them on paper), newspaper or magazine articles that provide a context for the issues addressed in the film, important quotes from the film, or a list of suggestions for addressing the film’s themes in your own life. For example, if you watch Food, Inc., you may want to provide viewers with a list of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) providers in the area, so that they can get fresh, local, and responsibly raised food. Check out localharvest.org to find CSAs near you.
  • Follow the film screening with a related activity so that everyone can connect to the subject matter in a tangible and communal way. For example, if you watch Winged Migration, the group can participate in a bird-watching nature hike. If you watch Rivers and Tides, about artist Andy Goldsworthy, try creating an art project together, using elements that you find in creation.

Environmental Films Worth Watching
Though not a comprehensive listing, this is a selection of recent films addressing issues of creation care. Remember: Pre-screen the film you choose to make sure it is appropriate for your viewers!

  • Earth (G) – Disneynature’s first film follows a year in the life of three animal families with extraordinary footage. Read the Flourish review of Earth here, and use the Flourish-Disneynature discussion guide for the film.
  • Food, Inc. (PG) – A comprehensive (and often shocking) look at “the underbelly of our nation’s food industry.” Read Flourish’s review of Food, Inc.

  • Fresh (NR) – A look at “the farmers, thinkers and business people across America who are re-inventing our food system” so that it is gentler on the earth and healthier for people.
  • Grizzly Man (R) – The story of a man who saw himself as the savior and friend of Alaska’s grizzly bears, and paid the ultimate price for that friendship. An important look at the line between wildness and domesticity, but not a movie for children.
  • An Inconvenient Truth (PG) – Famous or infamous, depending on your perspective, this is former Vice President Al Gore’s documentary on climate change.
  • Manufactured Landscapes (NR) – An exploration of artist Edward Burtynsky’s revealing photographs of industrial centers and their degradation of natural areas.
  • The March of the Penguins (G)  – Emperor penguins undertake a perilous journey from their homes to a traditional breeding ground in Antarctica each year. This movie follows them.
  • The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (NR) – Directo Ken Burns’s latest masterpiece, this PBS documentary series tells the story of the nation’s national park system in films as majestic as the parks themselves.
  • The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (G) – A homeless musician in San Francisco befriends and cares for a flock of wild parrots with inspiring dedication.
  • Rivers and Tides (NR) – A quietly inspiring and thought-provoking film about the work of Andy Goldsworthy, who crafts pieces of impermanent art with what he finds in creation.
  • Supersize Me (PG-13) – Eating solely at McDonald’s for a month? It’s an experiment that Morgan Spurlock tries—and documents—in this funny, but still shocking, film.
  • Winged Migration (G) – A beautiful and beloved documentary, this movie provides extraordinary footage of avian migrations around the world.

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