Every few months youth pastors get a promotional box in the mail luring them to jump on the bandwagon of the next big Christian movie, book, conference or concert. Marketing madness bombards you with free promotinal posters, t-shirts, devotionals, bookmarks, bumper stickers. Sadly, the Christian entertainment sub-culture often disappoints. I usually don’t bite. I’m the boring youth pastor who tends to just stick to the Bible as much as possible.
So, I was skeptical at first when the hoopla came out about the latest Christian-produced film To Save A Life. But our youth group was due for a field trip, I had heard great things and so we boarded a bus this past Wednesday night and took a group of 50 high school students to the theater for some popcorn and a two-hour trip into the world of many teenagers today.
The movie quality was great, the acting quite good, and the plot tackled the issues in a real, non-cheesy way. There were moments of gut-busting laughter and applause, and other moments where we were holding back tears. Our group seemed to really enjoy the film.
Here’s a synopsis of the plot:
This is a story and film written by a veteran youth pastor from California. He attempts to accurately capture the challenges and pressures teenagers face daily. One way the film does this is by leaving in scenes involving sex, partying, binge drinking, cutting, abortion, divorce and so on. The film earns it’s PG-13 rating. While not shying away from the messiness, ugliness and complexity of some dark teen issues, the film brings a positive, redemptive message of hope and transformation.
So, while I have much good to say about the film’s real portrayal of teenage culture, I have some other disappointments from a pastoral and theological point of view. But let me preface my disappointments with a disclaimer. Many Christian reviewers and youth pastor comments immediately complain that the gospel — the sacrificial, sin-atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — was not clearly communicated in the movie. But before we make such judgments we should ask the question: What particular story and message was the artist/writer trying to communicate with this film? Once we’ve identified the key message this film is trying to get across to teenagers, then we can fairly assess whether or not they succeeded or failed.
Everything I have read about the making and purpose of this film has indicated that their main purpose is to motivate and inspire Christian teens to begin to notice the lost, hurting and lonely kids on the fringes in our schools. The movie’s slogan is: “Some people are just dying to be heard.” There are countless Rogers everywhere in every school who are living in isolation, deeply depressed and lonely. They are crying out in ways that go unnoticed — until it’s too late. This film reminds pushes us to take the bold first step out of our comfort zones and established peer groups and across the lunch room to reach out to those who have no one. This is Jesus with skin on. This message came across clear and powerful.
If this was as overtly Christian as the film intended to get, then it would have been completely successful in making it’s point. But this film was willing to go much deeper into the world of the church, Christianity and youth group. This was exciting to me. We saw a youth pastor, Chris, step into a teenager’s life and begin to dialogue about what it means to be a Christian. We saw a non-religious skeptic in Jake inquire as to what Christianity means and what it costs to follow after God. We heard more than one sermon from Chris. We saw teens worshiping at youth group. We saw Jake getting baptized in the ocean surrounded by friends. We saw and heard Jake kneeling and praying by his bedside over his future.
When a film is bold enough to wade honestly into these overtly Christian issues, then it opens itself up to be critiqued in how faithful they represented the gospel, the nature of repentance and discipleship, the meaning of baptism, the core message of Christianity and so on. If you’re going to go there, then bring it home accurately so viewers are not being sold a shallow, cross-less, Jesus-less, generic brand of “you can make a difference in the world” type Christianity. This film handled teen issues brilliantly and accurately, but when it came to representing the true nature of Christian belief and the gospel, it wimped out. How so?
- Why was the name of Jesus always avoided (except for the prayer at the funeral)? Watch the film again and notice how the youth pastor always talks generically of ‘God’ but avoids talking specifically about Jesus.
- In a conversation with Chris, Jake says he doesn’t want to just become a “just another Christian.” Chris says, “I wouldn’t want you to.” Here I was on the edge of my seat waiting for the youth pastor to offer a counter challenge and invite him to become a serious, committed Jesus-follower who “takes up his cross daily” or something substantial. But the scene just ended and left us wondering exactly Chris is inviting Jake to become.
- I fear that this film reinforces a sort of watered-down Christianity that is merely about “loving one another” and has little to do with being born again of the Spirit, true repentance, understanding the holiness of God, the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the rest. Let me be clear: The filmmakers probably believe these things, but why sweep them under the rug if they’re going to get as honest as they did in this film.
- Jake’s life was clearly being impacted by his encounter with pastor Chris and their conversations. But the message never was more than, “Don’t you want your life to count for more?” Can we get more specific please? Chris could have been mistaken for a military recruiter urging a young man to “Be all that you can be in the Army.” Perhaps this is personal for me because I have invited a young man to follow Jesus in the front seat of a driver education car.
- I shed tears at Jake’s baptism — because I know the powerful truth behind that sacred public act. But does every viewer in the theater realize the powerful theological realities that must precede this sacred ritual? They won’t know from this movie.
- Viewers were invited inside the church several times in this movie, and heard portions of a couple different “sermons”. Why not work the true gospel into one of these messages? At least mention God’s offer of salvation through his Son Jesus in whom we have new life and forgiveness of sins. We don’t love others for the sake of love. “We love because He first loved us.” And that love was costly.
Again, I loved this film. If you’re looking for a good film to open up conversation at youth group about the challenges facing today’s teens and some positive ways to work through them in a self-less way, then this film hits the nail on the head. But I urge youth pastors to also challenge their students to understand that true Christian transformation and discipleship goes much deeper and involves much more than just being nice to one another.
While Jake made some significant changes in his life and behavior after meeting Chris and going to youth group, one still has to ask if we have any clear reason to believe he really became a Christian — by any biblical definition of the word. He certainly wasn’t afforded the opportunity to hear the gospel and respond in repentance and faith on screen. To Save A Life encourages teens to help save others’ lives, yet says so little about the One who truly saves and gives Eternal Life.
In sum, To Save A Life was culturally and sociologically bold yet theologically thin-skinned. What do you think?