Churches storm the cineplex


From USA TODAY. ALBANY, Ga. (USA) — Praise the Lord and pass the popcorn.

Moviemaking churches are venturing into the cineplex to attract souls who might never set foot in a megachurch.

Like Hollywood films, they take on real-life issues in dramatic packages:

•A resentful white cop and his black partner struggle with race and fatherhood before taking a lesson in reconciliation from Oscar winner Lou Gossett Jr. in a cameo role. That's The Grace Card, underwritten by an optometrist for his small church in Tennessee.

•An aimless 20-year-old, adventuring with his buddies in India, discovers the global horror of sex slavery and makes it his life-changing cause. That's Not Today, backed by a California Quaker church.

•Cops facing rough times on the streets realize their real failures are at home — as fathers who don't know, or don't care, how to truly love their kids. That's Courageous, the fourth film from Sherwood Baptist Church, which is so successful in its moviemaking ministry that it now coaches others.

"Movies are the stained-glass windows of the 21st century, the place to tell the Gospel story to people who may not read a Bible," says Michael Catt, senior pastor of Sherwood in Albany, Ga.

"Cinematography can tell a message that moves people, and brings them into conversation with believers," says Jeremy Johnston, executive pastor at 5,000-member First Family Church in Overland Park, Kan. His church has brought thousands of people to see Christian-themed films at local theaters and on its own 12-screen campus.

"We have people who are still in our church because they saw a movie through us that hit home."

This is the intention of Catt and his Sherwood staff of writers, producers and actors, led by two brothers, associate pastors Alex and Stephen Kendrick, and executive pastor Jim McBride.

Sherwood, with just over 2,000 members, has produced three films, including the top-grossing independent film of 2008, Fireproof.

Compared with Hollywood studios, Sherwood's productions are minuscule.

Fireproof's $33.5 million at the box office ranked it No. 122 among 2008 films; No. 1 was The Dark Knight, with $1 billion, according to Box Office Mojo.

But in the Christian category, Fireproof was No. 5, after Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, the two films based on the Chronicles of Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, and The Nativity Story.

The Sherwood producers compare their films to The Blind Side, but with a more directly presented version of evangelical faith than The Blind Side's subtle portrayal of a Christian family that takes in a teen and nurtures his mind and football talents.

All Sherwood films draw on challenges in contemporary life: An unethical used-car salesman faces business reversals in 2003's Flywheel. A hapless high school coach, whose wife is infertile, fears he'll be fired in 2005's Facing the Giants. A firefighter's marriage is collapsing in Fireproof.

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