The popcorn is popping. The lights are dimmed. The beanbag chairs are piled in a semicircle around the glowing widescreen. It’s movie night, and that means excited students and apprehensive parents. Whether the movie is a sedative to settle students down to fall asleep during a lock-in, a fun alternative for a small group on a Friday night, entertainment for the long bus ride to summer camp, or a Plan B when your original Wednesday night program fell through, you have to pick out the right film—something fun, appropriate and, just maybe, transformative.
I’m often asked which movies are best to show youth groups. My personal blog gets thousands of hits from this googled question. While I could offer you a simple list of films, it’s best to understand how to choose a movie with wisdom and discretion. We live in a movie world. From YouTube to Netflix, Blu-ray to the box office, filmmakers are the bards of this generation, and they’re teaching our students a theology we may not be aware of. It’s not enough to know what to watch; we have to understand how to watch.
Here are five questions to ask when considering which movie to show your youth group:
1) Why are we watching a movie?
What’s the purpose of this movie-watching event? What do I hope to accomplish? Entertainment? Time-filler? A spiritual conversation? Life transformation and an encounter with Jesus? We all approach movies with different postures, ranging from condemnation (avoiding movies because you believe they are inherently sinful or tempting) to consumption (watching anything and everything no matter what the content). What posture are you modeling to students by showing (or avoiding) a particular film? If you’re throwing a movie up on the tiny TVs of a bus, you’ll probably choose something different than you would in a small group study about using discernment with media. Know why you’ve decided to watch a film, and choose it with that purpose in mind.
2) What are the themes or truths I want to discuss?
This question assumes that you actually want to have a spiritual conversation, which means you’ll have to put some time into watching the film before you show it to students. (Never show a film you haven’t already screened!) Look for spiritual themes and truths, connections between students’ stories and the story presented on screen. Don’t just watch a movie without discussing it after. Foster conversations, even if they aren’t particularly “deep” or spiritual. Simply debriefing a film is an act of discipleship, modeling thoughtfulness and intentionality in the way we consume media. The things your students take in will affect who they become, so teach students not to watch things thoughtlessly.
3) What are the boundary lines for my group and for me?
Ask yourself, Where might this film cause me to be tempted or to stumble? Even if I can handle it, can the students in my ministry? How will their parents feel about it? Others in my church community? I’ll ask myself, Am I willing to have an hour-long conversation defending the merits of this film? If not, there’s probably a better movie to show. As Paul encourages us in 1 Corinthians 8–9, we need to make sure we are not causing our brothers and sisters to stumble into sin or temptation. We must bear with one another in love. That means occasionally giving up our preferences for the sake of others. We also need to recognize scenarios where a majority of students are able to handle a film but a few individuals (or their parents) wouldn’t approve. In those cases, I’d recommend showing grace to those who may be tempted to sin and not watching the movie. As a youth worker, I’d rather skip a movie and get some groans from students than risk alienating my relationship with a parent or teen.
4) Have I communicated with the parents?
Honor parents by stepping into their shoes. Are you setting up teens to watch something their parents would approve of? The students probably won’t mind, but this kind of thing puts up barriers in the student-parent relationship. Will students feel awkward about staying or leaving when you screen a film? There are as many different views about movies as there are parents of your youth group teens, and you likely won’t be able to please them all. Communicate with parents before you watch a movie, and allow them to a) not have their teen attend, or b) watch the movie themselves. I have made the mistake of showing a movie without telling parents, and I lost a lot of credibility and relational equity for it. It doesn’t take much time, but it can have a huge impact.
5) Have I prayed about this?
Where are your head and heart when you watch movies? Do you enter into movies with a posture of prayer? What might the Spirit be leading you to do in regards to this movie? Fostering conversation is more than just talking with a person about a movie. View each conversation as an opportunity for prayer, a conversation between you, students and their Creator. View each film as a prayer, a God-infused work of art where you may catch a glimpse of the divine. When we adopt a posture of prayer in both our film watching and our post-film discussions, they become a means of experiencing the grace of God in unique and beautiful ways.
These five questions will get you on track to make a wise decision about your film choices. I’ve also written an upcoming book, Jesus Goes to the Movies: The Youth Ministry Film Guide (The Youth Cartel), which will offer theological tools and 50 discussion guides for discerning and discussing these spiritual themes. Ask good questions. Choose wisely. Watch humbly. And more than anything, acknowledge that Christ is present and active each time we watch and discuss a film.