By Steve Dehner
About fifteen years ago, Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, GA, began making movies. Under the creative leadership of Alex Kendrick and his brother Stephen, Sherwood Pictures so far has produced four feature films and one made under the brothers’ own subsidiary.
Despite mixed-to-poor reviews in the secular press, they have amassed a huge audience among Christian movie-goers and have reaped substantial profits.
Each successive movie has increased its budget, its production values, and its returns.
How do these films measure up when it comes to their Biblical messages, including their understanding of the gospel?
Sherwood’s debut film was Flywheel, a low-lowbudget outing with amateur actors, competent sound and cinematography, and an uninspired score.
What it lacks in polish it makes up for in substance and spirit.
Like all the Sherwood films, it is a labor of love made by a tight-knit church family. Produced for about $20,000, it wasn’t released to DVD until 2007, after the success of Facing the Giants (2006).
Flywheel targets a Christian audience and its purpose is revivalistic rather than evangelistic.
It tells the story of Jay Austin, a dishonest, church-going used-car dealer who comes to his senses and repents, turning over his car lot, along with his broken relationships and finances, to the Lord.
It is not especially preachy. It conveys its lessons through the experiences of the main character, and there are many Biblical lessons along the way. Believers will appreciate the way the film presents the hand of God at work in familiar ways, and how Jay is delivered through, not from his circumstances.
In my view, this is a “Free Grace friendly” film. It is really a story about lordship sanctification: a broken man submitting his life and affairs to the will and direction of the Lord.
The scene that shows him putting an empty envelope in the collection plate at church is called “Empty Faith” on the DVD, but it is never suggested that he was not a believer. He never says he wasn’t a believer, just that he had fallen into selfishness, greed, and pride.
It emphasizes contrition, humility, seeking and giving forgiveness, and making amends. What it illustrates best is our need for ever-increasing trust in the Lord.
God is gracious, and the characters, when at their best, are as well. He blesses the one who commits his life to Him, but that blessing doesn’t mean He always removes the consequences of our sins from our lives.
For a low-budget film, there is a lot to enjoy, with some truly touching scenes, heartfelt performances, good humor, and a realistic portrait of some of the struggles we commonly face.
Facing the Giants (2006)
I’m a sucker for sports movies, even though I’m always pretty sure who’ll win the big game at the end. In fact, I typically like a good movie about sports more than I like sports.
With their second movie, the Kendrick brothers upped their game. While the cast still is not all-pro, the crew is, and it shows in the much-improved quality. The result was a surprise hit of the year.
Telling the story of a losing football team at a Christian high school, Giants highlights the need for faith in a powerful God with Whom nothing is impossible. It looks at real-life problems like failure, discouragement, unbelief, and even infertility.
But the story bears down on how much effort believers must exert to find God coming to their aid. The team’s coach tells them repeatedly that they must put out their maximum effort, and though they should praise God even when they fail (or lose a game), the only way they can have any self-respect is if they “give God their best,” and “leave everything on the field.”
Giants sounds a theme repeated in the Sherwood films. As their coach tells them, “A team that plays for His honor and glory will have His blessings following that team.”
For all the protagonists in the Kendricks movies, their lives are filled at first with frustration, disappointment, failure, and estrangement. But when they seek to put God at the center of their lives, He blesses them by solving all of their problems and making their dreams come true. At the same time, they have to earn that place of blessing with a lot of hard work and sacrifice, and never more than in Facing the Giants.
Viewers who have been struck by calamity when they were following the Lord and seeking to serve Him faithfully may take issue with this notion, as I did.
Also, like me, they may find it does not keep them from enjoying this movie.
God is a loving Father who desires to give good things to His children. The characters often model genuine love and respect in a winsome way. The coach tells his team that he loves them. As I watched, I was convicted to deepen my faith and truly believe that with God nothing is impossible.
According to the film, a troubled marriage can be saved by performing a to-do list known as the “Truth Dare.”
The story concerns Caleb, a firefighter (Kirk Cameron), and his wife Katherine (Erin Bethea), a hospital PR manager.
The movie is sincere, and without question, many Christians have found it moving and inspiring.
It contends that the key to a successful marriage, and the only hope for a failing one, is dedicating oneself to showing unconditional love in tangible and practical ways to one’s spouse, even if the spouse does not respond. Of course, we are to believe that eventually, he or she will. But the tension in this story is the possibility that such love may elicit no response.
On the one hand, there is a sense of realism about how hard it can be for a husband and wife to restore their love after trust has been broken, and they have fallen into daily acrimony. I think that is why so many Christians responded to this film: seeing some of this play out on the screen can hit pretty close to home.
On the other hand, some of the wins in the story come a little too easily. Caleb secures his victory over porn addiction (handled very tactfully) by smashing his PC with a baseball bat and going for a jog. Later, someone can finally prove his love by writing a big check.
The story begins with both a husband and wife who do not believe. In fact, Caleb is given the to-do list by his father and carries out half of it without the benefit of God’s help or having the Holy Spirit within.
I enjoyed the scene where his father presents him with the gospel. But when he finally presses Caleb for a decision, it falls into an all-too-familiar confusion.
DAD: Can’t you see that you need Him?
DAD: Can’t you see that you need His forgiveness?
DAD: Will you trust Him with your life?
CALEB nods. They hug.
Cut to the fire station, where Caleb is eager to tell his Christian friend Michael what’s happened.
MICHAEL: You want to tell me something?
CALEB: It’s about your faith.
MICHAEL: My faith?
MICHAEL: What about it?
CALEB: Well. I’m in.
MICHAEL: You’re in?
CALEB: Yeah, I’m in.
MICHAEL: Now, are you saying you want to be in?
CALEB: I’m saying, I’m in.
MICHAEL: You’re really in?
CALEB: I’m really in.
MICHAEL: Cuz you can’t be half-in and say you’re in. You gotta be all in, brother.
CALEB: I’m saying I’m all in.
There you have it: you can get all the way in by trusting God with your life.
Grace in Focus readers will wish for more clarity here.
It would have been better to hear something about believing in Jesus.
Maybe Caleb could have received life from Jesus, instead of giving his life to the Lord. (Why do so many Christians think God wants us to give Him our lives?)
Not surprisingly, most secular critics found Fireproof preachy and weird. Even with its muddled salvation message and its emphasis on working the list (both with and without the Lord), some readers may find in Fireproof an encouraging message and a hopeful story.
If anything was missing, in my view, it is the work of the Holy Spirit. He gets no mention, and one gets the idea that simply asking God for your desired outcome is the key, without openness to being personally guided into being more loving. Relying instead on the “Truth Dare’s” written instructions could displace the necessary work of the Spirit.
Is my sanctification the result of the work of God in me by his Spirit, with which I cooperate by doing the good that He has given me to do? Or is it primarily me, holding myself to higher standards of conduct and promising myself and those around me that I will strive to meet them?
Is spiritual growth becoming more like Christ, or becoming the best possible me?
If you watch Fireproof and Courageous back to back, as I did, you might discern God as the Divine Problem-Solver, Who is pleased with our invention of spiritual gimmicks, like the “Truth Dare,” or the “Resolution” in Courageous. This movie concerns five men who make a commitment to be better fathers.
There is much to commend in Courageous. Like the previous movies, the script is very good, and the acting in the lead roles has stepped up. The action scenes, like those in Fireproof, are taut and well executed.
The story delivers a devastating and effective emotional impact that is surprising in its honesty and depth. (A heads-up: the plot includes the death of a child. The portrayal of the family’s grief is authentic and heart-rending, and on my second viewing, it elicited even more tears than the first.) The Kendricks aren’t afraid to go to the dark places with their characters, and they don’t offer glib platitudes. On both counts, they deserve a lot of credit.
Like me, you might take issue with the emphasis Courageous places on making vows. Instead of letting their Yes be Yes, and their No be No, all five fathers not only enter into an elaborate written “Resolution,” they stage a solemn ceremony with their families, not unlike a wedding, in which the resolutions that they wrote are read aloud and taken as vows. They have them printed like academic credentials, finely framed and hung prominently in their homes. (And yes, you can buy one for your home as well: $10.99 at Amazon.)
I know many Christians find this inspiring, but I find it weird and legalistic.
The self-made “Law of Resolution” is bound, eventually, to point an accusing finger at every perceived failure, when as believers we should live under the power, guidance, conviction, and restoration of the Holy Spirit.
Finally, just when you thought they were pretty good at avoiding preachiness, they decide to end this movie with a sermon, delivered by Kendrick himself, the lead actor, director, co-writer, and co-producer, replete with swelling music and, amusingly, some of his own Sherwood Baptist congregation fighting to stay awake!
War Room (2015)
War Room was not produced through Sherwood Pictures, but it was made by the same creative team, so I have included it.
By now the Kendricks are technically competent filmmakers who have settled into reasonably well told stories. The weaknesses seem now to be the same from film to film, as well as their strengths.
If you have watched them in order, you will recognize the patterned plots: one or more main characters who are spiritually barren make a wreck of their lives, repent, and find the secret to a faithful and fruitful walk with the Lord. That secret may be submission, a resolution, a dare, or, as in War Room, prayer—but it always amounts to vows and promises—commitment.
The plot in War Room concerns the near ruin and restoration of a marriage between Liz and Tony, two backslidden believers (Priscilla Shirer and T.C. Stallings). It is all about spiritual warfare, and is generally sound in its approach to prayer. It teaches that as long as we regard other people as our enemy, we will be unwitting pawns of our real enemy, Satan. Instead, we need to turn from fighting people to fighting him. And prayer is the chief weapon God has given us.
Once again, the filmmakers are more concerned with feckless believers than with the lost. This makes perfect sense given that these movies are marketed to Christian audiences.
Things I liked about War Room: it had the best acting of any of the films, with more pros in the cast and stronger actors in the leading roles. Still no Oscar winners here, but solid work. It has greater energy, with lively performances, effective use of music, and freer movement of the camera. The Kendricks clearly began to diversify their casting after the first two, mostly white casts in Flywheel and Facing the Giants. Here the lead characters are African-American, a righteous choice since many “church movies” these days are still made and marketed along racial lines. Finally, the name of Jesus, much less frequent in the previous films, is used often and is exalted in War Room.
Things I didn’t like: its muddled lordship gospel.
The prayer warrior, Miss Clara (Karen Abercrombie) explains to Liz that coming to Christ means asking for forgiveness, but that God will not forgive the person who has not forgiven others. In her presentation, both faith and repentance from sin are required to be born again. Also, much of Clara’s dialogue consists of sermonettes, including the prayer she shouts to God in the closing scene. This is likely to be much less of an objection for believers.
Given the abusiveness, neglect, and criminality of the husband, it seems there should have been some acknowledgment that wives and children who are not safe should pray for Daddy from an undisclosed location. I believe in prayer, but I also believe in the safety of women and children. A victim of domestic abuse watching this might be confused by the suggestion that one ought simply to pray, submit, and trust God when verbal abuse, crime and the potential for adultery or worse abuse is present.
Like many of these films, its weaknesses may not prevent you from enjoying the story. In almost every Kendrick movie, there are scenes—usually those in which a character finally breaks and turns to Christ, or when he asks others he’s wronged for forgiveness—that are very touching and may require tissues to be nearby.
All in all, the movies made by the Kendrick brothers are a mixed bag. I have mentioned many of their virtues. As tracts about repentance, as uplifting entertainment for church-goers, as often emotional and effective exhortations to mind our relationships, they serve well.
As motion picture art and as outreach to pre-believers, they fail. Despite their obvious sincerity and good intentions, the Kendricks have not set out to make great movies. They have set out to write great sermons and package them as movies Christians are willing to sit through.
It is clear the filmmakers aspire to no higher artistic attainment than that of run-of the-mill Hollywood productions, because their movies mean only to deliver a message. They focus on the content of their message to the neglect of its form. All their effort has gone to the craft of filmmaking and very little to its art.
The Bible study booklet based on Courageous perpetuates the confusing gospel message: “Faith is a decision of your heart demonstrated by the actions of your life…The Bible commands everyone to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved” (Honor Begins at Home, p. 145).
Alert viewers may also question the notions of religious vows and checklist spirituality; that if you only submit/commit/pray, God will smooth out everything in your life; that God only blesses us when we are working as hard as we can; that He only forgives if we forgive and is pleased with our promises, vows, and commitments.
The concept of “rest” is not in the Kendrick vocabulary.
The Kendricks’ vision is to call Christians to repentance and renewed obedience by publishing very expensive tracts in the form of movies. In our media-saturated culture, most evangelicals will applaud this effort even if it barely reaches beyond the church walls or smacks of works-righteousness. Nevertheless, truly excellent films, like any other endeavor, only result when that is the intent of the creator. Let us hope that in the future the Kendricks will aim higher—artistically and theologically.
Steve Dehner is a writer. He lives in Forest Grove, OR.