During June’s International Christian Retail Show in Atlanta, film director, producer, and screenwriter Jon Erwin encouraged a gathering of filmmakers and content creators about the power of filmmaking in distributing the Gospel. However, he also was frank about how much of the opposition to accomplish that is from within the Christian community. Erwin and his brother Andrew Erwin have a number of films under their belt, including the recent October Baby and hilarious summer breakout Mom’s Night Out. Media film critics have called Erwin’s film unabashedly anti-feminist and borderline dangerous because of the character depictions and values-friendly content. The film, though, received highest praise from actual theater-goers.

Bad reviews, thankful audiences

Commenting on the significantly high audience reviews, Erwin was quoted by an industry wonk to say, “What you see is a group of underserved people who have not felt appreciated who now have an outlet and a voice, and an ability to celebrate themselves.” He said Hollywood and media don’t understand the faith community and that he believes film-critic attacks are based more on taking aim at a way of life than they are the actual film. Mom’s Night Out charted more than $10 million in sales since its May 9 opening, and ranked seventh of all opening weekend films, according to Box Office Mojo.

Crystalized vision

At ICRS, Erwin challenged the Christian film community to ask themselves what their purpose is. “My vision, my dream has been crystalized,” he said. Since the 1980s, American households have been bombarded with cultural and lifestyle messages through television. Film and TV writers have been delivering culture messages through the “Trojan Horse” of media. “The problem can’t be solved before it’s fully understood,” Erwin said, and he sees that problem as his purpose. America dominates filmmaking and box office sales. At any given time, about 30 American films dominate theater screenings and box-office sales around the globe. “Never has there been a time where we have the tools, the opportunity, the talent, and the audience to ‘Trojan horse’ the Gospel around the world,” he said.

Double-minded messages

However, he said Christians fight each other over faith messages in contemporary entertainment. “The message is sacred, but not the method of delivery,” he said. People support Christian films now because they’re early adopters championing a cause. They want their worldview represented and want to be entertained. However, for Christian films to grow, the rest of the faith community must embrace them, too, and not reject them because of minor theological differences or realistic depictions. Erwin said studies have shown that Christians will watch films that offend their faith and personal beliefs and that don’t reflect a Christian worldview, but that are entertaining. Simultaneously, they reject faith films because they may not align totally with a denominational or theological belief. “That’s the altar we’re on,” he said. Especially with the millennial generation, films can be a powerful medium for life transformation. Erwin said young people are waking up to the fact that they’ve been lied to by politicians, marketers, educators, and others. “People are waking up to this existential vacuum,” he said. “The Matrix film is representative of how they feel, that everything you know is a lie.” He said Jesus Christ is the answer, but he said he fears that Christians are so atrophied we can’t act. “We have changed God to fit into our narcissism…. (Yet) people are deciding to ditch their faith because it has changed nothing in their life,” he said. “That says a lot about the Gospel that’s being presented.” He said he’s been called carnal, evil, and other names because of his film work. Yet, he understands that if Christian films continue to be a niche option for a narrowly segmented audience, the opportunity to present the Gospel in contemporary ways to broader unchurched and dechurched audiences will die.

Millennial revival seen

“This (Millennial) generation is so ready for revival,” he said. The Christian message lines up with millennial values of transformation, self-improvement, and hope that transcend the “hedonic treadmill” many of them are on. “This is a generation that doesn’t know what it wants until we can show it to them,” he said. “I believe this is a generation begging for Christ.” Entertainment is a powerful tool to bring Christ to them, he said. Erwin said it’s extremely difficult to make a film that exceeds $45 million in sales, “but if we don’t aim for that we won’t hit it.” “If we have in mind creating films only for a niche audience, we’ll never hit it,” he said. The lack of unity in the body about this Trojan Horse of the Gospel keeps filmmakers out of that bull’s eye, he said. “Unity is our problem.” Erwin also discussed many other issues, including film quality, developing new filmmakers, and other critical industry needs during a spirited dialog with more than 50 industry leaders and content creators.