In Theaters: The Case for Christ

I just took our eldest to see the movie, The Case for Christ, which is out now in select theaters.

The movie tells the true story of an atheist journalist, Lee Strobel, who sets out to disprove Christianity after his wife becomes a Christian. To his mind, she has joined a cult; he despises the  (perceived) religious kookiness so much that for him, his quest is really about saving his marriage.  The movie essentially relates the backstory to Strobel’s world-wide bestseller: The Case for Christ.

Now I am not, generally speaking, a fan of explicitly Christian cinema, as it is usually tainted by overacting and saccharine plots. Of course, Lee’s conversion is a foregone conclusion – this is after all a Christian film!  True to life, Strobel does indeed come to faith through his strange little piece of “investigative journalism,” in a most awkward scene in the final moments of the film.

Having said all that, my daughter and I both liked the movie.  Yes, there was a bit of over-drama.  The story itself, though was compelling. The film is essentially a series of love stories: it is the story of a husband’s and wife’s struggling love in a bad place in their marriage; of a son’s anger at his distant father; of a man’s resistance to the very notion of a loving God.

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Strobel and his wife, not seeing eye to eye

There’s nothing in the movie that will convict the viewer of the ‘truth’ of Christianity, but the movie doesn’t aim at laying out the material in The Case for Christ.  The movie simply offers depictions of different ways of coming to faith, with Strobel wrestling for a reasonable faith, and his wife having more a deep conversion of the heart.  I appreciate that it also tells the stories of the atheists and agnostics too – those who have landed, by faith, in a different space – and painting them as the reasonable and caring people.

The research literature talks about the importance of mentors for young people, as they begin sorting through what they believe and don’t believe, and what their religious identity will be.  This movie, in a modest way, gives space for teens to question and wonder, and perhaps find for themselves someone with whom they identify in the film.  The characters offer a comforting model of people – who unlike, perhaps other adults in the teen’s life – haven’t landed yet on the side of faith but are still figuring out what it all means.

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Strobel working late, investigating news stories and the Jesus story

The film offers a helpful assurances that questions and wondering and uncertainty are all a normal part of the journey of faith, which is critical for teens to hear at their stage of faith development.  It also gently reminds the viewer that the end goal is not doubt, but trusting relationship.

For the youth pastor and the parent, this movie may be a helpful resource, opening the door to conversations about the young person’s own faith questions and intellectual wrestlings, which conversations are so critical at this stage of development.

Youth Alpha

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I am currently using Youth Alpha for confirmation classes for a group of eight 12-14 year olds at our church. It’s my first time using it, and I’m impressed.

Here’s what I like so far:

It’s engaging and gets them talking:

No bored kids in this class! The length of each video is about 20-25 minutes, which ends up being about 45 minutes to an hour when you add in discussion.

The production value on these videos is impressive. It’s no longer just talking heads, as in the old adult Alpha series; instead, these videos are visually rich and make use of the most creative styles of image-communication.

Since the videos were made as an evangelistic tool, they assume little to no knowledge of the Christian story. For confirmation classes, given that young people come from all different places spiritually, this is very helpful. Everybody is able to participate.

Following the model of the older Alpha series, Youth Alpha is low-coercion and open to questions. Before each group discussion question, there are interviews with ordinary people giving their perspectives on the question. There are always a range of viewpoints, and that diversity in outlook (ranging from belief to unbelief) creates space in the small group discussion for people to speak their minds.

This is one of the gifts I appreciate most about Youth Alpha. I have never had so much honest conversation with young people in a group setting. Somehow, the videos create room for people to speak the truth about where they are at spiritually, instead of giving the correct ‘religious’ answer. As a pastor, I have gained deep insight into our young people’s lives, and so been better able to engage with their questions. For that I am truly thankful.

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It talks about the basics:

Kenda Creasy Dean, in her excellent book Almost Christian, talks about the failure of both Mainline and non-mainline churches to teach the basics of the Christian faith to young people. This, she argues, has led to the concomitant development of unorthodox faith amongst North American young people, which sociologist Christian Smith has dubbed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Dean writes:

We ‘teach’ young people baseball, but we ‘expose’ them to faith…we blithely assume that religious identity will happen by osmosis, emerging ‘when youth are ready’ (a confidence we generally lack when it comes to, say, algebra). We simply have not given teenagers the soul-strength to recognize, wrestle, and resist the symbiotes in our midst, probably because we lack [it] ourselves… Exposing adolescents to faith, as it turns out, is no substitute for teaching it to them.

Youth Alpha provides an excellent resource that helps redress that imbalance.

Here’s a look at the topics they cover off:

Life: Is This It?
Jesus: Who is He?
Cross: Why Did Jesus Die?
Faith: How Can We have Faith?
Prayer: Why and How Do I Pray?
Bible: Why and How Do I Read the Bible?
Follow: How Does God Guide Us Into Full Life?
Spirit: Who Is the Holy Spirit and What Does He Do?
Fill: How Can I Be Filled With the Holy Spirit?
Evil: How Can I Resist Evil?
Healing: Does God Heal Today?
Church: What About the Church and Telling Others?:

It is user-friendly and manageable for small churches & tight budgets:

Once upon a time, when I worked in multi-staff settings, I had time to develop my own curricula. Now, I am a factotum pastor: I am needed everywhere.

Youth Alpha enables me to do (I feel) a good job of confirmation preparation without requiring hours of prep. That means a lot to me, because the kids going through confirmation in our church matter…but my sanity is worth something too.

Plus, did I mention it is free?  No?  It costs exactly zero dollars, so that helps churches with tight budgets. (Of course, donations are welcomed to help under-write future Alpha ventures).

The caveat: It needs tinkering for your context

So obviously, as with every program, you’re not going to love every aspect of the videos. For example, we will not be showing the video session on healing (it is optional). And, you may not agree with every angle taken in the teaching. But you can handle that yourself as the leader, in the discussion portion.

So, for example, one of the questions today took us 20 minutes of energetic discussion to sort through: “How do you feel about the idea that God has a plan for your life?”  We talked about what that even means, this notion of “plan”, and what it doesn’t mean. We talked about human choice, and human responsibility. We talked about a “way of life” as opposed to a “blueprint.” We wondered about suffering, and how that fits in with this notion of God having a plan. We wondered about the scope of freedom. We somehow even ended up talking about sex and the huge pressure on teenage girls to give oral sex.  (Yep. Very revealing conversation, that continued on for awhile with parents and teens after the class officially ended).

There is a new Youth Alpha being developed, although the one currently available is only four years old.

Alpha has been around for so long, some people have developed an allergy to it.  I encourage you to keep an open mind and check it out.  It’s not going to be for everyone, but for those for whom it’s a fit, it is an incredible resource.

For Canadians, you’ll find the videos here:  https://www.alphacanada.org/ayfs/