by Phil Baker
When the motion picture industry was still in its infancy, there weren’t many movie theaters to show their movies. So traveling exhibitors would set up in small town churches because they were dark, had substantial seating, and they had an organ that could provide the soundtrack for the still silent movies. This unlikely partnership is still evident with Revive church’s annual Movies by Moonlight.
When my wife and I lived in Pasadena, California, we attended a community movie night. Everyone came to the local park and spread their blankets or unfolded their camping chairs before a clamshell theater that, for this night, wore a stark-white sheet spread taut across its expanse. Everyone chatted as the sun went down and the soundtrack for that night’s feature played. We found ourselves talking with strangers as if we were old friends, petting their dogs, playing with their children. When it was finally dark enough, the event organizer made a few announcements, then prompted everyone to say “START THE MOVIE!” in unison. The park lights snapped off as if obeying our collective command and the movie started. We all cheered for the hero, booed at the villain everyone really did LOL (that means “laugh out loud” in case you forgot). Perhaps we’ve forgotten it’s ok to do this in a movie theater. Or maybe the THX sound system drowns it all out. But there was something about this shared experience that affected us. When the credits began to roll, applause rose from the park up into the starry sky. My wife and I lived fairly close to the park so we walked home, dissecting the movie like we usually do, the whole way.
Movies by Moonlight was born out of that experience. Why couldn’t a church provide that feeling of community? Why couldn’t we invite others to our campus to share in an emotional journey? Why couldn’t we facilitate spiritual discussions on movies? And so I set to work. I contacted outdoor movie services in the area and got estimates. I drafted a sample flier that had bits of trivia and discussion questions. I put together a budget and a proposal and presented it to my pastor. The idea was approved and Movies by Moonlight premiered in 2013 with The Wizard of Oz! We were rained out our first night and forced to show the movie inside. (whaaa whaaa!) But, hey, Disneyland had glitches when it opened!
That was 4 years ago. Each year I fret over what movies to show. Being a movie buff, there are too many good ones to choose from. I look at which ones will be celebrating an anniversary, which ones tie into this summer’s current blockbusters, or which ones speak to current events. Then I work on the promotion materials and each movie’s flier. PluggedIn.com is a great resource, not only for movie reviews but also for a Christian perspective on their themes.
My hope for this ministry is for it to become a community event, not a church event. I want families to feel welcomed on our property for a non-threatening, non-confrontational night of common enjoyment. This is why I choose not to feature “Christian” movies. I believe the target audience for these films are mostly church-going believers. And while most mainstream movies won’t intentionally include Biblical themes, they can easily be found, or, at least, a lesson can be learned from its absence.
Since that first rainy trip to Oz, we’ve purchased our own outdoor movie equipment that has enabled us to take Movies by Moonlight off campus to neighborhoods, ballparks and hopefully other places in the future. I really pray that families that come to Movies by Moonlight might see something new in a movie they’ve seen dozens of times. That they might employ the discussion questions that night or maybe Saturday morning around the breakfast table. And that they might seek and find God reflected off our big inflatable screen!