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More thoughts the use of movie clips in services (and the RPW)

A few days ago, Pastor Aaron Menikoff had a piece posted from the most recent 9Marks eJournal on the 9Marks blog.1 In this piece, entitled “What About Movie Clips? Applying the Regulative Principle,” Menikoff advocates the regulative principle and gives a couple brief reasons (in application) to avoid movie clips in sermons. The piece is not so much about movie clips as it is about applying general Scriptural principles about corporate worship to contemporary churches and their decisions concerning corporate worship.

For Menikoff, his argument against movie clips is that such media serve to distract Christians from the Word in preaching, singing, and praying. Menikoff says, “I really want our focus to be on the power of God’s Word to engage and excite us.” Yet he remains open theoretically to dramatically portraying Scripture passages, though he argues against this practice as well:

The danger is that dramatizing a passage pulls the rug out from under the plain power of the spoken Word. Ravi Zacharias made a statement I’ll never forget: “In the beginning was the Word, not the video.” Congregations should rely upon the spoken Word because God has always used his Word to build his people and grow his church—this is obvious from Genesis to Revelation.

I want quickly to note just a couple things. First, I genuinely appreciate Menikoff’s conservative-leaning disposition to such questions. There are not many young pastors who are going so far as to argue that it is prudent for churches to avoid Bible dramas, let alone the liturgical use of movie clips. In this respect he has found a ready ally in us. Moreover, he has some sound advice on other matters of corporate worship.

But his article somewhat diverges from a discussion of the regulative principle per se. He acknowledges as much when he shifts the matter of discussion from “What does God allow?” to “What does God prefer?” For Menikoff (it seems to me, on my reading of him), these questions of dramatic scripture readings and movie clips are more about “What does God prefer?” than about “What does God allow?”

I acknowledge that Menikoff’s article was, by necessity, painfully brief and deliberately designed so as to avoid detailed discussions. Yet, I still think that burden of proof for the liturgical use of both dramatic portrayals of Scripture and movie clips is on the first question, “What does God allow?”. In other words, I appreciate Menikoff’s words concerning the prudence of using dramatic arts, but this is beside the point. The New Testament does not authorize its use. We know that the Apostle Paul was acquainted with drama as a form (see 1 Cor 15:33), yet it is striking that he never prescribed it for a vehicle of Christian worship. Similarly, it would be hard to believe that Jesus and the other apostles were ignorant of the existence of drama, and they did not command churches to use it.2 This is an important point. If Christ and his apostles did not authorize us to worship with drama or movie clips, we have no authority to introduce it ourselves into corporate worship. This is what it means to adhere to the regulative principle.

Having said that, Menikoff’s larger point is a good one. There are times where the regulative principle (“What did Christ and his apostles prescribe for corporate worship?”) is the germane question, but, at other times, prudence must rule. The regulative principle does not go so far as to help us ascertain which music we should sing, how we should collect the offering, or our use non-congregational ministries of music.

Without conceding the point that the liturgical use of movie clips is unauthorized by the apostles of Christ (and therefore not permissible in corporate worship), I’d also like to add to Menikoff’s arguments concerning the prudence of using them (especially for those who do not embrace the regulative principle). When it comes especially to the liturgical use of movie clips, they are not only unauthorized by the apostles of Christ (and therefore a very dubious practice), but they should be avoided for a whole host of other reasons, including:

  1. the liturgical use of movie clips in most cases requires pastors to spend inordinate amounts of time watching movies for especially illustrative clips;
  2. the liturgical use of movie clips gives the world the impression that we Christians actually care about banal entertainment and Hollywood culture;
  3. the liturgical use of movie clips says to our congregants that we are enamored and swept away with the vain glitz and empty glamour of the entertainment industry;
  4. the liturgical use of movie clips feeds the natural, physical appetite for entertainment;
  5. the liturgical use of movie clips cripples Christians’ ability to hear and remember the preached and taught Word of God, saddling them with a short attention span;
  6. the liturgical use of movie clips encourages a spirit of “sitting back and being entertained” in worship;
  7. the liturgical use of movie clips could easily communicate that the overindulgence of movies and entertainment is a healthy thing for Christians spiritually;
  8. the liturgical use of movie clips requires electricity;
  9. the liturgical use of movie clips often glorifies debauch and scandalous actors;
  10. the liturgical use of movie clips gives the impression that Christianity is obsessed with the fleeting fads and trends of our age; and
  11. the liturgical use of movie clips sends the wrong message to our persecuted brothers and sisters in underground churches. 

There are undoubtedly other reasons outside the regulative principle to avoid such forms, and I would love to hear you to provide some others. I’d also love to hear our readers’ reasons (again, outside the point that the regulative principle does not authorize its use) that it is prudent not to use a dramatic portrayal of Scripture in public worship.

Ryan Martin

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).

  1. Some of our readers may be interested to know that a separate article by Jamie Dunlop in the eJournal references Mark Dever’s interview with Mark Minnick from a couple years ago. It’d be interesting to hear Dunlop expand on the reasons he was not “convinced by [Minnick’s] argument” for separatism. []
  2. We are aware that some scholars argue that the Song of Solomon might have been a drama, but this question does not pertain to our subject here. First, the evidence on this matter is not clear; and, second, the question before us is the manner of the worship of New Testament churches. []

15 Responses to More thoughts the use of movie clips in services (and the RPW)

  1. I read Menikoff’s article with some interest, and agree with Ryan's conclusion—the promised RPW discussion never gets started.

    But the question of using movie clips as sermon illustrations—and the related application of the Regulative Principle—provides interesting fodder for those of us who do not embrace the RPW!

    Would advocates of the RPW list “congregational singing” as an element of worship, or a circumstance of worship? Answer: Congregational singing is an element of worship. Question: Would they call the use of hymnals (or PowerPoint lyrics) an element or a circumstance? Answer: Most would concede the technical point; hymnals and PowerPoint are a circumstance. Yes, lots of Presbyterians use PowerPoint in good conscience. Even if the hymn lyrics are projected on top of a nature scene photo or the obligatory Emergent Candles in the Wind video, we would still (grudgingly) concede that PowerPoint is a circumstance and “congregational singing” is the element.

    Fast forward to the element of preaching. Question: What if the pastor uses a PowerPoint projection of his sermon outline? Element or circumstance? Answer: circumstance, again. What if he verbally cites an illustration from the new Star Trek movie (yes, it was marketed with a Bible study). Answer: circumstance. But if he shows the Star Trek video clip instead of a verbal description, it becomes an element? Even though the RPW advocate grudgingly concedes that “moving pictures” are a circumstance for congregational singing? (Yes, by this point the RPW advocate is reading my goofy example and crying, “No fair, Batman!” I’ll admit to the absurdity, constructed only to explore the under-discussed distinction between elements and circumstances.)

    Many of you know that I attend a church Chicago’s NW suburbs, one that does not embrace the RPW. But our pastor doesn’t use movie clips in his sermons, either. And we would agree with Ryan’s list of concerns (which are good, but unrelated to the RPW).

    Can’t we declare this practice unwise without even raising the Regulative Principle?

  2. Kevin,

    It seems to me that the sticky point in your parallel is that many Reformed guys (and those of us influenced by Reformed guys) would insist that the incorporation of a specifically "visual" element in worship is almost always problematic, on second commandment grounds. So, I think some would be able to argue consistently against both the PowerPoint with the background images and the movie clips, while conceding your point about PowerPoints just used for text.

  3. Kevin,

    I was going to head in Michael's direction, and I'd add to his point that "moving pictures" these days are typically much more than merely moving pictures, but moving pictures plus drama plus background music plus cutting plus editing, etc. We're typically not talking about Charlie Chaplain.

    Returning to Michael's point, I am not sure I'm willing to concede that we ought to have images behind the power point.

    Kevin, I understand your concerns over quibbling about definitions. You raise good questions and they deserve to be answered. Yet, if we could agree upon some definitions, it might be that some of these concerns would go away. But, in the end, I'd rather have to deal with the difficult questions (say, between elements and circumstances) than take the liberty to introduce my own additions to corporate worship.

    Of course, if you really wanted to goad me, you could have raised the problem of trying to distinguish dramatic readings of Scripture and using Bach's Oratorios in corporate worship. I think I could wiggle around it, but it might not be as easy as I might think if you were listening in. :)

    On another point, thanks for the work you've doing to get Kevin Bauder's writings out there, Kevin. Thanks for stopping by and interacting.

  4. Hey, Kevin. Great to have you comment! Welcome

    I've been driving for 20 hours today, so I'll be brief. I just wanted to mention the difficulty of classifying video clips as circumstances rather than elements. I would argue that such a use has entered the category of element because of the nature of its use. In other words, it is often possible for something that in one case might be classified as circumstance (projecting lyrics on a screen, for example) in another case falling into the category of element (video clips in this case).

    The best example of this I've seen is the use of candles. If candles are lit to provide light, this is obviously a circumstance. But light a candle for the dead, and now the same act has entered the category of element.

    I'd also echo Michael and Ryan's comments, however, as well.

    So you gonna write that article for this site on why you don't hold to the RPW? I'll post it if you do! :) Should generate some fun (and profitable) discussion.

    Now off to bed. 7 more hours tomorrow…

  5. It's a little bit difficult to tell how exactly first century Christian worship was done exactly. The Bible doesn't go into a great amount of detail about it. We know there was preaching, we know that we are commanded to sing and we know that the Lord's supper was a prominent feature and we know that offerings were done. However, Christians met in house churches so are church buildings authorized? First century Christians probably didn't use musical instruments so is that authorized? In my own congregation (Church of Christ), we have acapella singing for that reason (By the way, I don't have any problem with churches using instruments in worship). I'm just trying to show how far down the line you could go when you're trying to figure out what's acceptable. One minister that I recently heard said, if you want to get technical about it, the early church probably sang in unison as singing in four part harmony (as we do) hadn't been invented yet. So is four part harmony authorized or is it just entertainment? I guess my point is, that maybe it's more about what is in your heart. For example, in Mark 14 when the woman breaks the alabaster jar and anoints Jesus. This was clearly something that was "unacceptable" to those around, but Jesus could see her intent and accepted her action. The apostles at the Jerusalem conference were very careful to not bind Jewish acts of worship on gentiles even though we know that they themselves continued to observe some of the rituals as demonstrated by Paul's vow and subsequent haircut). I guess my question is, how far do you go before trying to get the right form of worship outstrips the heart of worship?

  6. I'm trying to think about this on three levels. First, from within the RPW, is there really a consensus that sermon video clips are rightly classified as elements? [Yes, I realize _some_ Presbyterians hold this position. My question is larger: Is the RPW robust enough to lead Reformed thinkers to a consensus on the matter?]

    Second, can we identify a New Testament passage that clearly teaches the distinction between elements and circumstances–clearly enough to sustain the sort of application that Menikoff is making? [For me, it would be easier to teach Ryan's 11 points as application of NT passages on discernment and godly living. But again, that's not the RPW!] [Oh, and hello everyone. Yes, Scott and I have been talking a bit. I might take him up on his offer to write for "the other side," but the funny thing is…I still don't think I'm on the other side…]

    Third, does this specific example show us anything about the value of the RPW in defining the limits of church fellowship? Yes, various local congregations may covenant together to affirm the RPW. But if all of our churches decide to join the same fellowship and perhaps hold a conference together, would we insist that the RPW be practiced consistently in public meetings? [For Presbyterian and Reformed church bodies, the answer has always been Yes.]

  7. Greg, that's a fair question. People in Florida are pretty selfish (but aren't we all?) and really want air-conditioning in church to make them feel comfortable. It has everything to do with the flesh and there is no spiritual reason to have electricity and the AC that comes with it. People in FL who use AC put too much emphasis on the flesh.

  8. Gary,

    Thanks for chiming in and asking. I'm glad someone's paying attention. :) For me, I am not a Luddite. I am for electric lights and air conditioning. Yet, I think that when our services cannot go forward in their normal way when the power goes out, we ought to have some pause. If the lights went out or the AC went dead, things would get uncomfortable physicaly, but we should still be able to worship with what we have planned. Even if our microphones went dead, we should still be able to function in most situations (our churches might be too big if we were unable to function).

    Anyway, the point about electricity is more a point of caution than anything. Let's not make the worship of God dependent upon the power grid. That should never be. Churches should still be able to thrive if or when terrorists strike our sources of electricity.


  9. Reminds me of something I heard once (maybe from Bauder) that our services should be able to pass cave test: If anything we consider essential in our service couldn't be conducted in cave, then we shouldn't consider it essential! :)

  10. While I can accept that "theatrical production" was not used in Scripture, there are plenty of "theatre of the mind" examples. Are you saying that Jesus did not want people to imagine and even "visualize" the situation of the Good Samaritan, or the Prodigal Son?

    I have to admit I am not up on the RPW at all (they didn't teach anything about it in seminary in my day), and I am all for a "Word-centered" approach, it seems to me that it is easy to go beyond the intent of Scripture. I don't use movie clips (wouldn't that require a license like CCLI provides for music?), but wouldn't rule out a "theatrical" presentation.

    At what point do "object lessons" become things that don't fit into RPW?

  11. Steve, happy to have you here. You bring up an issue which is really at the heart. RPW aside, imagination is exactly what should be happening, yet what most critics of drama or video productions in worship would argue (including myself) is that such visual media destroy the imagination. They artificially manipulate the baser impulses which preclude nurturing the moral imagination and religious affections.

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