4 reasons this worship story charmed my church

June 26th, 2015

Here’s a short film my team and I created for worship at my church, Peachtree. First, to set the stage: Peachtree high school students have gone to the same summer camp for 74 years. Not the same students, but you get the idea. The church calls it Camp Rutledge because it’s in a dilapidated state park near the small town of Rutledge, Georgia. It’s so old it was run down in 1979, when they filmed the original "Friday the 13th" movie there. And it’s still run down today. Our students go there every year and get muddy and nasty and play games and worship and do camp stuff.

The camp is about as sacred of a cow as there is at my church, and I mean that as a compliment. I’d rather have a youth camp be a sacred cow than an orange shag carpet in the fellowship hall.

My first month at the church, June 2012, paralleled that year’s camp, so I didn’t get to do anything with it until the next year. One of my filmmakers and I talked it over and this is what we came up with:

I think the video works pretty well, and better after two years in some respects than the day we made it. Here’s how, and with it four lessons on how to tell a good story. 

One, the film is beautiful. First, good stories don’t compete with but build upon core spoken or unspoken values of the church. (This means you have to understand the church you’re producing for.)

One of the core values at Peachtree is that worship is of the highest quality.

When we first ran this film in worship, we’d only just installed HD projectors in the traditional, liturgical worship service. Many people thought video had no place in the sanctuary, of course, and so we fought a few battles to make it happen. (I heard things at Peachtree during this period I hadn’t heard in years at a church, such as we’d installed a “Jumbotron.”)

When you’re advocating for change, you open yourself to slings and arrows, because people are comparing the best of what came before, refined over decades if not centuries, against the embryonic efforts of the new. It’s not a fair fight, so you’ve got to make what you do amazing to compete, in any setting. It’s even more challenging at Peachtree, which is an elegant congregation in the heart of Buckhead area of Atlanta. Many of the members are accustomed to the best at work and at home, so we needed to wow them with the possibilities the new screens presented.

My filmmaker, Dave Karger, produces some awfully pretty pictures. He was key to making our story succeed and helping our creative tinkering transform into lasting innovation. 

Two, the film highlights a core strength of the church. Another of Peachtree’s core values is that it is intergenerational. Some families have roots deep into the church’s 100 year history. A lot of church leadership gurus say that’s a likely cause of stagnation. But what if instead of fighting it, you highlight it?

We interviewed “members of long standing” — people who’d had membership at the church for decades. Loyce Sandifer, the first woman in the film, who has since passed away, was a member for over 60 years. You begin a film with her on the new screens in the sanctuary and you’re going to smooth over some ruffled feathers!

Further, the film both highlights and transcends the intergenerational value by intercutting the saints of the church with the young whippersnappers. 

Three, the film has a hook. Good storytelling never simply approaches a story “straight.” It needs an angle or hook to help contextualize and provide meaning to the experience. The story here is that kids go to camp and they are changed. A story requires a changed life; that’s what makes it a story. The changed life in this case are the kids who experience God and grow spiritually. We could simply tell the story straight but it wouldn’t have had the same impact.

Using a hook of memories from the church’s saints allows the viewer to take a long view and see Rutledge not just as a week of playing around but a formational week in a person’s entire life. 

Four, I let the filmmaker do his job. A large part of the success of this piece goes to Dave’s work. He’s amazing at what he does. Here’s what I did as a creative director to help him succeed: I cast a vision for what we wanted, I brainstormed concepts with him, and once we together settled on the hook, I let him do what he does. I didn’t micromanage his creative process; I supported what he needed.

Hire good people, let them do their job, and you will be amazed at the results. 

What are ways you like to tell stories in worship?

Len Wilson is the author of "Think Like a 5 Year Old: Reclaim Your Wonder & Create Great Things" from Abingdon Press.

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