Usually, when a Hollywood studio "reaches out" to the church audience, it does so with an eye toward selling tickets, period. And usually, when churches take notice of a film, it is with an eye toward finding quotes and clips that can serve as sermon illustrations, evangelism "tools," and the like.
But something different is happening with Evan Almighty.
One of the recurring themes in the film is that people can help to "change the world" through Acts of Random Kindness—or ARK, for short. And so, a few weeks before the film's June 22 release, a website went up called Ark Almighty, with the aim of connecting people with needs to other people in their church who can fulfill those needs.
Jennifer Harris, who coordinates the Ark Almighty program at First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Missouri, says people in her church have given out free food and done other people's laundry. So far, most of the requests have come from within the church, "but we're planning to open it to the community, for making requests," she says. "We're hoping that it's members of our church who are fulfilling those."
Personal information stays private, and it's up to coordinators like Harris to put the people with needs in touch with the people who volunteer their skills, after the requests are posted. Harris has also made a point of keeping the requests within reasonable limits. "The one we've had to watch so far was someone who wanted their lawn mowed every week of the summer, and we decided we aren't exactly a yard care service," she says. "That might be crossing the line just a bit."
Harris says her church, which is attended by about 500 people on any given Sunday, was already involved in outreach, but Ark Almighty has enhanced their efforts.
"We've had kind of a team in place, called Caring Hands, that has done a lot of these things," she says. "In fact, we're still utilizing them a lot, when needs come across that they would typically meet. I'll give them a call and let them handle it. But this has been a further step of that, and we've given people multiple opportunities to be able to get ahold of us and express the needs that they have."
The idea for the good-deeds program came from Grace Hill Media, a publicity firm that specializes in promoting secular films to Christian audiences. They got together with Youth Specialties, the International Bible Society and the Willow Creek Association to brainstorm ways of bringing the movie's "acts of random kindness" to life. (Grace Hill representatives declined to be interviewed for this story.)
David Welch, senior director of marketing for Youth Specialties, says the idea for the program actually goes back to Pay It Forward, the film starring Kevin Spacey and Haley Joel Osment. "I remember churches and many pastors would use that Pay It Forward film as sermon illustrations," says Welch.
"So when this film came along and the concept of doing Acts of Random Kindness came along, the guy at Grace Hill thought, 'Oh, great, finally, an opportunity to take that excitement that we saw with Pay It Forward, and to do it as a Christian outreach and not just as an illustration.' It's bringing the film to life at that point."
Some people have expressed concern that a major movie studio—Universal—is using the church to promote its movie, but Welch says it's actually the other way around. "We're using the film instead of the film using us," he says. "People are going to see Evan Almighty, so churches might as well use this—and on Universal's dime.
"That's the great thing, that when Grace Hill pitched this, it wasn't done in secret. They told [Universal] outright, 'It's a Christian outreach, it fits the mission of the church, it fits the theme of the film, and will you fund it?' And they said, 'Yes.'"
In addition to helping church members serve each other's needs, the website offers several resources, including a four-week curriculum on "changing the world" for youth groups, sermon outlines, movie clips, and ideas for good deeds.
Welch says it has also been encouraging to see pastors getting new ideas for outreach from the other pastors that have made use of the program. "So just the collaboration aspect of it and being able to go on and look at another church's outreaches and ideas—there is no other site that exists that has that," he says.
And what about down the road? Will the Ark Almighty program continue once the movie has come and gone? "That's the hope," says Welch. Youth Specialties already has plans for the film's DVD release in November; among other things, they are talking to major secular retailers about bundling the DVD with their books.
"One of the things we're doing is reworking some curriculum to help some students deal with social justice issues," says Welch, "and we're working on another book that will release with the DVD that deals with social justice and changing the world. And we're also working on a journal for students that helps them walk through their acts of random kindness, if they want to meet in groups and chronicle that."
The words "social justice" might sound rather large and ambitious for a program that focuses on small, random acts of kindness, but Welch says it ties into the film's theme that "changing the world" starts on the personal level—even if it goes on to other levels as well. "It might start with teaching students to have the heart of a servant by doing laundry and so on, but that's the starting place, and if they have a vision to change the world, it's going to go beyond changing laundry."
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