As a Christian involved in filmmaking, what do I think about success and failure?
[This article was originally posted on HOSFU, a Christian Indie Film site. Unfortunately, that site is now shut down and some of their pages are dead. So I thought I would re-post my article here. It received a lot of comments when I posted it so I think it’s worth throwing into the blogosphere again.]
The question: As a Christian involved in filmmaking, what do I think about success and failure?
God’s Work in God’s Time.
Do you ever find yourself anxious to see the fulfillment of something you feel God has promised? In our particular context as filmmakers, we are part of projects that can be huge, complex, time-consuming, and expensive. Personally, I’m working on a film project that began almost ten years ago and we expect to have impact for twenty more. “The Enemy God” film took us four years of preparation and fundraising, accompanying years of terrible political opposition from a foreign government, the collapse of a well-respected ministry, and then we finally were able to shoot it! Then it was on to post.
I can’t tell you how many times some well-meaning Christian told us that it was obvious to them that God ‘just wasn’t blessing it’ or that ‘if God were in it, the doors would just open’ and our lives would be easy. Over the years, though, we have seen miracles that have matched the obstacles. Now we are distributing the film, and the challenges continue – awards and lots of pats-on-the-back, followed by being flat broke and with a few cold shoulders from people we thought would be the biggest fans.
American Christian culture tends to interpret God’s will by what we term, “open doors.” We all get excited and praise God for amazing stories where an underdog Christian film finds popularity and, even better, box-office success. We tend to say things like ‘God is really blessing this film and we’re seeing lots of fruit from it.” And the converse is also true; if things don’t seem to be progressing, we may interpret it (or be told) that what we are attempting is not His will. If a project doesn’t gain great audience numbers, perhaps God isn’t blessing it. But is this a true way to discern things? In our Christian film community here, what do we think about success and failure?
Here are some thoughts I have had from long years with both in my ministry.
– Sometimes, things that are in line with God’s will and purposes take more time than we expect. “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness” 1 Peter 3:9. Place yourself in the shoes of a devout Jew during the 400-year period between God’s last spoken prophecies in through the prophet Malachi and the appearance of Jesus the Messiah. You know the promises, are devout in your prayers for Messiah to come, and you believe that is it God’s will to save His people and to draw the nations to Himself. Yet there is a delay – long delay. Many generations die waiting. Do you think others talked a lot of trash about such beliefs? Like Job’s friends, religious people often have religious answers that seem to make sense and to be based in truth about God. However, like Job’s friends, their answers just happen to be wrong.
– It is possible for Godly people to spiritualize activities that are done mostly by our own power and effort and skill. What I mean is that very talented people are capable of creating impact, even godly impact, without much dependence on God. I’m not about to point fingers or name names, because I understand that it is difficult for me to fully understand my own motivations and the source of the power and skill I try to demonstrate. Sometimes I am fully aware of God’s presence and overwhelming power as He performs tasks through me. Other times, I have to admit that I am not so sure. I believe I am being faithful, but I can lose the clarity about who is accomplishing a task. What’s more, I know I have worked ahead of (or sideways to) God on many occasions. I don’t think I’m the only one who finds this to be true in my life. My conclusion, therefore, is that I will be slow to judge both the “success” and the “failure” of work done in God’s name by my brothers and sisters. I believe it is possible for us to be ‘successful’ by some measures and in God’s name while entirely missing His point or intention. Likewise, it is possible for us to utterly ‘fail’ at something by any reasonable standard and still be doing exactly what God intends. That’s a mind and faith-bender!
– We can learn from Christians who come from other cultures. Non-western Christians are more patient, in my experience. They are willing to wait, even in the face of overwhelming hurdles and delays, based on their understanding of God’s purposes. Americans, especially, have a culture of achievement and an innate desire to make things happen. It’s in our cultural DNA, inherited in some way from the explorers, pilgrims, and pioneers who have gone before us. We are almost unique in our independent, up-by-the-bootstraps-and-against-all-odds, attitudes. Most other cultures have more of a relational orientation and a value of community rather than the individual. This means they take a longer view and judge by other criteria than individual success in a single activity. They may even look down on individual accomplishment because it is not connected with progress of the community. We Americans have an almost religious aversion to this kind of talk; to say anything against individual initiative and success is certifiably Marxist or worse. Yet, in relational, community-focused cultures that have also embraced the gospel, I have seen and experienced what I would consider a healthy perspective on how the Kingdom moves forward. For them it’s not primarily through the faith and guts and risk and sweat of individuals. It is often by the patient faithful watching and slow, plodding obedience of the community following God together. What we might see as ‘closed doors’ they may explain as just the normal working out of the supernatural conflict that has been in process almost since the beginning of time itself. They take a step back, check on what they know about God, and keep walking forward. They don’t over-analyze or switch paths easily or quickly.
All of these ideas are ones I ponder as I work through my own film ministry here in the US and overseas. I wonder what your experience has been, or what your perspective might be on this subject? Have you experienced any of what I’m talking about?