In a couple of weeks, Disney-Pixar Studios will release their latest animated feature film. Ratatouille (pronounced rat-a-too-ee) will follow Toy Story, Shrek, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Cars as movies that are far more than mere cartoons; they are marvels of computer-driven animation technology with scripts that bring laughter to adults and children alike.
But this time there are a couple of unique marketing challenges for the Disney-Pixar folks that have led them to develop an all-day marketing blitz, a 90-second spot on the American Idol final show, and many product tie-ins designed to draw people to view a 9 ½ minute preview on the Disney web site. First, Ratatouille is about a rodent in the kitchen of a Paris restaurant who wants to be a chef there. So, there is an “ick’ factor to overcome because in most people’s minds, a rat and a kitchen are an unlikely pairing. (Even though some note that Disney has done quite well for itself in the rodent –read ‘Mouse’– category!) But even more problematic is that fact that Disney-Pixar has sunk a ton of money into an original, big-budget film at a time when movie-goers are demonstrating their preference for what NY Times reporter Michael Cieply called “repeat performances of known commodities like Spider Man, Shrek, and Pirates of the Caribbean”, not to mention Rocky, Die Hard, and the Bourne movies.
In other words, people prefer sequels. Cieply notes that “originality is a dying value in the blockbuster end of the movie business.” In the past 5 years, only 20% of films that grossed over $200 million in US ticket sales were original in content, rather than a sequel or adaptation of a pre-existing book. In the 1990’s, original work scored twice that.
With $150 million already invested in Ratatouille, director Brad Bird and the studio are under pressure to create a certain buzz along the way so that people will be willing to plunk down $8 to watch the antics of a rat in a kitchen. They must find a way to capture people’s attention, make the story seem compelling– and then deliver on what they promise. And do all of that in a world where people are shying away from the hard work of thinking about a new story with new characters.
How? Listen carefully to director Bird: “Wonder takes time. You don’t rush wonder. You have to coax the audience toward you a little bit.” They will introduce Ratatouille a little at a time, and bring people along with them into a new world.
In that exact same world, evangelical Christians (like us) are desperate for people to see Jesus Christ as He is and encounter His gospel. Jesus is more real than any imaginary character; his message is more important than any movie script. But we continue to struggle with capturing people’s attention and making the gospel seem compelling for their lives – which means they never get the opportunity to see if Jesus will deliver on all He promises. That struggle shows up in our “market share”: as population increases, the percentage of Christians stays stagnant or declines.
Why? We have not yet grasped what movie-makers know. People no longer want original; they want sequels. If you have something original, you have to work extremely hard to merely gain an initial hearing. And here’s what we evangelicals have been struggling to admit: for most contemporary Americans, especially those aged 35 and under, the gospel message is something entirely original. Oh, they think they know it –but it is buried under layers of persistent societal images of those “Jesus people” as political-social conservatives who are on television a lot and are always campaigning against something. They assume what they see on tv is the gospel. But most of those people have never heard the gospel in a way they can understand. The story of Jesus—His identity, teachings, miracles, character, substitutionary death, resurrection and reign—is an unknown. Most have no frame of reference by which to process any of this because in their minds, their life and Jesus is an unlikely pairing. Besides, they are already committed to a sequel in their mind; they want to deal with something that tracks with what they already know or believe. So, asking one question about religious preference and then spitting out a rapid-fire recitation of Biblical truth before asking for an immediate up or down response about may no longer be an effective evangelism tool. That’s sort of like asking people to give a review for a movie they’ve never seen—only the stakes are so much higher.
How can we reach people like that? Listen to Brad Bird again: “Wonder takes time. You don’t rush wonder. You have to coax the audience toward you a little bit.” We want people to fall in wonder with Jesus and His gospel. That’s why we call it amazing grace. But that takes precious time. So, we meet people where they are, not where we want them to end up. We listen well to their story—their hurts, longings, joys, dreams. We have conversations and find ways to bring the Jesus story right next door to theirs. We show them how all of life—headlines and heartaches, family life and work-life, fears and joys– is designed to make sense only in reference to Jesus. We serve their needs—even if it costs us dearly and hurts. We communicate the gospel slowly, one truth at a time—and faithfully live it out before their eyes.
And all along the way, we trust the Holy Spirit to coax them towards Jesus a little bit. You know how the Bible describes that? Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” (John 6:44) Evangelism simply means we partner with God in wooing people towards Him – no matter how long it takes, how many conversations we have or questions we answer or explanations we give or prayers we pray.
Why? We want far-from-God people to see—and be drawn to– something truly original. To see Jesus—and themselves– in a way they never have before. To trust Him for something new, for “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away; all things are made new.” (2 Cor. 5:17) You see, when one new life in Jesus opens in front of the world, it is a blockbuster that causes the heavens to roar with angel cheers, saints’ applause– and the laughter of Jesus from the throne.