Monday, October 8, 2007

My Top Youth Ministry Movies

Adolescents + movies = great insights for youth ministry. From junior high to college years, film can communicate some of the awkwardness, the idealism, the vitality, the pressures, and the coming-of-age during the adolescent years. These films can communicate some important truths for youth workers in our culture.

The Breakfast Club (1985) This film systematically placed every teenager of the 80s into one of five categories: brains, athletes, basket cases, princesses, and criminals. The simplicity of putting teens into categories like this has worn off over the years--now a teen can be an eclectic combination of all five, and then some. But this movie still has some insight into the pain and insecurities every teen faces, no matter how "together" they look on the outside. The film addresses issues like family problems, outside pressure to succeed, insecurity about the future, and high school friendships. One of my favorite characters is the janitor, a one-time high school celebrity who now mops the floors of the building where he was formerly king. This film is classic 80s, with silly dance sequences and lots of running from teachers with pumping music for a soundtrack. "You mess with the bull, you get the horns!"

Rebel Without a Cause (1955) James Dean is an icon of the 1950s. He personified rebellion and teen angst perfectly in this film about a troubled teen trying to find himself in a new town. The film follows Dean through an exaggerated day filled with knife fights, drag races, and 24-hour romances. The conflict between Dean and his parents in the film is strikingly realistic. Natalie Wood is also great as a girl who falls for the tough, emotive guy while still trying to fit in with everyone else. While this film was made back in the 50s, it has some important truths about adolescence in American culture that still apply today.

Dead Poet's Society (1989) This film is about teen boys coming of age and dealing with courage, identity, and significance. Nominated for Best Picture, "Poets" has some classic quotes, especially "Carpe Diem: Seize the day" and "Oh captain, my captain." This film inspires, but also deals with some tough teen issues, like conformism and suicide. While this film has some inspiring and thoughtful moments, it is probably more artistically-pleasing than insightful for ministry.

Elephant (2003) This independent film by Gus Van Sant was shot in Portland, Oregon at Whitaker Middle School. Elephant is the most realistic and shocking of all these teen films. Almost every student in the film is not a professional actor, and most use their real names. The camera follows different students through a typical high school day as they walk between classes, chat at the lunch table, or throw a football around. It's almost like a documentary without the interviews. The film has a shocking and disturbing conclusion that still haunts my thoughts. Aethestically, the film is beautifully shot and extremely true-to-life. This film gives insight to the darker side of high school--the gossip, the brokenness, the bottled up pain. The title comes from the phrase "the elephant in the room," the large tensions in youth culture that we can't seem to discuss openly.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) I just saw this for the first time a few months ago. The screenplay for the film is based on Cameron Crowe's experiences posing as a student at a high school in California (even before Drew Barrymore did it). The film focuses a lot on the awkwardness of sexuality, including some pretty racy-but-awkwardly-realistic scenes. Definitely an 80s movie, but has some true-to-life insight about teens dealing with some tough issues (like broken relationships and unwanted pregnancy).

Thirteen (2003) This film was co-written by and stars thirteen-year-old Nikki Reed. While Elephant deals with teen violence in a shockingly realistic manner, Thirteen deals with almost every teen issue in the context of one junior high girl's story. This film tackles divorce, popularity, consumerism, shop lifting, drugs, sex, alcohol, eating disorders, and almost everything in between. The downward spiral of the main character is tragic, to say the least. What makes this film so interesting to me is that it was co-written by a junior high girl and is semi-autobiographical. I would recommend coupling this film with the book Hurt by Chap Clark, as both deal with the hurts and pains of today's American teenager.

Garden State (2004) I like Zach Braff. I also like this film, in which Zach Braff wrote, directed, and starred. This might be one of the best films I've seen about the sense of loss and confusion felt by many during the post-high-school years. While I don't agree with some of the conclusions communicated in the film, there is definitely insight into the world of the American twenty-something who is still trying to figure out what it means to be an adult. It is also very creative and has one of the best soundtracks ever.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) Ok, this really doesn't have too much insight into today's youth. I just really like this film. It's fun. "Bueller.......Bueller........Bueller......."

Mean Girls (2004) While I wouldn't normally recommend anything to do with Lindsay Lohan, and while this film also has a lot of girliness in it, this film seems to accurately portray some of the unhealthy competitive dynamics that can happen between girls (and women in general). I've talked with a few girls and women about this film, and most have said that it gives an exaggerated-but-true account of girls being mean. (Tangent: why is it that while men are stereotyped as uber-competitive, women can be equally--if not more--competitive in social arenas? A dangerous question...) I learned a lot about adolescent social dynamics by comparing this film to what I would see in real life scenarios. Maybe not the greatest film in the world, but has some important insights about adolescent girls.

Jesus Camp (2006) This documentary follows the story of three children from Christian families in Missouri, focusing also on a pastor and her charismatic summer camp, "Kids on Fire." The film shows Christians at their weirdest, with the almost-idolizing of President Bush, very young children writhing on the floor in "spirit-filled" moments, and lots of war/battle rhetoric. The unhealthy marriage of politics and Christianity is also clearly evident in this portrait of the evangelical subculture. There are also some interesting scenes with Ted Haggard, the main character in a recent pastoral sex scandal. I wonder if this is what comes to mind when the emerging non-Christian generation hears the word "Christian." This film shows us how we can be informed of how our culture views us, as well as the dangers of some forms of religious education. In youth ministry, are we simply indoctrinating our students and teaching them to conform to our culture of American Christianity? Or are we calling them to be disciples of Jesus who use wisdom and prayer to navigate through life?

It takes prayerful wisdom and discernment to decide what aspects of films are insightful, while the other parts are just entertainment. It also takes wisdom to choose whether to watch a film or not, and I would strongly encourage you to check ratings and your conscience before watching some of these films. I don't recommend these movies for students, but rather for those in youth ministry looking for another perspective on the people they love and serve.

I'm sure I'm missing some films that give insight into the lives of adolescents. What could you add to the list?


  1. okay, so my teacher in the 4th grade was the house filmed in the move "elephant". O and whitikar is like 3 blocks from my house! just thought i'd let you guys in on that little factoid :-)

  2. I think your list is pretty good. Definitely some flicks that I would include in a list like that (BF Club, Dead Poets, Mean Girls).

    Some quick movies I think I would include if I were to make a list: Donnie Darko, What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, Orange County, Napoleon Dynamite, Big, Good Will Hunting, The Lion King, and Saved!. Good list idea; definitely appropriate for the times.

  3. Chloe-
    You rock! Your house may have been in a movie. We miss you guys.

    Good call on some of those movies! Would not have thought of The Lion King, though I did hear a speaker reference The Lion King at a youth pastor conference. Good Will Hunting and Saved are insightful movies too, especially regarding identity formation and the Christian subculture (respectively).

  4. Breakfast Club has way too much objectional language in it to ever use with teenagers! Our world is spiraling towards destruction and the lack of holiness in our ministries is not saving the world.

  5. Anonymous-

    Thank you for your point of view. However, it would show integrity if those making comments like this would share their names with their insights. And this list is not for showing to teenagers (which is stated in the post), but rather to give further insight to youth workers.

    For future reference, please choose to identify yourself!

  6. I would also recommend including "I am Sam" "Simon Birch" and "Remember the Titans"

    All are really great feel good movies with lots of underlying messages

  7. Good list. However, films such as Elephant have horrible language, violence and even a guy to guy kiss and the film Garden State has some pretty bad language (and drugs, drinking and sex). The rest of your list is great! I would recommend Napolean Dynamite, A Knight's Tale, or Bruce Almighty as well... Thanks! Matt

  8. Just to clarify:
    These are a list of films for YOUTH WORKERS who want to get some insight into youth culture, not for showing to students at youth group. Many of these films have R-ratings for a reason (language, violence, sexuality) and youth workers should watch with discernment and personal integrity.

    If a film's content causes you to stumble or leads you into temptation to sin, then I would highly recommend avoiding it.

  9. After watching Good Will Hunting yesterday, I was wondering if anyone has writting a list about movies that assist in learning youth ministry. Good list, good job.

    Another couple of movies that might help are Donnie Darko and Stand by Me.

    I am currently writing a paper on youth ministry and Neon Genesis Evangilion. Look for it in a couple of monthes.

  10. One movie that I found to be inspirational, though I'm not sure if it is what you were looking for as I've found that it applies not just to youth but to all peoples, leaders alike, was Ghost (1990) with Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore.

    (Spoiler Alert for those of you who haven't seen this film...)

    The separation of Patrick and Demi, with Patrick being in the spiritual realm due to an unfortunate death, lies consistent with our situation with God.

    Patrick desires to save Demi from impending dangers, and does so with supernatural intervention, as God does in the Old Testament; as God does today.

    However, Patrick's sole desire is nothing more than to let Demi know that he is there, and that he loves her tremendously. Yet the separation makes it impossible for him to effectively do so.

    This is where Whoopi Goldberg comes in as a fortune teller. Patrick discovers that Whoopi has the ability to hear him, to talk with him, and to interactively engage with him in despite of the spiritual realm in which Patrick is trapped.

    Everything leads up to the moment when Patrick persuades Whoopi to go with him to meet Demi. Whoopi tries, repeatedly, to tell Demi that Patrick is there and that he loves her, only to be shunned off as a crazy person.

    Finally, when Demi eventually agrees to meet and sit with Whoopi, Patrick takes over, possessing Whoopi's body, and makes physical contact in a beautifully conducted scene of love and romance.

    This film, in my opinion, effectively illustrates (though indirectly of course) the true heart of God. He is a God who loves severely, and is longing to reunite with those who do not know him.

    And who does Whoopi Goldberg's character represent? It represents us.

    Try watching the movie in that context, if you haven't done so already, and perhaps you too will see what I have seen in this incredible film.

    (I think this was a bit off-topic, and I sincerely apologize for that)

  11. I'm really surprised/shocked by the choices here... I think some if not most are inappropriate given the maturity of youth.

  12. I definitely love many of thew movies that have been suggested in the original post as well as in the commentary. However I disagree with some of the comments ragarding what is appropriate for a youth group. I am 16 years olf and have seen nearly every movie that has been posted, (apart from Orange County,Elephant, and Garden State), I find that many of my peers avoid the church because of the high level of patronization.

    Drugs, Sex, and Foul language are part of our culture, by denying they exist in a church is ridiculous. Admitting they exist and making it clear that they are wrong is a much more mature and adult way to handle a situation.
    I do understand that there is an age limit to everything, but in most cases using the general rating guide is a good way to go.

    Other films I think you should include are, "The Dead Poet Society", "Amazing Grace", "Men of Honour", "Coach Carter", "White Oleander", "Ghandi", "Toby Mac- Alive and Transported", "One Night With the King", "The Nativity Story", "Speak", and "A Walk to Remember".

    All but five of the movies listed by othersw have not been watched by my youthrgoupr open from the age of 13 to 19 with no negative concequence. Perhaps the maturity of modern youth is underestimated.

    -Christina Gillard age 16

  13. Ferris Bueller's Day off! This movie has had some bad comments from prestigous christians who say 'it has bad impacts on children and their growing minds.' Like anyone has the confidence of Ferris. Plus, people underestimate a teenager's maturity. I tknow teenagers look at this movie and go, pschh, I wish.
    Anyway, even though I disagree with people's points of view against this move, you must keep in mind to ask everybody if they are happy and allowed to watch this movie even before renting/buying it, especially at a youth group- you never know!

  14. Wow. You REALLY need to change the title of this post. It shows up third on Google when you type in movies to show to youth groups (as in teenagers) and this list is a REALLY inappropriate list for youth group leaders to show to teenagers. Some poor youth group leader who has never seen these is going to take your word for it and get fired! Your title needs to indicate that these movies are intended for youth group leaders, not for youth groups.

    (BTW, I think the reason so many commenters are posting anonymously has more to do with convenience than with integrity. Commenting anonymously doesn't require jumping through hoops to sign up for an account. If it makes you feel better, my name is Jess.)

  15. @Jess, thanks for the comment (and for leaving your name!). I would hope that youth leaders could take the time to actually read the post, including the numerous indications that it's a post intended for youth workers interested in seeing adolescent culture in films. If anyone actually got fired from their church by showing a film based on a blog post that they didn't actually read, I'd feel bad. Yet I'd wonder about their wisdom and discernment as a shepherd of young people.

  16. This is a good compilation of some really good movies that would move you to know more about youth culture and the problems that are afflicting them. The awesome part is that they show the visual story that reflects the outward appearance of the problems within.

    For anyone wanting to learn more about ministry, there is a lot to be said for the contrasting of what you learn in a classroom versus what you learn through film. Again, it's that visual representation that we identify so easily with sometimes. I would also include an oldie but a goodie, if you can find it... it was kind of one of the first among independent films to find incredible public acclaim from crowds and critics alike... "Spitfire Grill." It really exemplifies a theme that applies in ministry. Blessings on fellow ministers in the trenches pointing people to the foot of the cross, and the Mayward blog as well...

  17. I've always thought American History X is an important movie for youth leaders to see as it portrays the power of influence. It is most definitely a harsh movie so you should be prepared for that if you choose to watch it. - Vanessa Eisenzimmer