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‘Figuring out how we share the gospel in Chandler and the world’

An Arizona pastor who’s also a film producer uses his brief films to provide his congregation with real answers to honest questions

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Robert Felix is pastor of Chandler Presbyterian Church in Chandler, Arizona. (Photo courtesy of Robert Felix)

LOUISVILLE — Each Sunday for the past few weeks, the Rev. Robert Felix has been giving parishioners at Chandler Presbyterian Church in Chandler, Arizona, real answers to honest questions. The way he goes about providing those answers — producing a short film each week based on a top faith question identified on Google Trends, then discussing the film and the question together — has proven to be an effective and innovative platform for, as he says, “figuring out how we share the gospel in Chandler and the world.”

Five years ago, the Presbytery of Grand Canyon ordained Felix, a film producer and graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, to a validated ministry to make films and visual sermons — a model that, as Felix points out, goes back nearly six decades to Pittsburgh Presbytery’s experience with a young Presbyterian pastor named Fred Rogers. Felix continues to work as a film producer even as he ministers to the Chandler congregation and its 55 or so members.

To date, Felix has aired brief films to the congregation on three topics: “God and Suffering,” “Lucifer’s Fall,” and “Why the Cross?” He plans to answer two more questions in the coming weeks: “Why does God hate me?” and “How do we pray?” As worshipers watch and discuss the films during worship, the congregation has been meeting both in person and online.

Each week, the pastor and filmmaker weaves photographs and very brief film clips into his visual sermon to further explain the topic: shots of a cemetery and ambulance, for example, punctuate “God and Suffering.”

“People get a lot of information from the internet and from watching YouTube, but you almost never hear a perspective from a Presbyterian,” Felix said. “There’s not much of a public presence for Reformed Christians, even though we have a really relevant message to share.”

Felix said the focus is “on answering questions for people without a strong background in the Christian faith. I can’t communicate in a way that’s jargony, like ‘washed in the blood of the Lamb.’ That doesn’t make sense on a colloquial level to the average person on the street.”

It’s not easy, he said, to produce a short film that answers a difficult question. All of the first three films clock in under 10 minutes.

“The shorter the message, the harder it is,” he said. “There’s a lot of work in translation, making a draft and thinking it through. I imagine myself in someone else’s position to make sure I am clearly explaining [the topic at hand]. People have said they appreciate it’s so clear.”

Beginning Sunday, the Chandler church will partner with another church in Arizona. That congregation will view the film independently and discuss it during worship.

The approach “hasn’t been tried a lot in the Presbyterian world,” Felix said. “The real challenge is making a deeper collaboration and saying, ‘how are we being brothers and sisters to this other congregation?’ I hope they will experience a lot of growth and energy and think about things in a new way. That’s the goal.”

Chandler Presbyterian Church is recording a welcome video for its partner congregation. On Tuesdays, Felix offers a Zoom Bible study where he exegetes Bible passages that speak to the previous Sunday’s film topic. On this coming Tuesday, the partner congregation will join that online Bible study.

When he began his validated ministry, Felix said he heard “some real skeptical voices” who told him, “A sermon is a dialogue. With a video, there is no dialogue.”

“I think what they really meant was, ‘Does the Holy Spirit really work in that way?’” Felix said. “I think I have way more dialogue than most sermons. … There is this hidden idea that a pastor is a priest, connecting the congregation with God, and if that person isn’t with you, then the Holy Spirit isn’t going to work.”

“As I have worked with people, what I have found is that people respond well to a message with visuals. They enjoy the music [that the gifted musicians at Chandler Presbyterian Church provide each week] and they enjoy that the film is edited and tight. … Most of the criticism is a feeling that things have to be the way they have been.”

“The pandemic started this ministry,” Felix said. “It was almost impossible before that.”

Outside of his validated ministry, Felix is working to develop a feature film and is part of Act One, a Christian community of entertainment industry professionals who, according to the group’s website, “train and equip storytellers to create works of truth, goodness and beauty.”

A few years back, Felix wrote and co-directed “The Road Back Home,” a 51-minute film during which viewers meet five of the approximately 14,000 people who were experiencing homelessness in the Phoenix area. Since Chandler Presbyterian Church has been participating in a ministry to the homeless, Felix and other church leaders decided to screen the film at the church. They established a theater-like setting and invited other Chandler residents, including local government officials, to watch the film and then talk about homelessness.

“It was cool to bring that to a different context,” Felix said. “We had a good time talking about that.”

Watch Chandler Presbyterian Church’s gathering recordings here.

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