My movie Persecuted is scheduled to hit theaters nationwide this summer and I have enjoyed the process so far of screening it for key leaders across the political and religious spectrum, since the film is often described as a political/religious thriller.
One of the most fascinating such screenings came when I recently screened the film for a man who had once been described as one of the nation's foremost up and coming religious leaders before quitting his burgeoning ministry and simply dropping off of the map – not because of a Jimmy Swaggart type scandal but simply because he had tired of the life of a celebrity preacher. His reaction to the film especially resonated with me because that is exactly what happens to the protagonist in my movie, a TV preacher named John Luther who, after becoming a fugitive after being accused of a murder he didn't commit, decides its time to get out of the "business" of saving souls on TV.
Tom (not his real name) watched Persecuted, and when he came out of the theater turned to me, rubbed his head, and said "I hope I'm that man, but I wonder if I'm not."
I've never forgotten those words and they ring in my ears every day as I think about this uncompromising man who would give up all of his pleasures and securities for what he believes.
Some might say, "not everyone is called to do what Tom has done," and that may be true, but in whatever form it may take, we all have the chance to live out our beliefs – nor not.
I am especially mindful of all of this after the recent apology by another up and coming megachurch pastor over church monies used for questionable book marketing. Although he didn't drop out of public ministry, he did say that he too was tired of being a celebrity pastor. While a public apology is a good start, the real problem I see in the church is still at large: Thousands of young people are taught that the highest goal is to become a famous preacher and not necessarily to become more like Jesus. It may not exactly be phrased like that, but it is an unspoken component of the celebrity preacher syndrome.
Tom's reaction to watching Persecuted is what I hope those impressionable minds considering ministry or the priesthood will reflect upon. If these young would-be ministers knew the true cost of following that call they would be much more careful about telling people to come forward at altar calls and growing their congregations simply in order to get noticed and become celebrities.
I am a pastor's kid. I've grown up around megachurches and preachers – both the good ones and the charlatans. I saw all the hard and often thankless work my father put in and know in my heart that if the calling is true, it is a noble one. But I also know that an institution is not conquered from without until it is first conquered from within, and to all the would-be celebrity pastors out there who may be embarking on the road of ministry for less than honorable reasons, I would remind them of the words of the late Johnny Cash who once famously sang: "Sooner or later God is gonna cut you down."
Come to think of it, filmmaking has a lot in common with preaching – the thrill and exhilaration of telling stories and having people wanting to hear your next sermon or watch your next movie is exciting. And I'm sure I'll soon find out the particular temptations that come to filmmakers as well. As I continue down this road I'll remember "Tom" and the warnings he's given me that preaching (or filmmaking) causes problems in our hearts when our heads get too big and we forget that storytelling of any sort is a gift that needs to be exercised with great care and humility and for greater purposes than our own pride and vanity.
Daniel Lusko is the writer/director of the film Persecuted which releases on 600 screens nationwide this summer. For more information please visit www.persecutedmovie.com.