On Sunday, I had the chance to listen to a local cinematographer, and he said something that’s been rattling around in my head since. It was on how a cinematographer reads a script.
For those uninitiated in the film world, like myself, a cinematographer is like a photographer but for film. They work on storytelling through things like how close or far people are from each other in a shot, or what’s included in the frame. This cinematographer talked about how much of the work is capturing the emotion of what’s happening in a way that’s readable to the audience.
He said that when he gets a scene, there’s a part that has all the actual lines on it, and then there’s a part that describes everything else – the setting, the reactions, the movement. He was taught early in his career, ‘forget about the lines, the actors are going to say those, you’re responsible for everything else.’
So he reads scenes and looks at everything except the dialogue. His whole field exists, literally, between the lines. He has made a career out of bringing all of those things that aren’t the lines to life.
He mentioned that he sometimes reads scripture the same way. That, to add an additional layer of understanding to how he views the text, he does a sort of reverse-red letter edition, where he takes time to look at all the things other than what Jesus is saying. How do people react to him? How does he interact with his environment? How does his context shift around him?
The framing had allowed him to see shades and nuances to scripture, to have insights that he might have totally missed before, and helps take the well-known stories and bring them to life. Walking away, I found myself reckoning with a new tool to use to read scripture, but also, a new tool to analyze my world.
Imagine a church website, and its mission statement. The mission statement is almost inevitably a combination of some denominational language (“we believe we are saved by a justifying grace”), a piece of scripture – often the great commission (“to go out and make disciples”), and at least a nominal reference to the specific community (“in the city of Smithville and beyond”).
Add in a few sermons and you may get a bit more of a sense of what that community values (Is there a lot of scripture in the sermon? Or pop culture references? Do they have inside jokes about the local football team?) but even then, anyone who has been part of a church community knows that’s nowhere near the full picture.
The words we say, read, and even proclaim don’t make up the whole story of who a church is as a community. The setting, the context, the other people in the scene, can tell some of the most important parts of the story.
Why does this matter for our work? We see leaders all the time who are trying to move their contexts in the direction of innovation, and are saying all the right words, but it’s just not clicking. Maybe part of the answer could come in taking a minute to read the rest of the scene.
Here’s some practical things you can try to “read” your scene between the lines this week:
- Use an undercover visitor: recruit a friend, neighbor, or family member who has never been to your church to show up one Sunday and not announce themselves as being connected to you. Ask them to keep notes on how they are treated (Are they welcomed? Ignored?), what they notice about the community (How do people seem to be responding to one another? Do people seem to have friends here?), and what barriers they run into.
- Learn more about your neighborhood: what is happening in the square mile around your church? Who lives there? What needs do they have? Do they attend your church? Do they attend a different one? Does your neighborhood look like your congregation? Why or why not?
- Look for who isn’t there: Part of a cinematographer’s role in framing the shot is deciding what isn’t in the shot. As much as we would all like everyone to attend every church, that isn’t possible. Your community makes (often invisible) choices about who you include and who you do not, and taking some time to look around for who isn’t in your community can make those invisible choices more clear.
Our hope is that you can read the scene with some additional insight and that that insight can give you the push you need to achieve the change you’re working for. If you want to talk through what you’re seeing, and what to do next, give our team a call.