‘The Chosen’ is the latest in a long line of innovations the church has embraced
Growing up in church is a great blessing, but it…
Loretta Dale was skeptical at first.
Someone in her church life group had suggested watching a new serial depiction of the ministry of Jesus. “The Chosen” was telling Christ’s story from the perspective of the apostles and others who interacted with him.
“I thought, ‘I’m not sure this is for us. But we showed both of the first two episodes to our life group, and everybody loved it. … We usually end up in tears.”
The degree to which the show’s creators would fictionalize the gospel story concerned Dale, who has attended the Missouri Street Church of Christ in West Memphis, Ark., for 50 years.
“I thought, ‘I’m not sure this is for us,’” said Dale, who teaches education at Harding University in Searcy, Ark. “But we showed both of the first two episodes to our life group, and everybody loved it.”
Ultimately, Dale decided to watch the show with the Wednesday night women’s Bible class she leads at Missouri Street and use it as a tool to encourage deeper study of Scripture. At the same time, she said, the depictions of the disciples’ encounters with Jesus have made an emotional connection with class members.
“We usually end up in tears,” she said. “These women are crying at each episode.”
The West Memphis church is just one of many that have latched onto “The Chosen” since it premiered in the spring of 2019.
Churches from Canada to Colorado to Texas have viewed the show in Bible classes, small groups and weekday services. In doing so, they’ve set aside concerns about fictionalized content and their own experiences with low-quality Christian entertainment to find a refreshing way to approach the inspired Scriptures.
Some congregations, such as the Tintern Church of Christ in Vineland, Ontario, showed episodes on Sunday nights and set aside time the next week for members to discuss the depictions and reflect on the story in smaller groups.
“It was very well received,” said Noel Walker, Tintern pastoral minister. “Many people pointed out things they just hadn’t thought about before.”
“The Chosen” is the brainchild of evangelical filmmaker Dallas Jenkins, son of “Left Behind” series co-author Jerry B. Jenkins. The younger Jenkins produced a short Christmas film for his nondenominational church in Illinois in 2017 depicting the Luke account of the annunciation of Jesus’ birth to a group of shepherds. That project became the pilot for what Jenkins and other producers of the show now see as a seven-season series that takes viewers through the gospels.
To finance the show, the creators turned to crowdfunding, raising more than $10 million from 16,000 investors to produce the first season. To date, supporters have donated more than $40 million, and funding for the third season, set to begin production in the spring, is nearly complete.
Even more unusual has been the show’s distribution model. “The Chosen” now is disseminated for free through a “pay it forward” design. Early episodes were posted to YouTube, and all episodes and bonus content are free on iPhone and Google Play apps that can be seamlessly cast to streaming-equipped televisions.
The show also has been translated into 50 languages and is available on Amazon Prime and several similar secular platforms. Producers say their goal is for the show to be watched by 1 billion people.
The first two seasons were filmed in Utah and rural Texas, and now producers have broken ground in Midlothian, Texas, on a $20 million production complex that will include a replica of Capernaum, the hub of Jesus’ ministry, and a 30,000-square-foot soundstage.
A key goal for the project, say producers, has been high production quality, something Christian movies and television don’t always have a reputation for.
“It’s definitely done at a high level,” Walker said. “I think that’s why it’s different.”
Zach McCartney, college minister for the Hillcrest Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas, agreed and said he believes that’s the primary reason the show has been so successful.
“It’s stellar content,” McCartney said. “And that was the key — it had to be well done.”
The youth group at the Newark Church of Christ in Delaware began watching the episodes last year. Meanwhile, Casey Coston, director of Blue Hens for Christ, a campus ministry of the Newark church, began watching it with University of Delaware students, many of whom have unchurched backgrounds.
“It’s a really good balance between creativity and a biblical focus,” he said. “If I can get people to watch the first episode, then they’re hooked.”
Several church leaders who have watched the show with their congregations acknowledge the challenge of reconciling the high view of Scripture typically held by members of Churches of Christ with the poetic license taken by the show’s writers.
Indeed, much of the story and dialogue are fictional and extrabiblical.
For example, the show’s first episode depicts Sanhedrin member Nicodemus struggling and failing to heal Mary Magdalene of her seven demons. Another portrays the man Jesus healed at the pool of Bethesda in John 5 as being the brother of Simon the Zealot. Roman soldiers detain Jesus for questioning early in his ministry, essentially out of curiosity. James the son of Alphaeus has a physical disability that forces him to walk with a limp. Matthew is on the autism spectrum.
“We spent some time thinking about that,” said Mike Byron, adult Bible class coordinator for the Northwest Church of Christ in Westminster, Colo. “We met and weighed the pros and the cons. But ultimately we decided the benefits outweigh the negatives. It allows people to visualize how things might have been.
“We spent some time thinking about that (extrabiblical content in “The Chosen”). … But ultimately we decided the benefits outweigh the negatives. It allows people to visualize how things might have been.”
“For example, there’s no evidence Nicodemus tried to heal Mary,” said Byron, who has watched episodes with his Sunday morning Bible class. “But was he motivated by Jesus’ miracles? Absolutely.”
Though Nicodemus the Pharisee appears just three times in the book of John, his role in the first season of “The Chosen” was prominent — he’s even depicted as clandestinely providing funding for Jesus’ early ministry.
“We don’t get much about him, though he obviously was important,” Walker said. “The way they present his character — I think it’s a fair read. He wants to follow Jesus, but he doesn’t — and he’s heartbroken.”
“The Chosen” producers emphasize the show is “about the Bible” rather than a precise retelling of Scripture, several watchers pointed out.
“The show makes it clear there’s a great deal of speculation,” Byron said. “And they say, ‘Read the gospels.’”
Dale said her standard for evaluating the storytelling is that, first, it must not contradict Scripture, and second, the additional narrative must be true to what might have been.”
“I’ve learned to do more of that in my own preaching — flash back to important things in the Old Testament in the way that they do. … That’s what a good preacher should do.”
“It’s not the Bible,” she said. “It’s a historical novel about the Bible. But it brings home the fact that these were real people. And we research every episode, so it’s getting people into the Bible.”
Members of Churches of Christ who have watched “The Chosen” in their congregations praise the routine flashbacks to Old Testament accounts that foreshadow Jesus’ ministry or are referenced in his teaching.
In season one, for example, Jacob and his sons are shown beginning to dig the well where Jesus eventually meets the woman in Samaria. And in a later episode, David, on the run from King Saul, is depicted acquiring consecrated bread for his men from Ahimelek in Nob.
“I’ve learned to do more of that in my own preaching — flash back to important things in the Old Testament in the way that they do,” said Coston, the Delaware college minister. “The way they presented Moses preparing to lift up the image of a serpent in the wilderness and then tied it to the book of John was done very well. It built tension and emotional connection. That’s what a good preacher should do.”
Most recently, “The Chosen” creators have produced a feature-length Christmas special that was released in theaters nationwide on Dec. 1. Initially planned for a two-day run, demand ran so high that movie distributor Fathom Events added another 10 days.
From its opening through the first weekend, “Christmas with the Chosen: The Messengers” was the No. 1 new release and No. 4 overall at the box office, grossing nearly $9 million. The show included performances by about a dozen Contemporary Christian musical groups and artists and a bonus narrative episode depicting the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus.
McCartney, at Hillcrest in Abilene, said he was watching a YouTube livestream by “The Chosen” creator Jenkins when he learned about the theatrical release.
“I immediately got online and bought 10 tickets and wanted to buy more,” he said. “I knew it was going to sell out, especially in Abilene.”
In West Memphis, Dale also knew that several members of her Bible study group as well as others at her congregation would be interested in going as a group.
“I wasn’t sure how many tickets to get,” she said. “I bought some, but I had people calling asking for more. We ended up with 27 going.”
Not all of those who have watched “The Chosen” with their congregations have flocked to the Christmas show or say they are certain to continue watching when the third season is released next year. But many have and do plan to watch.
“My wife and I are all in,” McCartney said. “We started showing it last year, and probably 15 of our students came in just because of that event. It’s a great tool we get to use.”
And Dale said she has no hesitation with continuing to use the show as a tool for discussion and Bible study.
“We can hardly wait until the next episode,” she said.
KENNETH PYBUS is an associate professor and chair of journalism and mass communication at Abilene Christian University in Texas and a First Amendment lawyer.
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