Writing - Challenges for the Christian Screenwriter

Jas Lonnquist (San Jose, California USA)

Archived discussion

About the presenter

Jas Lonnquist is a screenwriter and producer with credits and awards in film, television, video, and print. Her work has appeared on PBS, the Discovery Channel, Tech TV, E, and more. Clients include Microsoft, Intel, USA Today, and many others. Jas lives in northern California with husband Michael Klebig where they love to ski, kayak, and camp. As volunteers, they devise media technology strategies for humanitarian aid and ministry in lesser-developed countries.
I'm a Christian by grace and a screenwriter by trade. For 23 years, all of my assignments were secular — comedies, educational programming, and, since I live in Silicon Valley, technology scripts that tell stories with emotion and humor. My first film for a faith-based market was produced in 2015.

Being a Christian helps me deal with the challenges of this career. It also adds a few. For example, a producer once described my teen hero in a poignant coming-of-age screenplay as "whitewashed" due to the lack of profanity and pants-dropping. A Silicon Valley client stopped hiring me after interviews appeared online about my faith. But these situations are rare and at this time in my life, I know to my bones there's nothing that can replace the power and peace I have from following Jesus. I'm grateful and I'm all in.

Here are challenges you may encounter.


Ideally, as a screenwriter, you're talented, well-trained, entertaining in a pitch, and have relatives in the film industry who owe you favors. You've written more than one screenplay and won awards. You're ambitious, young, and live within 20 miles of a studio. If any of these do not apply, they are your first challenges.


The hard truth is that, even for the talented Christian with the purest motives and most eager desire to serve, among all of God's beautiful and precious promises, he never promised anyone a film deal.


Maslow's hierarchy of needs reveals potential problem areas.

    NEED FOR FOOD, SHELTER, AND OTHER PHYSIOLOGICAL IMPERATIVES: For these, money comes in handy. But, of the 50,000 screenplays registered with the Writers Guild each year, as few as 150 films are released. Many Guild members report annual earnings of $0. Paychecks are reduced, sometimes drastically, by commissions to agents, managers, entertainment attorneys, and taxes.

    NEED FOR SAFETY AND SECURITY: There can be long stretches between gigs even for the most successful writers. Deals fall apart and projects fall through for reasons beyond the writer's control. Some writers find it hard to work in this fog of "no."

    NEED FOR LOVE AND BELONGING: There are great collaborations and loyal friendships, but you'll also find fierce competition, jealousy, ageism, and all the usual behaviors that erupt from naked, selfish greed or despair. All writers endure blunt critiques, rejection, and harsh reviews. Many work in isolation.

    NEED FOR ESTEEM AND RESPECT: Screenwriters get rewritten, replaced, and rejected. In a pitch meeting, you may feel awkward, desperate, or like an organ grinder's little monkey. The writer may not be welcome on the set. Your best lines may be casually cut or attributed to the stars who say them. As writers age, most are considered less relevant.

    NEED FOR THE SELF-ACTUALIZATION THAT COMES FROM REALIZING PERSONAL POTENTIAL: Finally! This is why we write. Writing allows us to probe human nature, explore deep themes, and work through complex emotional territory. But I highly recommend celebrating your self-actualization sometime between typing "Fade to Black" and the organ grinder's monkey routine.

Every single one of these needs is addressed in the Bible which provides wisdom and comfort in times of struggle and redirects fractured priorities. But this is a tough industry. When power and big money are involved people often, shall we say, deteriorate. "For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice." (James 3:16) The craving that permeates the heart can be torture. Keep your own eyes on true riches (Romans 10:12-13) and be compassionate because there can be a lot of pain behind beautiful faces and bright smiles.


The best films are stories of redemption — people striving, failing, finding redemption, and being recommissioned with hope. Seems like a good fit for Christians, right? Christians are redeemed sinners, nothing more or less. But have you ever noticed that when someone quotes the Bible in film it's often a clue that something is "off" about them? Here are some of the most cliché "Christian" characters on film and TV:

    Judgmental hypocrite.
    Repressed, prejudiced person.
    Naïve do-gooder.
    Unintelligent, gullible person, often from middle America.
    Ignorant, superstitious person, often from southern America.
    Psychotic maniac or serial killer, quoting Scripture.
    Frothing-at-the-mouth evangelist (don't forget the southern accent!)
    Magical misfit who summons God to do his earthly bidding.
    Delusional person, believes he sees or actually is the Messiah.
    Formerly religious person, now bitter (don't forget the drinking scene!)
    Secret pervert.

Whether these stereotypes are due to lazy writing, ignorance, hate, or something else entirely, this prejudice creates obstacles to selling faith-based or even faith-inclusive stories. To be fair, every self-proclaimed Christian does not behave like a follower of Jesus and certainly every person in media does not persecute Christians. In fact, the producer of A.D. and The Bible mini-series, Mark Burnett, was just named president of MGM Television. But at times it can feel as if the only on-fire Christian likely to illuminate an industry meeting is Joan of Arc.

Filmmaking is collaborative and Christians working in the industry have limitations similar to other workplaces. An executive at Tesla may be a Christian, but that doesn't give him the power to stamp "John 3:16" on each steering wheel. What Christians can do is push for a faith-inclusive atmosphere, make worthwhile projects, and continuously strive for excellence.


Whenever a faith-based project is financially successful, interest surges. Following hits like The Passion of the Christ and The Bible, studios work to capture the same audience and earnings with other faith-based projects. Trouble arises, in my opinion, when these follow-up projects are created by people who don't understand or respect the material or the audience (see clichés above). They attempt to create art for the fly-over states which they apparently visualize as populated by gophers, adults with childlike minds, and toothless snake handlers. When these ill-conceived projects fail, the commitment to faith-based film evaporates.

Another model involves churches raising funds and rallying talent from their own media programs and pews to make a film. Here, the filmmakers are passionate about the material and the audience, but the budget is microscopic. This makes it hard to deliver the quality performances and cinematography people are accustomed to seeing onscreen. To avoid alienating their core audience, filmmakers tread a fine line when delving into painful issues or showing honest depictions of the ugliness in the world. As a result, stories can sometimes be simplistic or predictable. Key messages may be preached in one big speech rather than integrated into the story, sometimes to satisfy a group financing the project. Still, these films are finding audiences and the grassroots support of people who are desperate for films that don't disrespect their values and mock their beliefs. As audiences grow and these heroic efforts become financially viable, quality improves.


In 2015, I wrote My Son, My Savior, the story of Jesus' life through the eyes of his mother. It was a beautiful experience, spiritually and professionally. It wasn't my first adaptation, but I realized an immediate challenge in adapting Scripture for film is the awesome responsibility to truth — you potentially infuse meaning or editorialize with each idea and word not in Scripture. A second challenge is that Bible adaptations depict phenomenal, miraculous events. These require creativity to portray and viewers must be fully absorbed in the story to be convinced. Throughout, I had guidance from four wonderful content experts and my own son who is a pastor.


Film must touch emotions, a challenge when sharing a very familiar account. My Son, My Savior shifts the point of view to Mary, a devout Jewish girl eagerly awaiting the Messiah along with her people. Every beat of her story points to Jesus as the promised Messiah, but we focus on Mary as she gives birth in a squalid barn, flees from a king determined to kill her baby, watches as her son's destiny unfolds, and weeps at his feet as he is as tortured to death. Many viewers know this story well, but if we experience it through Mary, it's no longer a familiar reading or a beautiful stained glass window. It's an emotional journey with the woman who knew and loved Jesus like no other. His sacrifice is even more emotionally powerful on film when we feel her sacrifice. Ideally, the experience lingers and viewers want to learn more.


So, find your role and approach every challenge "as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves." (Matt 10:16) Work hard and "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord." (Col 3:23) May you be blessed and may your work be a blessing to many others!

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Ruthann Mickelson 27 days ago
The following article was in the Wisconsin State Journal this morning (March 29, 2016) concerning "faith-based films". I like the trend he is talking about, even though it may not be from a Lutheran perspective. What do you think? http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/envelope/cotown/la-et-ct-faith-based-movies-20160325-story.html

Jas 26 days ago
Great article - thanks so much for sharing, Ruthann! You see hints at the challenges throughout: "...it's hard to ignore movies that are this successful on a regular basis." In other words, the industry would prefer to ignore this kind of story, but can't argue with a film that grosses a sum more than 22 times its cost ("War Room"). Why the resistance in the first place? Even the idea of "reaching out directly to pastors and other religious leaders" and to consult and have them co-promote movies is off in my opinion. If more Christians occupied the creative space, not just the marketing space, the message and the draw for Christians would be inherent. Thanks again for sharing this!
Tom Kuster 25 days ago
When I read about, and view "faith-based" films, I quickly confront the question I have puzzled about for a long time: what makes a film "Christian"? I used to argue that a film could not be considered Christian if it did not mention Jesus. Some recent faith-based films convey the message that God is love, and like the widely popular song "Amazing Grace" extoll God's grace but without mentioning Jesus. I've claimed that an artwork can't be "Christian" unless it at least mentions Jesus, even better if it somehow explains what Jesus did for us, and still better, if it does that in a manner that it's not "dragged in by the hair" but somehow integral to the plot. Creating that kind of a screenplay, in which the work of Jesus is clearly presented and integral to the plot, is a real challenge for the Christian screenwriter. Would such a movie be interesting to the Hollywood "faith-based" studio departments?
Jas 24 days ago
In my opinion, a film with the message that Jesus is the promised savior would be interesting to the film industry if it made money. Media creators across the board want to know in advance there is an audience and that a film will be financially successful. If independent films with a clear gospel message (and I think it would have to be more than one film) make money, similar films will get financed. One thing that intrigues me now is the explosive growth of American films in China. Here's an article about it from the "Hollwood Reporter". http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/china-box-office-grows-astonishing-851629
It intrigues me because many Christian friends of mine who work in China in education or technology have told me that people are extremely eager to hear the gospel message and learn about Christianity since that information is not easily accessible. This presents a challenge and perhaps an opportunity, especially as distribution becomes less dependent on brick and mortar theaters.
Tom Kuster 24 days ago
Your comment that it would take more than one financially successful Gospel-bearing film to convince Hollywood that there is an audience for them reminds me of an incident that speaks directly to the development of Christian screen-writers. It was at a BEA conference in Las Vegas in a session featuring a professional agent who advises screenwriters how to get their work in front of the studios. She said she'd be happy (and I think she meant that) to work with any potential screenwriter, but to take one on, she would first demand to see five full-length screenplays they have written. She would not read them, she said. She would work with them on the sixth. The five were just to demonstrate that they were serious about their craft.
Tom Kuster 23 days ago
Your mention of China brings to mind the video clip I referenced in discussing Terry's Schultz's presentation on "culturally appropriate" music. I'm including the link here too, below, because it is by Carol and Calvin Conkey (from outside our usual circles) who have been doing video work in China for years, and it importantly emphasizes what we identified back in 2012 at our Media Outreach in World Missions conference at Bethany as the "Cultural Challenge." WELL WORTH 18 minutes of your time to view.

Copy and paste this long URL:
Mark R. Harrington 24 days ago
Jas: your post is very interesting and enlightening on the tough life of a movie screenwriter! Wow, it seems one would have to have real tenacity and a great liking to the screenwriting process to stay with such a vocation! There does seem to be though a real hunger in our country for Christian/Bible oriented movies (e.g. the first "God's Not Dead" movie had a $2M production budget and made over $60M domestically and "The Passion of the Christ" had a $30M production budget and made over $370M domestically), and there is a need for such movies to be well done and theologically sound. I have an idea for a movie script based on a true story (Confessional Lutheran tie-in) and was wondering from your experience if it would have potential? Professor Tom Kuster has my contact information if you could provide feedback.
Tom Kuster 6 days ago
The connection was made.
Tom Kuster 23 days ago
I dream that some day we can be luring Hollywood into producing our full-length screenplays with strong Gospel messages. But that is some way off. What we need, I believe, is the development of strong screenwriting programs in our schools. We have many talented and committed Christian young people, and iff scores of our students are studying and practicing screenwriting every year, out of that number will emerge some that could rise to the top of the field. It has to start in the schools. Todd Hackbarth (among others) is a strong advocate of PRODUCTION courses in all of our schools - an important idea - and of course Bethany has strong credentials in teaching production. But WRITING is the key - really it's the hard part - and we need many more courses in teaching WRITING FOR THE SCREEN.
Luke Ulrich 19 days ago
I would encourage our aspiring writers to not just think of shooting for Hollywood and all the challenges that comes with it (--tho, I wouldn't discourage either, it if they are willing to deal with the challenges that Jas describes above.). But as Steve Zambo's presentation pointed out, consider how many more viewers one is able to reach on YouTube or Facebook. It seems to me that people, especially those outside of Christianity (if we are talking about outreach) might be more willing to invest 5-10 minutes on a well-done video shared on Facebook than on a mini-series or 2 hour full-length feature film. As a Pastor, I'm searching for such things that I would be able to share with my youth groups and bible classes and confirmation classes as conversation starters, etc.--it could also prove to be an easy way for common people via their Facebook accounts or by email share the gospel with the people they know who are outside of the church.

Jas: Are writers like yourself already doing work like this on a much smaller level? I'm sure your list of challenges for the writer would be much different when working up such "screenplays" as I'm imagining.
Judy Kuster 19 days ago
I hope Jas sees your question, too because it is a good one, but I thought I'd suggest you look at one of the resources on my presentation in the conference. (Free Internet Bibles and Bible Stories for Gospel Outreach around the World). I don't know how good all of them are, but there are several free videos that are "conversation starters" linked next to the icon that says "Short Films". There are also a LOT of short cilps from the JESUS film that might be good to start discussion, too.
Luke Ulrich 19 days ago
Thanks Judy! I will check those out!
Jas 13 days ago
Hi Luke, Sorry to be slow to respond (family ski vacation, no computers allowed!) I agree with you - there is no reason to be limited to industry filmmaking in this day and age. This is an age of unprecedented possibility for those prepared to use new technologies. (And, as Paul said to the Corinthians, "I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.")

Yes, I do donate my time to write and produce short form projects for ministry and humanitarian aid as time allows. My husband, an A/V enthusiast, often volunteers with me. For these projects, we use our own camera gear and Final Cut Pro 10 edit system. Currently, with demanding careers, we can donate only one or two of these projects per year. We also volunteer in our church video studio. In 2004, a wedding videographer and I decided to “tithe on our careers” - donate our professional skills for 4 hours a week to launch a video streaming program for our church. We wrote a proposal, the church purchased the equipment, and we began training volunteers. We now have 16 trained volunteers who work in teams of four each Sunday to record and broadcast the sermon message. We also produce promotional and informational videos as resources allow. Our church recently added a Media Outreach Elder position, invested funds to update our 11-year old studio and convert to HD, and established a Social Media team. We hope to do more production. But even short pieces require time, equipment, skill, crew coordination, and collaboration to do well and this is a challenge with an entirely volunteer crew.

That said, may I brag on the Apostles Video Studio volunteers a bit here? They range in age from 17 to 81 – half are over age 60. Our volunteers were willing to start at square one to learn how to operate cameras, direct, edit video on the computer, write scripts, run a TelePrompter, and share video online. They have a great time working together and know the value of the service they provide. Plus, I just love when grandkids stop in the studio and are amazed and proud to see “Poppi” directing a 3-camera live-switched production or Grandma editing at a computer work station. So I highly recommend tapping this pool of wise, talented folks. They'll rewrite your vision of retirement.

A tip for those who are interested in creating their own short form pieces: think about everything from the viewer's perspective. Would I find this interesting enough to click on and view? Would it hold my attention? Would it make me feel something? Would it make me think? Would I share this with friends? Is the video quality good and the audio excellent? Is there a way for viewers to follow up, connect with a community, or learn more? Never use licensed or copyrighted material without permission or you could make your church vulnerable to a lawsuit - that includes licensed images, product brands, art, and music. Be sure to get a signed release from everyone who appears on camera.

J Bukowski 8 days ago
I love that idea of training a new generation of Christian screenwriters! I also like the idea of sponsoring more Christian screenwriting contests. One of my questions is - what makes something in a script sacrilegious? Also how far is too far in terms of content for the Christian screenwriter? Jas touched on that with the story of the producer claiming that a script or character was "whitewashed." Obviously the Bible is full of stories of murder and adultery, but where exactly is that line for the Christian screenwriter? Or is there a way to suggest those things without showing them? Does the writer need to think in terms of writing different content for different age groups? Maybe it would be helpful to have a team of people at the CMI who would be willing to read new screenplays and make suggestions on content or doctrine...
Jas 8 days ago
In my opinion, it's appropriate to have Christian or Christian-friendly films that are for teens or adults only (given a rating of PG-13 or R). Evil is offensive. If it's glossed over in a film we won't have much of a redemption story and we could lose the opportunity to connect with people who need the film the most. But I think there are thousands of intelligent ways to show evil - the extreme attraction, the pain, the depravity, and its high cost - without a salacious, frame-by-frame depiction of it. There are so many creative options. And although one producer did call my teen protagonist "whitewashed" (which was irksome but, trust me, it can be worse) that screenplay went on to win a major (secular) award - many clichés about teens were absent, but the redemption story was real and that's what I believe people responded to.

I read the Bible cover-to-cover every year and, as mentioned, there are a number of accounts you'll never find in a child's illustrated "My First Bible". The Levite and his concubine in Gibeah, for example. Lot's daughters. All those Philistine foreskins in I and II Samuel. Definitely adult material but still true stories that could be depicted on film in a way that wouldn't cause Christians to drop their popcorn and flee. My strategy would be to focus on, first, what motivates the scene, understand why it's necessary to the film, and second, focus on the emotional reactions. I would probably use audio cues, metaphoric images, reaction shots, and let the brain fill in the blanks. How poignant it would be to see an extreme close-up of that concubine's dirty, bloody hand on the doorstep in her final mute appeal. It stirred outrage against rampant evil then and could stir similar feelings today.

I like your idea of CMI content experts willing to advise on the theology and also, for some films, provide cultural guidance for foreign markets. It's so great to tap the deep knowledge of a content expert. It elevates the script and can stimulate new ideas.

Tom Kuster 22 days ago
(I'm commenting a lot here, but writing is my favorite subject.)

May I turn us back to the question: what makes a film Christian? As noted above, I used to say it at least had to mention Jesus. Now I'll venture, for your comment, a more refined view, inspired by the remarkable confession of Prof. Harstad that leads these conference presentations under the title "The Gospel for Today - and Always." He presents there seven basic teachings of Christianity in a way that is especially relevant today. Let me suggest that a film can be considered "Christian" if it, in some significant way, embodies one or more of those seven points.

If a film touches on none of them, it can hardly be considered Christian, no matter how heart-warming or God-referencing it is. If a film, even though promoted as "Christian" or "faith-based," contradicts any one of them - as for example presenting a conditional gospel, proclaiming that IF (very big if) we are faithful to God, THEN God will bless us with success (our team will win the championship, our marriage or business will succeed, our child will be miraculously healed, etc.) - such a film which conflicts with points II and III and V and VI of Prof. Harstad's statement would be considered perhaps a "flawed" Christian film.

And so, once more, a film can be considered "Christian" if it, in some significant way, embodies one or more of those seven points. Read Harstad again, and consider whether his statement of faith could be applied in this way.
Brian Klebig 13 days ago
My research team and I have been conducting some content analyses of moral intuitions present in film. There is a construct called "purity" which refers to a vague kind of spirituality or connection to the divine. It's a broad concept that is intended to be able to envelop all manner of religious messages. Despite its incredibly broad nature, virtually no movies marketed to Christian audiences had scenes which could be counted as upholding purity. Generally there was so much moralizing that any divine connection was swallowed up by it. They were almost always more about care, fairness, loyalty, or obedience to authority than they were about any relationship with the divine. I find this trend to be simultaneously disturbing and promising. Disturbing for obvious reasons, but promising because it means there is a lot of opportunity, and that opportunity may even be fairly simple to realize.
In addition to the observation that very few ostensibly Christian movies were upholding any uniquely Christian values, we couldn't help but notice that these films were also almost all painfully "on the nose" about their subject matter. I would agree that if you were to say a film was a Christian film it would need to mention Jesus. However, I would also say that a movie can uphold all seven of Prof. Harstad's markers without directly mentioning Jesus (Ben Hur would be an example of how a movie like this might be generally constructed). On its own, a movie written in this way would likely not win anyone for Christ, but of course movies don't work in isolation of other factors. People talk about them. Christians talk about them. I think a movie which upheld the seven markers and yet never explicitly mentioned Jesus would be an effective tool for beginning a conversation about exactly these topics, an encouragement for Christians who would see these aspects of their faith celebrated rather than condemned, and frankly make for a very compelling story. The public image of Christians is (and has been since the beginning) an obstacle to combat. I am inclined to think that media which combats rather than supports that public image would be to our advantage. It may not be independently Christian without direct mention of Jesus, but it would be useful for Christians in our work.
Jas 11 days ago
Such an interesting point to keep in mind. There’s no question that, while some films seek to target a Christian audience, they don’t have a Christian theme, they perpetuate non-scriptural notions such as people dying and turning into angels, or they have the muddy theology Tom describes. Some of these do more harm than good. On the flip side, even devout Lutherans may not rush to see the doctrinally accurate, message-driven “Luther’s Small Catechism: The Film”. (Or might they? Hmmm… Tom, screenwriting contest opportunity?)

The best strategy is to create and build a brand that is known for producing consistently excellent, compelling films that include a Christian message (see the guidelines Tom suggests). Viewers know what to expect from established brands and learn the differences between films involving James Cameron, Kirk Cameron, or Cameron Crowe. If these stories are compelling, they have potential to reach wide audiences, be tools for evangelism, strengthen Christians, and grow the brand (which is a necessity to be sustainable).

The challenge is that filmmaking is highly collaborative and, with each film, there are a lot of people and companies with skin in the game. Compromises take place. Also, films are expensive. It’s a huge leap of faith for Christians to put money into a film when there are so many ministries that need our support and funding. But these are challenges, not stoppers. It would be incredibly exciting and rewarding to be part of a creative community producing outstanding Christian films. And I don’t underestimate the potential. My own mom didn’t grow up in a Christian home but learned the gospel at age 13 through a radio program that invited listeners to request a Bible study course.
Jas 21 days ago
Last night on my Netflix feed, for the first time as far as I know, I noticed a "Faith and Family" category. This made me wonder if it's a new category or if the algorithm adjusted due to my recent viewing of "The Robe" and other faith classics. If the category has been around awhile, apparently my typical binge viewing of BBC mysteries didn't trigger it or I just wasn't scrolling down far enough. A quick search online turned up this interesting article about "unlocking hidden Netflix categories" - if you haven't discovered the "Faith and Family" category, you may want to check it out! http://wgntv.com/2016/01/12/these-secret-netflix-codes-will-unlock-hidden-categories/
Judy Kuster 20 days ago
Very interesting, Jas (as in your paper which I enjoyed reading). But this message led me to YouTube where I uncovered several entire "Christian films" that are (at least for the moment) freely available online. One is the 1953 Martin Luther film (b&w) starring Niall MacGinnis, that I saw many times in my Lutheran School during Reformation week. Another is The Hiding Place (which has Romanian subtitles) and an additional YouTube of individuals reading the book, chapter by chapter. I've mentioned some of the "epics" that I've found online, too, but was interested to find these movies this morning. I will watch the Luther film again.