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So, a crazed gunman opens fire and you’re caught in the middle. How can you survive? Heroes come in all sorts of packages. And they wield all sorts of defensive weapons.

Such as guns and Jesus. Sometimes both at the same time.


Antoinette Tuff

When a disturbed young man marched into a Georgia grade school with an AK-47 and about 500 rounds of ammo, the quick thinking and warmth of school secretary Antoinette Tuff helped ensure his surrender before anyone got hurt. She says she prayed the entire time, shared her faith with the disturbed young man, then encouraged him to do the right thing.

At one point, the highly agitated gunman asked Tuff to call a local TV station. According to WSB-TV in Atlanta, the gunman demanded the station send a TV crew to film him killing police.

“Then the gunman began to break down,” reports the Los Angeles Times.  And as he began to waver in the school’s office, Tuff started counseling — and consoling — the young man, who began lamenting that whether he lived or died did not matter.

“No, it does matter!” she told him, as a 911 dispatcher recorded her pleas. “I can let them know you have not tried to harm me or do anything with me or anything – but that doesn’t make any difference, you didn’t hit anybody. … Don’t feel bad, baby. My husband just left me after 33 years… Yes you do! I’m sitting here with you and talking to you about it! I got a son that’s multiple-disabled. We’re not going to hate you, baby, it’s a good thing you’re giving up.”

As he wavered, “It’s going to be all right, sweetheart,” she counseled him. “I just want you to know I love you and I’m proud of you,” Tuff told him with 911 listening in on the phone. “That’s a good thing that you’re giving up, and don’t worry about it. We all go through something in life. I tried to commit suicide last year after my husband left me, but look at me now, I’m still working, and everything is going to be OK.”

“Tuff told a local news station that she was able to stay calm because of what she had been learning from her pastor at church,” reported Nicola Menzie for the Christian Post.


Antoionette takes a call from Barack Obama

“My pastor, he just started this teaching on anchoring, and how you anchor yourself in the Lord,” Tuff told the Post. “I just sat there and started praying. I just remembered the teaching and how he taught us how to consult people when they’re bereaving and all that.”

“I realized at that time that it was bigger than me,” she added. “He was really a hurting young man so I just started praying for him. I just started talking to him and allowing him to know some of my life stories and what was going on with me, and that it was going to be OK and he could just give himself up.”

When asked for her thoughts on why Hill was so compliant, Tuff told a local news station, “I have no idea. That was nobody but God. I can’t even put that on myself. I was praying hard.”

“I give it all to God,” she repeated when a reporter suggested that she was a hero. Tuff insisted that she was no hero, and that it was “through God’s grace and mercy” that she was able to maintain her composure.


Leo Johnson

God’s intervention was also cited for preventing a bloodbath in Washington, D.C.
Leo Johnson, the operations manager at the Family Research Council’s headquarters in Washington, D.C, confronted a deranged young man who rushed toward him brandishing a gun, intending to commit mass murder. The would-be terrorist told the FBI he selected the FRC as a target after finding it listed as an “anti-gay” group on the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center. After reading seeing FRC’s headquarters on the SPLC’s “hate map” on its website, he had determined to kill as many FRC employees as possible.

However, Johnson stopped him, taking a bullet in the arm as he wrestled away the attacker’s gun – preventing him from harming anyone else.

“I would give credit to my faith for everything that has happened,” Johnson said, admitting that after he took the gun, he considering turning it on the struggling would-be terrorist, but “it was God who spoke to me and told me to not take his life, to spare his life. And, you know, I’ve never regretted that decision.”

The attacker has since been sentenced to 25 years in prison for the attack.


Jeanne Assam

God’s protection was cited again in Colorado Springs when a church volunteer subdued a gunman who had already attacked another church and a Christian training center.

When the gunman rushed into the New Life Church, he started shooting churchgoers. Church volunteer Jeanne Assam ran to the sound of gunshots and says “God guided me and protected me.”

She told the media how the gunman entered the east entrance of the church firing his gun. “There was chaos,” Assam said, as parishioners ran away. “I saw him coming through the doors” and took cover, Assam said. “I came out of cover and identified myself and engaged him and took him down.” She shot him dead.

Assam had several years of experience in law enforcement and is licensed to carry a weapon. “I give credit to God,” Assam said. “God was with me. I didn’t think for a minute to run away.” Fellow churchgoer, and Vietnam veteran Larry Bourbonnais told the Denver Post  it was the bravest thing he’d ever seen.

Bourbonnais was among those shot by the gunman. “She just started walking toward the gunman firing the whole way,” said Bourbonnais, who was shot in the arm. “She was just yelling ‘Surrender,’ walking and shooting the whole time.”

The gunman had already killed four people at another church and then at a missionary training school. New Life Church Pastor Brady Boyd told the media that Assam “probably saved a hundred lives.”

However, at least 81 worshipers and 140 were injured died at All Saints Church in Pakistan two suicide bombers detonated their explosive devices. Around the globe, such attacks are increasingly frequent – particularly in countries where firearms are banned.


Family members receive terrible news after the bombing

No one was armed at the church except for two Muslim security guards who were killed. Also, the suicide bombers gave no warning before detonating the blasts that killed themselves and the Christian worshipers.

“In this time of tragedy, let us pray not only for healing and comfort, but also that God will continue using it to provide peace and turn sympathies toward Pakistani believers who have faced much persecution in the past,” said K. P. Yohannan, founder and director of Gospel for Asia.

Churchgoers there were completing worship and about to share a covered-dish dinner when the bombs exploded. Among the dead were 34 women and seven children. A splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility, saying they “will continue to strike wherever we will find an opportunity against non-Muslims.”

In a country where only 3 percent are Christians, many Muslims expressed sympathy and outrage at the attack on peaceful worshippers. Government officials condemned the attack. “Such cruel acts of terrorism reflect the brutality and inhumane mindset of the terrorists,” said Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Meanwhile, an armed former Royal Marine emerged as a hero when a similar group targeted a shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, according to the British newspaper The Daily Mail. The armed, retired Marine was credited with saving up to 100 lives.


Nairobi residents read about the mall attack

Armed with his personal handgun, he moved in and out of the mall many times, each time leading new victims to safety, according to reporter Onan Coca. “The morning of the shooting, the mall massacre hero was sitting in a mall coffee shop enjoying a beverage with some friends. When the shooting began, he escorted his friends from the building, but the brave acts he will be remembered for happened next. The man returned into the besieged building at least a dozen times rescuing somewhere around 100 people. Each reentry into the mall-turned-combat-zone was more dangerous than the previous, as more and more people were led out of harm’s way.”

However, the ex-Marine asked the news media not to release his name for security reasons – particularly since terrorists could target him and his family.

“He risked himself for about 100 people,” writes Coca. “How many families did he protect from heartbreak by his selflessness? Mothers and fathers who will see their children again. Sisters and brothers who won’t know the pain of losing their sibling to mindless violence. There are children who won’t have to experience life as orphans because this hero took a stand.”

In Oregon, two died when a gunman opened fire at the crowded Clackamas Town Center Mall near Portland. Again prayer was cited for saving customer, Jocelyn Lay, who tells of quietly hiding from the shooter and asking God for help.


Fonseca and Lay reunite after the shootings

She says the Almighty sent her make-up clerk Allan Fonseca, works at the Lancome counter at Macy’s department store. He calmly helped her navigate through the store to reach an exit. Then he returned to the danger zone to help guide others scrambling to safety, reported the Daily Mail.

‘The gunfire just kept going off,’ Lay said on Good Morning America. Lay said she started praying and then Fonseca “took me by the hand and took me down the escalator and out to safety.”

Prayer has also been cited when a gunman leveled his pistol at the customers of a Fort Worth, Texas, McDonald’s restaurant — and pulled the trigger repeatedly without result, according to the the  Star-Telegram.

When the gun would not fire, he ran outside and fired a shot in the air. The gun discharged.

He returned back inside and took aim at the terrified customers and employees. Once again, the gun would not fire.

After watching the restaurant’s surveillance video, “I’ve never seen anything like that before,” said police Sgt. Joe Loughman. “It must not have been their time to go.” He said police are baffled.

However, the young gunman’s mother, however, told the newspaper she believes the gun misfired – repeatedly – because “we were praying.”

She recounted how her son had called her, clearly disturbed both mentally and emotionally. When she hung up, she told the newspaper, “I told God to keep Jestin.”

When he went to the McDonald’s, apparently intending to kill strangers and his himself, his gun would not fire — at least five times.

His mother was praying.

And nobody died.

What’s wrong with church today? Are we in danger of turning worship into a flashy concert? Of watering down the message so nobody is offended? Of forgetting the simplicity of the Gospel?

4I grew up with a preacher’s kid. He was a fake following in the footsteps of his flimflamming father who did a great Vegas-style act at the grand piano. Both papa and son could turn on the tears and put on a fantastic show. The boy did a spectacular display of repentance and sorrow each year at our summer camp’s final-night altar call. He craved the spotlight. Moments after his public mea culpas he’d be back to his crass self, wanting to know if I’d scored with my girlfriend, claiming he was going to sneak away with his latest blonde during the baptismal service.

Privately, he and his dad were cynical and profane. But my childhood buddy has gone on to minister to a glittery mega-church much applauded in his denomination, a church distinguished by flash and showmanship and big attendance numbers – very much in the footsteps of his late father.

A few weeks ago, my friend’s son took his own life. It didn’t make the headlines like another mega-church preacher’s son’s suicide out in California. But I wish I had taken time with my friend’s boy. I wondered if he was ever exposed to the true gospel of Christ’s self-denying love.

The_Killers_in_concertAs I sat in a local church with its multiple video screens, kids on guitars silhouetted by stage lights, and overpowering music that defies congregational singalong, I remembered my old hypocritical buddy. Annoyed by all the noise of the day’s service, I pulled out my iPhone and to the consternation of my wife began surfing the Internet. I glanced around and noticed I was not alone. And when I googled “church” and “gimmicks,” I was not surprised to find a number of Christian leaders are just as puzzled as I with church that has turned into spectator entertainment.

rockofages3“We have had gospel rock and praise dancing in worship services,” writes Samuel Koranteng-Pipim on the website Affirm, “gospel puppets, gospel clowns, gospel cafés/discos and gospel theatrics/dramas for our outreach to youth, young adults, and the ‘unchurched.’ Now, it seems, we must have gospel magicians for our church services and weeks of prayer. By resorting to these ‘gospel gimmicks,’ are we in danger?”

“What is the true definition of ‘church’?” asks Stewart Wilkerson. “Big screens? Best logo design? The newest technology? The more I think about church, the more I see how astray church has become. Church isn’t about hymnals. Church isn’t about singing the latest song that has the most hits on iTunes. Church is about Jesus…and Jesus only.”

live-nation“‘World’s Largest Church,’ ‘World’s Fastest Growing Church,’ ‘America’s Fastest Growing Sunday School,’ ‘Fastest Growing Church in the State.’ These are frequently heard and seen slogans in these modern days,”  writes W.F. Bell in The Gimmick Gospel. “But, isn’t it a little silly to brag or boast about numbers? Where in all of God’s Word does it tell us to gimmick people into attending church services or Sunday School?’

“Millennials’ intolerance of hypocrisy necessitates that those of us in leadership do more than preach about values that this demographic holds dear,” writes writes Dorothy Greco in Christianity Today magazine.

Megachurch pastor Ray Kollbocker says today’s young adults “want Christianity to be more than information. They want to see how Christianity actually changes the world, not just talk about the change.”

0116WINTERJAM1mh“Because millennials have such an intense hunger for transparent relationships and truth,” writes Greco, “churches could foster intergenerational mentoring within their communities rather than depending upon the more impersonal leadership classes.”

And they hate fakery. Last week another longtime friend of mine was found dead in his Houston apartment. He was the son of a famous evangelist who was more or less the Rush Limbaugh of the 1960s – a radio preacher whose financial support came from a then-amazing million-name mailing list of “partners” who listened to his warnings on late-night radio.

This televangelist dreamed that his son and namesake would follow him at the microphone and in the pulpit, but the boy was tender and sincere – and refused to preach. At age 4, he was first trotted out at one of this father’s legendary crusades where the little boy sang “Jesus Loves Me” to the adoring crowd – and was hooked.

Although as an adult, he was too honest to fill his father’s pulpit, he was addicted to the love of the audiences. He cut multiple record albums – all sold at his father’s venues – and as an adult pursued a career in opera.

But he was scarred and wounded — a victim of spiritual abuse. In his final days, he confided in me having found peace with his Maker. “I don’t know that I ever was really saved as a kid,” he told me. “But I know I am now.” Even so, he had no desire to share his faith from the pulpit – although his father’s name would have gotten him on national TV and into churches nationwide. He cringed at the very idea – not even wanting to write a book about growing up with his famous dad.

7My friend just wanted to love Jesus quietly. He was tired of the glitter and the gimmicks. And so are so many others.

“Centuries ago,” writes Koranteng-Pipim, “the prophet Jeremiah spoke out against this tendency on the part of God’s people to mimic the gimmicks found in other faiths: ‘My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water. . . . Now why go to Egypt to drink water from the Shihor? And why go to Assyria to drink water from the River?’ (Jer 2:13, 18 NIV).

6“Unfortunately, some of us pastors and church leaders are sometimes to blame. We appear to put popularity, job security, position, and the illusion of outward success above our duty to the Chief Shepherd. We seem to fear that if we were to take a stand against these forms of worldliness in our churches, we would create enemies and threaten our support among our constituencies.

“If it is true that rock music (disguised as praise music and praise dancing) is the most effective medium to reach young people today, why is it that math teachers and chemistry professors don’t set their classes to heavy-beat and hip-swinging music? Common sense tells us that these entertainment media are not the most credible methods to communicate serious messages.

1“A doctor, meeting an apprehensive patient, does not dress like a clown in order to tell his patient that she has cancer. Jesus did not use the gimmicks of entertainment to proclaim his Sermon on the Mount. On the day of Pentecost, Peter did not set up a drum set or ask Mary to lead out in praise dancing to announce the resurrection of Jesus and His enthronement in heaven.

“And Paul did not persuade people on Mars Hill using gospel magicians.”

“What a perversion of the one true gospel is this modern ‘gimmick gospel.’” writes Bell in The Gimmick Gospel. “Give-aways, gadgets, and games are weekly emphasized to keep the crowds coming. It’s ‘Balloon Sunday’ one week, ‘Ice cream Sunday’ another week, and ‘BoZo-the-Clown Sunday’ the next week. On and on the ‘gimmick gospel’ goes, going so far as to have ‘karate preachers’ performing their stunts, and ‘cut-off-your-tie’ days.

Sommerkonzert“After getting thousands to attend Sunday School, what is taught them after getting them there?” asks Bell. “How tragic that multitudes of blind people are being led by blind leaders, ‘And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch’ (Matt. 15:14).

“Let us rid this country of the ‘gimmick gospel,’ for it is fakery, faulty and foolish. And in the words of Charles Spurgeon: ‘We can do without modern learning, but we cannot do without the ancient gospel. We can do without oratory and eloquence, but we cannot do without Christ crucified. Lord, revive Thy work by giving us the old-fashioned gospel back again in our pulpits.’”

8“The millennial generation’s much-talked-about departure from church might lead those of us over 30 to conclude that they have little interest in Jesus. Nothing could be further from the truth,” writes Greco in Christianity Today.

Is keeping up with today’s culture a bad thing? Must we shun technology and stagecraft? “The only thing permanent around here is change,” once quipped my friend and pastor, the late Jamie Buckingham, who was a bestselling author and the most popular columnist at a national Christian magazine.

2Jamie’s sermons were designed to draw in the seeker. “People don’t come to church wanting to feel bad,” he once told me when I asked why he didn’t preach hell and damnation. “They come to church wanting to feel better.” As a result, his church embraced technology and change. I remember well when a new music minister introduced new praise choruses. The congregation had been cutting-edge once upon a time, forsaking hymnals for overhead projectors and edgy praise songs. But they’d relaxed into their own new traditions — and this new songleader with his unfamiliar, new songs was irritating, prompting Jamie to have to remind them of their cutting-edge history.

concertWhy introduce the new? Why embrace videos and special effects? Nobody wants to be stuck in a rut — particularly a church trying to be relevant to the next generation.

“Unfortunately,” writes Greco, we’re seeing “many Protestant pastors relying on a consumer business model to grow and sustain their churches. This template for doing church and the millennials’ hunger for authenticity has caused an ideological collision.

“Seeker-sensitive services originally promised to woo post-moderns back into the fold. Out the stained glass window went the somewhat formal 45-minute exegetical sermon, replaced by a shorter, story-based talk to address the ‘felt needs’ of the congregants while reinforcing the premise that following Jesus would dramatically improve their quality of life.

New Orleans Second Line Parade Hits Streets Of New York City“Contemporary worship had already found its way into the mainstream, but their new model nudged the church further toward a rock-concert feel. Finally, programs proliferated, with programs for nearly every demographic, from Mothers of Preschoolers to Red Glove Motorcycle Riders.

“None of these changes were pernicious or even poorly intentioned,” admits Greco. “In the case of my previous church, choosing the seeker model began innocently. The staff endeavored to create a wide on-ramp for folks who might ordinarily bypass the sanctuary in favor of Starbucks. (As an incentive, we provided fair-trade coffee and bagels each week.) Trained not to assume that everyone was on the same page politically or spiritually, we sought to have friendly, nuanced conversations with visitors.

Born_Again_Concert_039“Being aware of those who come through the doors of any organization is a good thing. I have walked out of many services without a single person engaging with me. However, many churches gradually, and perhaps unwittingly, transitioned from being appropriately sensitive to the needs of their congregants to becoming – if you’ll permit some pop-psychologizing – co-dependent with them.

“What does co-dependence look like within a church?” asks Greco. “Avoiding sections of Scripture out of fear that certain power pockets will be offended. Believing that repeat attendance depends primarily upon the staff’s seamless execution of Sunday morning–rather than the manifest presence of God. Eliminating doleful songs from the worship repertoire because they might contradict the through line that ‘following Jesus is all gain.’

Fans_Dancing_at_The_Avett_Brothers_Concert_1-29-11_Peter_Ringenberg“Jesus was neither a co-dependent nor a businessman. He unashamedly loved those on the margins and revealed himself to all who were searching. He seemed quite indifferent about whether or not he disappointed the power brokers. Additionally, Jesus understood that the irreducible gospel message—that we are all sinners in need of being saved—was, and always will be, offensive. No brilliant marketing campaign could ever repackage it.

“I have been following after Jesus for more than three decades and the gospel still makes me bristle. Love those who publicly maligned me? Confess my sins to a friend? You’re kidding Jesus, aren’t you? Only he’s not kidding. Both his words and his life clearly demonstrate that to align ourselves with him means that we must be willing to forsake everything so that we might become more like him.

1“Rather than helping congregants in this endeavor, churches that bend into their mercurial whims foster a me-first mentality. This actually plays into one of the potential root sins of this generation: self-absorption. While it’s all too easy for those of us over the age of 30 to poke fun at their selfie antics, I think young Christians actually want the church to help them reign in their narcissism. Writer Aleah Marsden told me, ‘We definitely want to see Jesus at the center because the rest of the world keeps shouting that we’re the center. We don’t need the church to echo the world.’

“As they clamor for a communion supper with the best wine and freshly baked bread, the seeker-sensitive, consumer model has offered them treacly grape juice and dry cracker pieces, leaving them unsatisfied and frustrated.

Born_Again_Concert_039“If the Barna Group statistics are accurate,” notes Greco, “more than 8 million 20-somethings have given up on church or Christianity. Do their actions indicate a need for us to, as David Kinnaman suggests, ‘change our church structure, guided by the unchanging truths of Scripture to nurture their unique gifts and calling?’ Or is their departure an invitation for all of us who consider ourselves Christians to prioritize transformation into the image of Christ?”

It may be time for evangelicals to learn something from the Catholics. At the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII, famously called for a window to be opened and challenged his leaders to invite the Holy Spirit back.

9Vast changes were made to the Catholic service. In the years that followed, the mass became much less a liturgical show observed by a silent faithful. Congregational singing was welcomed back. Members of the congregation were invited to the podium to read the day’s text and assist in serving communion.

Today the new pope is taking it further, challenging his leaders to humble themselves, to wash the feet of the poor and take themselves off of pedestals.

As a preacher’s son, I feel the pain of the other pastors’ kids with whom I grew up. So many have quietly shunned the flash and the spotlight. Too many have left the church.

5One of the most remarkable exceptions is a preacher’s son I’ve known since he was eight years old. Now in his 50s, John Andrew Loveall quietly retreated a decade ago to rural Central America where he established a school for Mayan tribal kids whose families’ poverty forces them to work. Eight-year-olds sell tourist trinkets and their 10-year-old brothers shine shoes. None were able to attend school until Loveall established Escuela Integrada Para Ninos Trabajadores – the Integrated School for Working Kids – which now has an enrolment of more than 400 in the tourist town of Antigua, Guatemala’s colonial capital.

loveallThose kids are embracing the simple Gospel as they learn to read, write and do arithmetic. Many have gone on to high school and college. They know the Bible. They know that a loving God hears their prayers and wants to make a difference in their lives – and has a plan for each one of them if they will quietly seek it and listen to Him speaking to their hearts.

They’ve been changed by the simple Gospel of Jesus Christ. And by a pastor practicing that simple Gospel.

Ray and Rich Romano at the premiere of The Investigator

What does it take to make a good Christian movie? “Passion,” says Nicole Abisinio, producer of “The Investigator,” based on the true-life story of comedian Ray Romano’s brother Rich.

In the long-running TV series “Everybody Loves Raymond.” the character “Robert” was loosely based on real-life cop Richard.

In real life, Rich, like Robert, is a policeman with a loving but quirky Italian Catholic family and a know-it-all high-profile brother. In the film, Rich’s undercover cop character has to take early retirement after a drug bust goes bad. He finds himself filling in as a baseball coach at a Protestant private school, facing a classroom of disrespectful rich kids and scholarshipped athletes, the latter who have special privileges since their successes bring in donors for the struggling academy.

The skeptical kids challenge their uncomfortable substitute teacher to re-open several high-profile historical cases, including President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and whether Jesus Christ is a historical or mythical figure. At the same time, he has to transform a mediocre varsity baseball team into winners.

Why did producer Abisinio choose such a project? After all, she started her career in New York City investment management, working in private equity and hedge funds for six years while simultaneously picking up roles as an actress – mostly in forgettable roles. Then she started working as a movie production accountant and eventually as an executive producer in New York City. What she’s known for is finding film funding – bringing in multi-million dollar deals for films with actors including Terence Howard, Jack Black and Samuel L Jackson.

Producer Nicole Abisinio

Producer Nicole Abisinio

She got into horror films – which make a lot of money. However, cranking out axe-murder movies aren’t very fulfilling spiritually.

“I was a very hardened New Yorker,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I was producing action films and horror movies and really nothing that was necessarily positive. It was entertainment and it was, you know, sometimes not very good entertainment.”

She began to get discouraged, feeling that her work was doing little to make the world a better place. She grew increasingly discontent – and says there was a divine plan behind it all.

Ray and Rich’s alter egos in the film

“That’s just the way the Lord works,” she said at the recent premiere of The Investigator. “I began to see that there had to be more. After a couple of years of seeing my life change as I sought Him, I started looking for Christian scripts. I actually got very sick and almost died. It was during that period that Rich’s script came into my inbox when I didn’t think I was going to survive. The story uplifted my spirit, it changed me and it made me want to be a better person.

“I thought ‘Wow! If this script does this for me…’

“It made me want to fight harder to get better and if that did that for me, then how many people going through hard times could have that same experience? What if this script could help them be able to fight another day and fight harder and know that God is with them through it all?”

She jumped into the film with gusto.

Nicole even has a cameo in the film

“As an independent film producer, you know that you are going to spend a full two years – at least – on that film. So it has to be the right one. I knew I had to put together a solid business plan. But when I prayed about it, I knew that for the first time, I couldn’t go knocking on just anyone’s door.

“I didn’t go doing any of what I normally do. God spoke to my heart, ‘Prepare you house,’ so I got everything ready and knew that people were going to come to me.

“And they did. I received a phone call from a guy who I’d worked with on another project and he said ‘Oh, it’s so interesting that you’ve got this project. I’ve got this guy who is an investor …”

She met with him at a restaurant where the investor told her he had a dream of doing a movie about Christian apologetics and baseball. She says she almost fell out of her seat.

Skeptical kids and baseball fill this movie

Skeptical kids and baseball fill this movie

“Our movie was apologetics and baseball,” remembers Nicole. “It was unbelievable. He said ‘I’m going to invest.’ You can’t do anything without that, of course. Then we just went full speed ahead, casting 120 people and hiring our crew, but it was different this time. Everything was done differently than any movie I had done.”


“Because God was leading the way for it,” says Nicole.

Christian films traditionally struggle in the marketplace. Often they have trouble on a variety of levels.

“My husband is a movie junkie and a film geek,” writes blogger Nicole Cottrell. “By osmosis, I too ,have become somewhat of a movie nerd. Jonathan and I often sit and discuss the films we love. We talk cinematography, direction, screenplay, and of course, acting.

“We see all kinds of movies, from comedies, to dramas, independent films, to cult classics. But one type of film we avoid at all costs is the dreaded Christian film. [Twilight Zone music here…followed by a woman’s scream]. In decades of cinema history, maybe three or four films rate as a quality Christian film. ‘Chariots of Fire’ would be one. ‘The Passion of Christ’ another.”

Baseball also offers the film's best comic moments.

Baseball also offers the film’s best comic moments.

“The Passion of the Christ,” of course, did phenomenally at the box office — $370 million. Then there’s the “Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” which pulled in $291 million. So, yes, Christian movies can be money-makers.

The Narnia sequels, “Prince Caspian” and “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” did well — $141 million and $104 million respectively. Then there are the Sherwood Studios films – Courageous, Fireproof and Facing the Giants – which improve with each release, both in quality and in box office sales. Other well-done Christian films that have done well recently include “The Nativity Story,” “Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie” and “End of the Spear.”


Ray and Rich Romano

And there are those blockbusters that aren’t “religious” but have strong Christian worldviews, such as “The Blind Side,” “A Walk to Remember,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. What makes a movie “Christian,” anyway?

“Created with a Christian sensibility, a movie should be haunted by the invisible world,” writes scriptwriting mentor Barbara Nicolosi in an article with Spencer Lewerenz. “For believers, everything that we see is a sign of a reality that we cannot see. Paraphrasing St. Paul, all of creation points to the Presence and Nature of the Creator.

“A movie made with this conviction will leave viewers with the sense that beyond all the chaos and craziness in the world is a Loving Mind that comprehends it all, and is over it all. This broader vision–encompassing what is seen with the heart as well as with the eyes–has as much to do with good writing as with pastoral urgency.

“A Christian film should be imbued with the certainty that we are not alone. We were conceived of, worked out, prepared for, and assigned a place in the plan. We are connected to one another and to the One who yearns for us as the apple of his eye.

“Humans are meant to be merciful to one another,” writes Nicolosi. “Talents are given to us to speed us corporately on our way home to God. We should treat human beings the way we would treat any unique and precious treasure that belongs to someone else. “

4“I don’t want to knock any film that anyone is doing in any other Christian films,” says Abisinio, “because they have paved the way for us. The thing that has been said the most about this film and anyone that has seen it is ‘Wow! This film isn’t cheesy.’ This film is high quality, it’s got great acting and it’s real.

“That word just needs to spread. The more people that see it and tell everybody what they think of it, it will just go from there and explode.”

Wade Williams portrays the lead character -- Ray Romano's real-life policeman brother

Wade Williams portrays the lead character — Ray Romano’s real-life policeman brother

One of the film’s greatest barriers, she says, are skeptical Christians.  “It’s the Christians who are like ‘Well we don’t want to watch a Christian movie because it’s going to be bad. It’s going to be a church movie. It’s going to be on a video camera and you know, not have a story or be cheesy,’” says Abisinio.

As soon as they see the movie, she says, “it’s like, ‘Oh well, if we knew it was going to be this good, we would have done this or that to help you get the word out.’ It’s pulling teeth to get them to come see it in the first place, but as soon as they do, then they’ll do anything for us.”

For example, “The Passion of the Christ” opened in 3,408 theaters nationwide. “The Investigator” openned in 11 – but Abisinio says those 11 markets were carefully chosen. In each city, churches and youth groups went to see the film together. Pastors recommended their congregations see the film.

Then, when the DVD comes out in 2014, says Abisinio, so will a Christian study guide that examines the evidence that the film’s main character covers in his classroom – the proofs that Jesus Christ actually did everything that Christianity says He did. That’s certainly going to help with the bottom line – and, yes, even Christian films have to make a profit if their producers are going to have a shot at another film.

This is a perfect movie to show to a youth group on a weekend retreat. Nobody hops into bed. No blasphemous language. Lots of youth angst and teenage conflict. The baseball team’s arch-rivals are wretched enough that you want to throw popcorn at the screen.

Some of the editing is confusing – superfluous scenes could have been axed, but were obviously dear to the screenwriter and to Abisinio. The baseball scenes are fun – and here is where the film’s comedic element shines. Occasionally the character development is confusing as opponents become supporters too quickly – a little more suspense would be more satisfying. But it is inspirational to see the arrogant young football quarterback quietly ask Coach if he can have a shot at baseball.


Coach runs into skepticism on the field as well as in the classroom

Filmed in the St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Tampa area, lots of local extras were used – and at the premiere, all seemed thrilled with the result and had brought friends and family to see their moment of fame.

It’s done well with reviewers: “This intriguing investigation takes place as we also follow the teams rise to the championship game,” writes Dove family reviewers who gave it a coveted rating of 5 Doves. “Will Sergeant Buanacore recover his faith? Will the team come together and play disciplined ball? You will have to watch this inspirational film to find out. You will also be surprised to find out that this moving drama is adapted from real events and we are pleased to award it our Dove ‘Family-Approved’ Seal for ages 12 and over.”

“I didn’t think they made this kind of film anymore,” wrote Pastor Bob Coy, Senior Pastor at Calvary Chapel in Ft. Lauderdale. “Redemptive message, high quality, good acting, a keep you glued story, educational, inspirational, and for the whole family! It’s more than just a movie, it has the power to change your life!”

”A candid and encouraging look at wrestling with faith and doubt through hard times,” wrote the American Family Association Journal.

”A moving and thought-provoking film about one man’s journey to investigate his faith and return to Christ.” Wrote the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg.

”The Investigator is a Christ-centered, heart-warming story about discovering grace and truth,” according to Movieguide.

”This gripping tale is one of redemption and finding God’s grace in the most unlikely of places. As a ministry that promotes films that promote a culture of life and love we could not be more thrilled,” wrote Jason Jones of Movie to Movement.

9”For those who are like the doubting apostle Thomas, you will explore a way to investigate the resurrection of Jesus through the character of Police Sergeant James Buanacore, a twenty-year veteran investigator. Overall this is a heartwarming story, of personal transformation that will touch adults as well as adolescents,” wrote Dr. Caroline Cerveny of Interactive.

“This is a special film,” says Abisinio. “Everywhere we’ve gone, we are seeing it literally changing people’s lives. They are wanting to come to God. it’s amazing. I’ve never seen people literally affected to that extent.

“I think it is because it’s real and we don’t hold back.”

Towns and villages in Syria that have been home to Christians for 2,000 years are being steadily emptied as families flee persecution, the deadly violence of a civil war, fears of chemical warfare and a rash of targeted kidnappings in which Christian leaders have been held for large ransoms.

14681-81489But some are staying – declaring they are called to be lights in the darkness.

“Since the civil war in Syria began, Christians have increasingly suffered attacks from radical Islamists,” reports International Christian Concern. “In the past 18 months, a staggering 2 million Syrians have fled their country to seek refuge in neighboring countries. Syrian Christian leaders are asking for our help for those Christians who have fled. Unable to work, they are desperate. Help is necessary to sustain the families and very little aid has come to them so far.”

Life is even more difficult for those who have chosen to stay. At least a third of the Christians in northeastern Syria are believed to have fled – after centuries of relative peace.

“It breaks my heart to think how our long history is being uprooted,” Syriac Christian leader Ishow Goriye, told Ruth Sherlock, of the British newspaper the Daily Telegraph reporting from the Syrian area of al-Hasakah.

He is among Syriac Christians who say they are determined to stay – because of their high calling to be living witnesses of Christ’s love, mercy and grace – no easy assignment in the middle of a multi-sided civil war between zealous extremists.

Syria’s Orthodox congregations have for centuries proudly claimed to be the most ancient in the world. Shortly after Christ’s crucifixion, a zealot named Saul led an expedition into Syria, intending to bring fugitive Christians back to Jerusalem to be tried for apostasy.

Instead, on the road to Damascus – still today Syria’s capital – he had a dramatic experience and was transformed into the missionary who spread the Gospel throughout the known world and authored 14 of the New Testament’s 27 books.

According to St. Luke writing in Acts 11:26, “The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” in Syria – now Antakya, just across the border inside Turkey. Syria was the home of one of the great early leaders of Christianity, St. Ignatius.

Goriye “has watched as Christian families from al-Hasakah pack their possessions on the rooftops of their vehicles and flee their homes ‘with little plan to come back,’ reports Sherlock. “Conflict in the area, desperate economic conditions, lawlessness, and persecution by rebel groups remain the main reasons for why Christian families are fleeing the area.”

syrian-christian-girlsBut, notes David Curry for the advocacy group Open Doors, “Hidden in the noise of the current political environment is still an unrepresented issue in Syria – the intentional and systematic persecution of Christians. We are calling Christians on all sides of the political debate to dedicate themselves to prayer for our fellow believers who are targeted for their faith.

“They’ve done nothing wrong, only being bold enough to associate themselves as Jesus followers” – not an easy assignment in the middle of a firefight between jihadists.

“Please pray earnestly for protection of their lives, families, businesses and freedoms. Without the support of Christians in the West, these believers face even more danger,” reported Curry. “Thousands are already refugees, prisoners, homeless and victims of kidnappings due to this systematic persecution. With the growing marginalization of Christian faith around the world, it is imperative that we unite in prayer.”

“It began as kidnapping for money, but then they started telling me I should worship Allah,” a former kidnap victim told the Telegraph’s Sherlock. “I was with five others. We were tied and blindfolded and pushed down on our knees. One of the kidnappers leant so close to my face I could feel his breath. He hissed: ‘Why don’t you become a Muslim? Then you can be free’.”

Rebel groups presume the Christians support the government – although Goriye’s Christian Syriac Union party has long been in opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.  While speaking to the Telegraph, Christian leader members “were loath to criticize the opposition rebels, but many confessed that the situation had become ‘too bad’ not to talk about it,” reported Sherlock.

“Rebels said we had to pay money for the revolution,” a refugee told the Telegraph. “My cousin is a farmer, and wanted to check on his land. I warned him he should take armed security but he refused. A group kidnapped him in the barn of his farm. We had to pay $60,000 for his release. They are milking the Christians.”

“A few prayer requests from churches inside Syria – ” reported Open Doors, “include lasting peace, counselling for children who have been traumatized by violence, support for almost one-third of the Syrian population who are either refugees outside the country or homeless inside Syria, medicines, food and other relief materials get to those most in need.”

imagesCA9XY1YDBut included in the prayer request was that Christians around the world pray that the Syriac Christians remaining in the war zone “be a salt and light in their community even as civil war rages. “

Much of Syria’s Christian community has avoided “choosing sides” in the war, seeking self-preservation in neutrality, reported Sherlock. “But the strategy has left Christians defenseless in the face of sectarian attacks and the lawlessness that now define rebel-held areas. Last year, when government forces pulled out al-Hasakah province, leaving the terrain in the hands of Kurdish groups and Sunni opposition rebel, Christians became an easy target.

“A Christian man calling himself Joseph and living in al-Hasakah said: ‘The only unprotected group are the Christians. The Arabs had arms coming from Saudi and Qatar, the Kurds had help from Kurdistan. We had no weapons at all.’”

“The deadly violence percolating half a world away in Syria and the warnings of a possible U.S. attack have some people not only looking ahead to what might happen in the coming days — but also looking backward into ancient, apocalyptic prophecies in the pages of the Old Testament,” writes J.D. Gallop in USA Today newspaper.

“In recent weeks, some dire prophecies have turned up on websites, in book stores, as the subject of Bible studies and in sermons by some Christians and others who see a link between the old passages and modern-day events in Egypt, Libya and Syria.”

After all, “Behold, Damascus is about to be removed from being a city, and will become a fallen ruin,” reads Isaiah 17, a passage some Christians say they believe details a horrific event that leaves the city uninhabitable and leads to worldwide tribulation and the second coming of Christ, notes Gallop.

“Another passage in Isaiah 19 deals with civil war in Egypt and the rise of a ‘fierce king.’ Talk of those prophecies has intensified as President Barack Obama considers a U.S. military strike on Syria in response to what Washington says is evidence that the Syrian leadership used chemical weapons against its own people. In turn, Syria vows to retaliate against neighboring Israel if the U.S. strikes.

“Fighting raged through the picturesque mountain village of Maaloula, near Damascus,” reported Sherlock with the Telegraph’s Magdy Samaan, as the regime launched a counter-attack against the rebels.

“They entered the main square and smashed a statue of the Virgin Mary,” said one resident of the area, speaking by phone and too frightened to give his name. “They shelled us from the nearby mountain. Two shells hit the St Thecla convent.”

“Maaloula, tucked into the honey-colored cliffs of a mountain range north of Damascus and on a ‘tentative’ list of applicants for Unesco World Heritage status, is associated with the earliest days of Christianity,” noted the Telegraph.

746681-syria-christian-christmas“St. Thecla, who is supposedly buried in the convent, was a follower of St. Paul. The inhabitants are mostly Melkite Greek Catholic and Orthodox Christians, but have historically lived peacefully alongside a Sunni Muslim minority. It is one of only three places in the world where Western Aramaic, a dialect of the language spoken by Christ, is still used.

“Until recently, the town had managed to remain mostly unaffected by the civil war that has already claimed more than 100,000 lives. A visit by the Daily Telegraph last year found it ringed by government checkpoints but suffering from the lack of pilgrims and tourists who are normally vital to its economy.”

Residents say several rebel groups – a mix of the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra and the more moderate Free Syrian Army, attacked the village.

“First they took a brick factory owned by a Christian guy, who is now missing,” said the resident. “Then at around 5.30 a.m., a car bomb detonated at the checkpoint at the entrance to the village. Some of the rebels entered a home near the checkpoint belonging to Yousef Haddad, a Christian. They tried to force him to convert to Islam.”

A nun living in a convent in the village told the Associated Press that 27 orphans living in the convent were taken to nearby caves for shelter.

How are Christians under such assault supposed to defend their faith? Many cite Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane who chastised the Apostle Peter for drawing a sword in defense of the Saviour.

Egyptian Christians are under the same pressure – with thousands opting to leave embattled areas rather than join in the fighting on one side or the other.

On Sunday, the news network SAT-7 aired footage of Egyptians worshipping in the remains of the Evangelical Church of Beni Mazar in the town of Minia, Upper Egypt, It was one of over 80 Egyptian churches targeted in violent.

“Dark smears mark where flames licked the outside walls of the church building after arsonists set it ablaze,” reported SAT-7. “The charred hull of the interior is crumbling and peeling where wood and paint previously existed. Singed wiring hangs loose from the ceiling. On 14th August, Rev. Hany Jacque received a phone call notifying him that angry rioters had broken in the door of the church. For seven hours, the rioters stole furniture from inside, broke the glass windows, and burned the church’s books, including its Bibles. They also looted and burned its community services building next door, which had provided medical and financial assistance to all the residents of Beni Mazar, regardless of their religion.”

damascus-bab-quarter-christian_siOn camera, Jacque reflected on the destruction, “The Church is not walls and buildings. The Church is us, the people of God. They burned and destroyed the building, but it will never be possible for them to burn and destroy the Church because the Church will remain forever. If this was the cost for the God’s people in this place, that’s all right. Pay it, because God’s people must always speak the truth. This is a small price to pay for us to speak the truth.”

Congregants filled the desecrated building with songs of praise and the words of Scripture, singing, “Jesus, we bless your name.” They joined hands and prayed that God would accomplish His will in the Church. The song leader encouraged the congregation, saying, “The joy of the Lord is your strength…God’s glory in the midst of the Church is a sign for what is coming in the land of Egypt. The Church will be filled with glory.”

Attacks targeting Egypt’s Christians intensified after former president Mohamed Morsi was removed from power.

“It is evident that the almost universally non-violent response to these attacks (the worst assault on Christians in Egypt for almost 600 years) has greatly impressed many Muslims,” reoirted SAT-7’s Dr. Terence Ascott. “This has been a very public turning of the other cheek by the Christians of Egypt, and a very public act of obedience to Jesus’ injunction for His followers to ‘…love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matthew 5:44).”

But turning the other cheek is difficult.

“As Syrian Christians, we used to live in peace under Assad,” an unidentified Syrian Christian told International Christian Concern. “Assad is not a perfect man, yet he gave the Christians freedom and rights the same as Muslims. We could wear what we wanted and we had churches all over the country.

“Then when the uprising started, we began to see many Islamist jihadists from Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. They began to kill us (the Christians) and other minorities who are considered infidels. The Islamists killed us with knives and even decapitated some and burned down our churches.

imagesCA393KUL“Now, Christians are not welcome under their Islamist rule. No Western country will give us visas. Many times, we feel like the whole world, want to see the Christians of Syria slaughtered!”

Being a light in such darkness – defending the faith as Jesus would – is a difficult assignment.

But some extraordinary Syrians are doing it.