Jesus on Film: Seeing Is Believing

By Chris Lawrence
jesus-on-film-seeing-is-believing-tw-465x280.jpg Photo by Ted Wilcox

It's dusk in a suburban village in southern India. A local pastor and his team lug a 50-pound, reel-to-reel projector out of an SUV.

"Ummph!"

They set it in the rutted street as a crowd of nearly 100 people begins to gather.

Extracting electricity from a nearby Hindu temple, the projector illuminates a snowy image on the portable screen. Soon the garbled picture clears and, reminiscent of the opening to Star Wars, words scroll up the screen against a backdrop of outer space: "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son…."

Thus begins the JESUS film, a movie based on the Gospel of Luke. Pastor Solomon Dinakaran didn't come just to entertain the people of Ettikodi. He and his team are showing the movie to start a church.

For nearly a quarter century, Dinakaran has used the JESUS film to accelerate church growth in suburban India. But how does a movie -- especially one made in 1979 -- help produce a church?

Dinakaran, a pastor with the Church of the Nazarene, lives in Whitefield, a suburb of Bangalore -- a city now jammed with more than 6.5 million people.

Bangalore is considered the "Silicon Valley of India" because of its fast-growing technology business. Less than one mile from Dinakaran's church is the International Tech Park, which houses giants like Intel and Sanyo. A trio of ritzy buildings glint in the sun like high-rise diamonds.

Much closer to the ground, Dinakaran stands 5 feet 3 inches, and has long dreamed of accomplishing big things.

But he got off to a slow start.

A few years out of seminary, Dinakaran worked hard to establish a church of 12 people. Yet after several years, the congregation still wasn't growing. Traditional methods of evangelism -- street preaching, one-to-one faith sharing -- did little to penetrate the Hindu culture.

In India, at least 82 percent practice Hinduism, an extremely visual religion wrapped around India's roots.

With no central founder or creed, Hindus worship 330 million gods through statues and idols like Ganesha, the elephant god, believed to be the lord of success and destroyer of obstacles. Fashioned from brass, the image stares with cold, black eyes, has a curved trunk of an elephant and the jutting potbelly of a human. Hindu images like this are not just in temples -- they're on jewelry, in household shrines and even on the dashboards of rickshaw taxis.

Dinakaran knew the spiritual surroundings would make it tough to grow a church. When he first heard of a movie about Jesus in 1982, he sensed great potential. With little more than this supernatural hunch, he and a group of believers prayed relentlessly -- all night, in fact -- for God to provide a film about Jesus.

The next morning at about 10, there came a knock at his door. Charlie Abro, the JESUS film coordinator for Campus Crusade for Christ in India, had heard about the energetic pastor with a passion to reach his countrymen. Charlie wanted to loan him a jeep and two projectors to show the film. But Dinakaran was fast asleep, recovering from the late-night prayer.

Charlie knocked again, but still there was no answer. He was just about to leave when a groggy-eyed Dinakaran came to the door. How can I give the film to this sleeping pastor? Charlie thought. Looking back, Charlie laughs about the misunderstanding. A valuable partnership was formed that day.

Once he had the answer to his prayers, Dinakaran assembled teams -- pastors and people trained to show the movie -- and visited multiple villages. Most were filled with staunch Hindus.

"Hindus have a very strong belief in their gods," says Dinakaran, 54. "To say Jesus Christ is the only Savior is not easy for them to accept. 'Why is not my god also the way?' they ask."

Before using the JESUS film, Dinakaran was spreading a concept most Hindus had a hard time grasping. He was asking them to believe in a God who is unseen. The JESUS film changed that. Suddenly, here was Jesus, walking, talking and performing miracles right before their eyes.

Not only that, this guru from the Bible spoke the local dialect. Which is fortunate, considering India has 378 languages and more than 1,000 dialects. So far, the film has been translated into 87 Indian languages, which 85 percent of the people can understand.

Seeing Jesus on the big screen was a revelation for Muniappa Nagappa, 55, a local farmer. "I thought God was unreachable," he says. But his perspective changed after seeing the film.

With a ruggedly handsome face, Muniappa could easily pass for India's version of the Marlboro Man. "I used to be known for drinking and smoking," he says. "Now I realize my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit."

Muniappa now attends Dinakaran's church. The film drew him to faith.

The film drew others too. Within two months of showing the film, Dinakaran's 12-member congregation had doubled in size. Plus there were groups of people in 20 villages meeting consistently -- the rough beginning of churches.

Starting churches is just what Dinakaran had in mind. "It's not just show and go," he says. "We want to build a church."

Often he'll show the film multiple times in the same village, sometimes as many as 10 times. And even though many villagers have DVD players and dial-up Internet access, they still come out.

Part of the draw might simply be that Indians love movies. Bollywood, a popular nickname for the Hindi-language film industry based in Bombay, produces more feature films than Hollywood. Actors are revered in India; many politicians once acted in films.

A love of movies might help explain why one member of Dinakaran's church saw the film five times. "Why do we need any more gods?" asked Kadhirappa Muniappa of his wife after seeing the film. After the third viewing, his interest in this new God grew. Perhaps this is more than just another movie, he thought. By the fifth, he was ready to receive Christ.

Immediately after showing the film, Dinakaran's team fields questions from the gathered crowd and gives people an opportunity to make a commitment to Jesus. Soon after, a pastor visits the home of each interested person.

Arul Samson, one of Dinakaran's pastors, makes the post-film visits. One day, after Arul knocked on a door, a man grabbed him by the scruff of his collar. "We don't want Jesus," he said. "Don't ever come here again."

Others are gracious. "Please tell us more about Jesus," a couple told him. Later they became members of his church and invited several of their neighbors to come too.

In the village of Ramaswamy Palayam, 20 local believers pack into a small brick home for an impromptu service. A ceiling fan spins overhead. "You are the light in this community," Arul tells the people. "Go and witness. Shine what you know." Many of them will invite their neighbors to the next film showing.

Often an established church helps build momentum. Dinakaran says 10 percent of the people who initially see the film indicate decisions to receive Christ. But after a church begins to thrive in the village, he has noticed that an additional 20 percent who saw the film will receive Christ.

"It's the living gospel," he says. "The longer the church exists, the stronger the witness is in the village."

Over the years, the film has helped Dinakaran produce incredible results. He has established more than 140 churches, with a combined 10,000 baptized members. The leaders within the Nazarene denomination took notice, eventually remodeling their church-planting strategy worldwide around the use of the film. In that sense, Dinakaran was ahead of his time.

It's a Sunday morning at Dinakaran's home church, which now boasts 600 members. The people don't wear shoes in the sanctuary -- common for religious gatherings in India. The men and women sit on separate sides, clapping their hands to a Congo beat. Soon, Dinakaran begins preaching in three languages: Kannada, Tamil and English. He's his own translator, emphasizing his points in each language.

"We must surrender our whole being into God's hand," he says, sweeping his hands dramatically, "so that we may be one and He will bless us."

After he finishes, people line up at the altar to pray. A 29-year-old woman, Manjula Ramiah, bows her head low and prays. Tears stream down her cheeks.

Manjula, who works in the nearby technology industry, recently committed her life to Christ. She saw the JESUS film when she was young, but barely remembers it now. What she does remember are the vibrant believers she grew up around people whose faith has helped shape her own.

"The Lord has done such wonders in my life," she says. "I want His grace to be the last breath of my life."

The JESUS film is merely the beginning; the church itself is the future for believers like Manjula.

Back at the film showing in Ettikodi, Dinakaran leans against an SUV, transfixed. It's easily the 200th time he's seen the film, yet he swears he's not sick of it. "See, more people are coming," he says, pointing to the crowd that has now doubled in size.

His eyes turn back to the screen and he gazes in quiet contemplation. A few silhouettes move through the back of the two-way movie screen. "See, more people are coming," says Dinakaran, softly. "More are coming."