The movie “Spotlight” (2015, Open Road Films) is a film every Christian should watch.
In 2002, The Boston Globe began releasing faith-shattering articles regarding systemic child abuse by Roman Catholic priests. Over the course of the year, they ran nearly 600 stories detailing the abuses committed by hundreds – over 16% – of priests in Boston’s churches.
What churches had dismissed as “a few bad apples” turned out to be a widespread conspiracy of silence. The cover-up by church leaders included shuffling guilty priests from parish to parish where the abuses occurred again and again. It also included manipulating the legal system to avoid consequences and publicity.
As the situation came to light in Boston, additional scandals rocked major cities across the nation and across the globe. For their work in bringing the crisis to public attention and holding the Catholic Church accountable, the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative team won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
The 2015 drama film “Spotlight” recounts the efforts of the Spotlight team in uncovering the culture of abuse in Boston churches. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture that year.
It is hard to watch – but it highlights some very important themes that aren’t restricted to Catholicism or only relevant in child abuse cases. It makes you think about churches of any kind – and the potential for any kind of abuse when people turn a blind eye.
Woven into the film are themes on the occasional conflict between faith and institution. One investigator shares how he abandoned regular church attendance but kept his faith – something millions of Millennials can relate to today.
The film also explores the idea that authority, particularly religious authority, can be abused in many ways. One victim reminds the reporters that this isn’t just physical or sexual abuse – it’s spiritual abuse as well, when Christian leaders take advantage of God’s followers in any way. For many of the victims, they felt they couldn’t address the issues because it felt like refusing God, surely you couldn’t defy a minister. This isn’t a “Catholicism” issue; this is an every-church concern.
The film is fairly accessible. It is available on Netflix to subscribers; it also can be seen on Youtube, Amazon, Vudu or Google Play for $2.99. And a trailer can be seen here.
One of the reasons I highly suggest the film is because you walk away with a sense of humility – at how poorly we Christians have often done “Church,” how badly we have followed Christ. It is a reminder to own our past failures but also to strive harder at representing God well.
Another reason is how powerfully it evokes empathy for those who have been harmed by churches, ministers, and fellow Christians – including ourselves.
I hear too often, “No church is perfect – no Christian is perfect.” It is usually said with the intent to justify flaws, ignore problems, and dismiss grievances.
With millions of Millennials leaving regular church involvement, attendance, and membership behind, the film brings to light a couple key points I’ve learned over the years interacting with Rogues – those who have kept their faith and personal expression of it but ditched the institutional expression of it.
First, people who leave church but keep their faith rarely admit the real reasons they leave. “I’m just too busy.” “I just don’t feel it anymore.” “It doesn’t fit my schedule anymore.” “I was only going while my parents made me.” While for some, these are true – it’s usually the case that there are deeper reasons for them leaving. Don’t hesitate to press in and get to the root of their dissatisfaction. Often part of their reason for leaving is they don’t feel anyone cares or that anyone would miss them. Showing that you really want to know what’s bothering them is a genuine way to break through the normal stonewalling answers we give when we don’t want to explain ourselves.
When you quit your job, you never tell your boss or the folks in Human Resources the real reasons why. You tell them, “It’s been a pleasure working here, I’m really going to miss it, I just got an opportunity to do something I always wanted…” Most of the time, you say nice things even if your job was the fourth level of hell. You need a good reference after all, and it’s never wise to burn bridges, right?
If you care about Millennials leaving your church, you may need to work hard at getting answers. Because the answers they give you in an email won’t be the same ones they give you over coffee if you pursue a deeper relationship.
Second, people often leave as conscientious objectors. Sometimes they walk out one day and never go back. Sometimes they drift away slowly instead. Sometimes contributing factors play a role – it’s nice to sleep in on Sunday mornings, after all. But most leave because they have been hurt or seen people close to them hurt or disappointed by a church, its leaders, or its members.
Often they talk of church as somewhere with good memories that they wish they could go back to – if all things were equal. But they can’t, because they can’t support the things they’ve seen. They can’t attend after seeing behind the curtain. They can’t stand and be counted with the institution hurting all the people they love. They voted with their feet by walking out. Too many Christians, particularly leaders, are dismissive of the people who have left. Not exactly the image of shepherds leaving the flock of 99 to pursue the 1 sheep that’s lost.
“Spotlight” is a humbling look behind the curtain. It shows us the worst things our faith is capable of and reminds us to strive to be something more. But it also gives us a peek into the mindset of people who leave, giving us the empathy Christians seem to be missing a lot of the time.