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‘Small Group The Movie’ Delivers a Refreshingly Funny Look at Christian Community

Chris Carpenter - Director of Internet Programming

Anyone who has spent more than five minutes in contemporary church circles is well acquainted with something known as the small group. 

For those who don’t know, a small group is an intentional gathering of faith-centered, like-minded people who agree to share their lives together.  Their purpose is to gather as a group just as Jesus Christ’s disciples did to share in God’s mission.  Think lots of coffee, fellowship, and a deep dive into God’s Word.

Laugh out loud funny, Small Group The Movie is a new straight to home video release (available now) that takes a refreshingly honest look at this faith-fueled sub-culture, one that is heavily invested in building Christian community.  Starring Sterling Hurst (Dark Harbor), Emily Dunlop (Doom Patrol), and Matt Chastain (who also wrote and directed the film), Small Group proves to be honest, timely, and incredibly in sync with the virtues of today’s church.

I recently spoke with Chastain about contemporary church culture and the significance of small groups, the value of comedic faith-based films, and why Small Group is so relevant in today’s covid-fueled culture.

In your words, could you please give a thumbnail overview for the film Small Group?

The story follows a documentary filmmaker, R. Scott Cooper, who has been hired and brought to Georgia. He has moved his family from Los Angeles to Georgia to make a movie about the dwindling influence of Christianity in America. Scott thinks he is here to make an objective documentary. His career kind of depends on him being seen as more objective that he's been in the past. His executive producer has other ideas about the scope of the documentary. He and his wife go to a local church and they realize they're not going to get very far in “Big Church” as he calls it. He wants to pull the curtain back a little bit. So, his field producer who is a missionary kid, suggests that he and his wife join a small group.

So, they do. They infiltrate small group, wearing spy glasses and planting hidden cameras in these people's houses. I think he justifies the deception and the infiltration by a search for the truth. He just wants the objective truth. He's taking this objective view of the whole thing, and he's really trying to get to know the small group members. He really wants to know as much as anything else whether Christians are still influential or not. He's going to find out why is Christianity becoming less influential. Is it because of these people? He gets to know them and their relationships sink in a little bit in a good way. He’s being challenged.

His executive producer sees that things aren’t going well for the hit piece that he wants to make. So, he exposes the infiltration, and now we're kind of left to see how is the small group going to react to it? Are they going to react in anger? Are they going to truly reflect Christ in their response to this? It’s a pretty fun concept.

Since you are the director, screenwriter, and actor in Small Group, is this movie born out of personal experience?

To an extent, not necessarily with the premise of the story, but my wife and I had just joined a new small group at our church. We'd been in a few small groups over the years, but we joined one in 2014 that just seemed to be firing on all cylinders. It was like the idea for Small Group was just given to me one day. It was really in our first meeting with this new group. I just remember thinking somebody has got to make a movie called Small Group, because for me, the small group, that culture, that atmosphere, I feel like you just get more done spiritually there than you do in big church. In big church you're bringing the best version of yourself. You're sitting up straight, you got your shirt tucked in, and you're listening to the pastor share the Gospel. It’s in small group when you really get to know people, trust them, and you've gone through things with them. You're bringing more of your real and raw self to God. It's more of an interactive experience too. So, I just felt that how many movies have there been about different kinds of relationships? Millions of movies about romantic relationships, about family relationships, about teams, about co-workers, yet there's this one relationship that's a pretty big deal to people.

What I love about this movie is that it is a funny, fresh take on contemporary church culture.  How does contemporary church culture differ from a local social club?

You would hope that our local small group is going to have different intentions. Small group is not just social club. What it's there to do is to grow closer together with our small group members. We're there to grow closer to God and to allow God to live through us to others. Obviously, the whole mission of a small group is just different than a normal social club from the get go. But for me these days, especially, I'm arguing the small groups now should be more important than ever. This movie couldn't come out at a better time for me, because it's about the one thing that we're craving the most -- community and connection. God made us for community and that's being taken away right now.

Look at some churches in the country. It's illegal to even go to church. And even if you are going to church, you're likely experiencing it in a very disconnected, dehumanizing way, having to stay six feet apart and wear masks. And whether you think that's a good thing or not, there's no doubt that it is disconnecting us. With small groups, we can meet in each other's houses and there's no law against that. And so, for me, the Church is going to have to almost escape our mental confines of the building itself and get back into each other's living rooms. We have to worship. We have to do it together. And small groups are really the place we need to do that.

There have been many attempts over time to do a comedic, fun, faith-based movie. But there haven't been a lot of them and very few have succeeded. How does Small Group defy the expectations that many have currently for comedic faith films?

Those expectations are there whether we like it or not, and it's certainly not up to me to comment on why those expectations are there. I don’t know how other filmmakers work, but I know how difficult it is to do this. All I know is that people do respond. We have, in a very limited way, a little while back, shown this movie in theaters to audiences and they laugh. It's a laugh out loud (film) for sure. For me, I believe the way you do it is you just be real. You just try to tell a good story. We can't be afraid to be funny. I think a lot of times in film, we set rules for ourselves, some kind of purity standards that are greater than the Bible itself.

When some people think of Christian movies, they wonder whether it is pure enough and family enough?  Then you think, I don't think half the stories in the Old Testament would pass the purity test of some people who are out there making Christian movies, or at least their idea of it. When you try to be too message driven or too pure in the way you tell it, you take out a whole lot of real life and that makes you seem less genuine. The reason people respond to this movie is because they feel it's genuine. God's going to shine through as long as your heart is pointed toward Him. If we can make our movies into good, realistic stories, good things will happen.

Is this a movie only for people who “get” contemporary church culture? Or is there something for everyone?

I would be misguided to think that this movie is going to appeal to people who aren't necessarily attracted to or at least experienced contemporary Christian culture. But, let's take a different hypothetical. Let's say that somehow you get your neighbor who does not go to church to sit down and watch Small Group with you. He'll love it because the parts of contemporary Christian culture we deal with is in a tongue and cheek manner. We're kind of poking fun at ourselves and being a little self-deprecating. What I find is that people outside of our own culture really appreciate it when they see us self-deprecating a little bit. Pastors have watched the trailer and said, ‘Wow, this is an anti-Christian movie?’ No. But we do make fun of ourselves a little bit because everybody's culture seems a little weird to people on the outside. That's okay. It's kind of fun. I really feel like when people on the outside see us not being afraid of a little self-deprecation in our culture. And then, when the movie kind of gets into the second and third act, it's not so much about culture anymore. It's really more about individual hearts. Those storylines and character relations are universal. Anybody understands that whether you are saved or not sure.

Are there any symbolic themes that you felt were of critical importance to convey in this film? If so, what are they?

Oh man, that's a good question. Themes are very important and are very different than messages. It's just so much more of an exploration for me than a sermon is. I think the one major theme is that idea of perception. And it's a problem. It's an issue we deal with all day, every day and that is how are we going to perceive each other? How are we going to think about the way in which we are perceived? Maybe this movie was a bit naive to think that the outside culture could actually look at us with some sense of objectivity. I think we're longing for that. I wish we could look at others with a sense of objectivity and not put each other in such stereotypical holes. But it is important as an artist to know how we are perceived. My character even says that in the movie. I said it kind of makes you think about how you're perceived.

Some people have said to me, ‘Look, it's not our job to conform to the ways of the world, just because you're worried about how you're going to be perceived. To which I would reply, that's not my intention at all whatsoever. It is my intention to make sure that I am perceived in a way that accurately reflects the Gospel in an attractive way. I think a lot of times we don’t care about how we are sharing the Gospel. It doesn’t matter how we do it. I'll knock you over the head with it if I need to. But that's not going to bring anybody to the Gospel. So, how we're perceived and how we perceive others is probably the major theme of the movie. It was my wish that we could all have so much more nuance and objectivity.

After audiences have seen Small Group, as a filmmaker, what would you like them to take away from the viewing experience?  What is your greatest hope for the film?

When people in church come to me and go, ‘Man, this makes me want to go to small group.’ I'm like, ding, ding, ding, we’re good. A lot of times people will see this movie and they may be sort of an Christmas and Easter Christian. But then they come to me and say, ‘You know, how can I tell you? I've been kind of turned off by a lot of the silliness that I've seen out of churches over the years. I just went away from it. I grew up in church, but I've gone away. And after watching your movie, I kind of realized that maybe my perception of the church is too narrow or too thin. Maybe I need to deepen my perception. I want to get back into going to church.’ That's happened many times. Life is about more than just going to work, having dinner and going to bed. Obviously, when you have those kinds of conversations, I just couldn't feel any better.

Watch a Trailer for Small Group The Movie:

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