The wide variety of panel discussions is one of the amazing aspects of Comic-Con International.
Attending the annual gathering in San Diego last week for the sixth time, I observed, once again, how those panels can dovetail into issues facing the church.
A panel titled “Meet the Newest Cultural Ambassadors” presented how the U.S. State Department is using the popular arts, comics, movies and so on as a means of diplomatic engagement.
Preeti Shah is the diplomat who oversees this program, which sends people working in the popular arts to other countries to share their expertise and the pop culture of the United States.
On the panel were people that worked in animation, film and other areas of the popular arts.
They travel to other countries to teach about what they do and to promote what is produced.
David Andrade is a filmmaker and graphic artist who went to Iraq just after the city of Rawa was liberated from ISIS.
His parents placed a U.S. flag pin on his hat before he left, and he explained how the pin got some bad attention from locals after his arrival.
One person got intense, and Andrade offered the person a Star Wars poster he brought with him as part of the program to defuse the situation.
The person gladly accepted the poster, and the two of them ended up talking about the last Star Wars movie for some time.
As I heard this, I thought how strange it seemed that a person in a part of Iraq once controlled by ISIS had seen the last Star Wars movie.
These kinds of stories made up the panel, revealing how the world is clamoring for American pop culture. This made me think about the church in the United States.
Mission-sending groups in the U.S. are facing a crisis. Those groups that once sent fully funded missionaries now look to those missionaries to provide much of their own funding.
Add to this that the U.S. is still the number one mission-sending nation but is also the number one mission-receiving nation.
This suggests that we are moving to a time when the mission receiving will continue to grow and mission sending decline.
What all this means is that we are losing in the work of sharing the gospel, even as the sharing of pop culture grows daily.
Rachel Gandin Mark, program director for the American Film Showcase, which is the group that sends out movies to other countries, said that it is very hard to keep up with the demand they get for movies.
Countries are constantly looking for new films to come to their countries to put forth the American view of pop culture.
The types of U.S. films that are most popular in other nations offer important insight for future mission efforts.
Jorge Gutierrez, the director of the movie, “Book of Life,” told the story of growing up in Mexico, but seeing the first Star Wars movie in 1977.
He was 7 and his father took him to Mexico City to see the movie. When they were going home, his father could see that Jorge was sad. He looked at his son and asked, “Jorge, why are you so sad?”
Gutierrez told his father that he wanted to know why his people, those that were brown and Latin, did not make it into the future. His father quickly replied, “Jorge, Chewbacca was Mexican.”
A point made by the panel was that those films that had a non-white cast and story were the most popular.
“Hidden Figures,” the movie about the African-American women who worked in NASA, was one of their most demanded films.
If we are to be a mission-sending people, we need to be quick to realize that the gospel does not need to be in white wrapping and full of “Americanisms.”
In his book, “Future Faith: Ten Challenges Reshaping Christianity in the 21st Century,” Wesley Granberg-Michaelson states, “De-Americanizing the gospel requires listening intently to Christian voices that are simply not shaped by the American church.”
The role of sending the gospel to other lands seems to be taking a back seat. Yet, the sending forth of the latest from U.S. popular arts is now in the driver’s seat. The church faces a challenge.
Those nations that once received our missionaries are now sending us missionaries.
I believe this gives us an opportunity to learn from them about how they have encountered the gospel and how the gospel encountered them.
There is much we can learn that will make us more effective in our mission of sharing Christ with the world.
Pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is married and has two boys. His love is for movies, and he can be found in a theater most Fridays.