Pastor goes Hollywood in Advent

Films in sermons help show Christmas’ meaning

The Tribune

December is a time of celebration, family gatherings and a flurry of Christmas movies on television.

Amid shopping countdowns and holiday stress, the pastor of Tri-City Alliance Church in Tempe is using Hollywood’s holiday staples to stress the true meaning of Christmas to his congregation.

Each of Dennis Miller’s Advent sermons is based on a classic Christmas film. He shows a brief clip from the movie in the middle of each sermon. On Dec. 5 and 6, it was the closing scene of A Miracle on 34th Street.

Miller said this is the first time he has used movies in his sermons, and he expects some disapproval from the Christian community for injecting so much Hollywood into his preaching.

“There would be some churches who would say this is a terrible thing I am doing,” he said.

But his Dec. 6 sermon received a warm welcome on a cold day from Tri-City members.

Duane Eckert watched A Miracle on 34th Street on a cable TV channel the night before Miller’s sermon.

“It’s probably the third time I had seen it, so I was familiar with what I was seeing,” he said. “And yet the message was refreshing.”

Miller said he did not know when he chose the film that it would be shown locally the night before. He selected it because it shows the Christmas spirit thriving when retail titans Macy and Gimbel shake hands and people direct each other to better buys at other stores, he said.

Miller said A Miracle on 34th Street, in which a lawyer proves a department store Santa to be the real thing, is about faith and looking past appearances.

“It’s not about Santa Claus,” he said. “People feel warm as they watch these fantasy movies because miracles do, in fact, happen in our lives. But we have to have a heart to comprehend them.”

Paul Lithgow, who leads a Tri-City course on “Spiritual Aerobics,” also said Miller’s sermon helped bring the meaning of Christmas home for him.

“I enjoyed today because there are miracles that happen all around us when we don’t even see them,” he said.

Miller said using the film was a way to put a more Christian spin on familiar holiday elements that people already enjoy.

“I want people to watch Miracle on 34th Street now with an understanding of the miracles that surround us,” he said.

“People walk away from the church with a vivid remembrance instead of saying, ‘What did he preach about'”

Miller said he sometimes thinks people see God as “almost an adult version of Santa Claus.”

“I think that people desire to control God, to put him in a box,” he said.

“They desire to come to a God that will make them rich and answer their prayers the way they want them to be answered, not according to his will.”

Another sermon was based upon Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

Miller’s sermon today and Sunday will be based on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

“What I want to convey to the congregation is that this is the time of year for people outside the church,” Miller said.

“(Ebenezer) Scrooge was way outside of charity. It was the very nature of the Christmas celebration that drew him in and changed his life.

“Christmas is, in fact, for Scrooges.”

Services are 6:30 p.m. today and 10 a.m. Sunday. The church is at 1945 E. Guadalupe Road, Tempe. Call (480) 831-2514 for information.