Star Wars. In the build up to the latest episode, The Force Awakens, the world has gone mad for the sci-fi epic. And so has the church.
Yes, you heard right.
Churches around the nation, and the world, are hosting Star Wars themed Christmas services, making Star Wars themed videos and dressing up as Star Wars characters. Has the church gone mad? At first sight I'd forgive you for thinking so, but on closer inspection, this apparent pop-cultural appropriation is just a novel example of what the church was born to do – take what is culturally relevant to people and use it to talk about Jesus. Even Jesus did it: many of the parables he taught were well known stories that he transformed to bring fresh revelation.
All Hallows Bow
This East-London church is led by self-professed Star Wars geek Rev Cris Rogers and his wife Rev Beki Rogers.
All Hallows is home to a Jedi training school, has a monthly Star-Wars themed family service, and Rogers and his kids have made a Star Wars spoof of the CofE #JustPray advert.
But no, this is not a Jedi Church. Rogers takes his inspiration from the New Testament. Just as Paul would go into the Graeco-Roman world and quote from Greek theatre to engage with Ephesians, Corinthians and Athenians, Rogers has tapped into story that is culturally relevant.
"Christians have forgotten that what Paul did so beautifully is take culture and redefine it for a Christian world," Rogers told Christian Today.
It's not that Star Wars is an explicitly Christian narrative, but more that "it is a very good story and it grabs children's attention. They love it and they want to know about it," Rogers said. "For us as the church to use a narrative that they know to teach them about Jesus is a good idea."
Star Wars became a lens through which to explore and engage with Jesus and the Christian faith for kids (and adults!).
During the "Jedi training school", kids are taught about what it looks like to be the apprentice of a very particular master, Jesus, asking the question "who are you going to be a padawan of?" Just like the Rebel Alliance, who fight against the empire, kids are asked how – as Christians – are we going to live within the world and challenge it. The force – though Rogers said "is not a good analogy, because the Holy Spirit is a person not a strange cosmic thing" – gives a way in to thinking about the person of the Spirit. It opens up questions like "Who leads our life? Who is controlling our destiny?"
Zion Church, Berlin
One church in Berlin is dedicating a Sunday morning to showing the classic Episode VI: Return of the Jedi accompanied by organ music inspired by the film score and the chance to win a prize for best costume.
This service is the brainchild of two young trainee pastors, Ulrike Garve and Lucas Ludewig, who was named by his church as both a theologian and Star Wars expert. Some might think it merely a publicity stunt seeking to fill the pews with Star Wars fanatics, but the thinking behind it goes a little deeper; the pair saw parallels between the George Lucas films and their Christian faith:
"In the key scene of Episode VI, Luke Skywalker is drawn onto the side of the emperor, of evil," Ludewig wrote on the church site. "Luke resists with the words: I will never belong to the dark side." That line reminded Ludewig – described by his church as a theologian and Star Wars expert – of a verse in Romans 12: "Do no let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good."
"The more we talked about it, the more we saw parallels to Christian traditions in the films. We want to make these analogies clear to the congregation", Garve added.
St Mary's, Kempsey & Severn Stoke with Croome D'Abitot
St Mary's in Worcester decided to host a Star Wars themed Christingle Service. They saw the movie as "an ideal opportunity" to engage and share the gospel with families and children.
"It was so simple to relate the Star Wars theme of good vs evil and 'The Force' to Jesus the Light of the World (universe)", rector Rev Mark Badger told Christian Today. He pointed to a quote from George Lucas, who said all he was "trying to say in a very simple and straightforward way... is that there is a God and there is a Good and Bad side".
Alongside St Mary's Christingle service, which was fancy dress themed and involved theatre, the church created a video trailer. Badger said this experience "has given us lots of ideas about how to use Star Wars and indeed other films to share the good news of Jesus Christ with both children and indeed adults!"
Liquid Church, Morristown, USA
As ever, the Americans know how to do things super sized. Liquid church, Morristown, is expecting 7,000 people at their 14 Star Wars themed Christmas services.
Tim Lucas, lead pastor and founder of the church, acknowledges and embraces the evangelical angle of his Star Wars themed services, saying: "we want to draw on the excitement surrounding Star Wars in order to reach new people and teach them about Jesus Christ."
"There are no rules that says church needs to be dry and boring. One of our core values at Liquid is that 'church is fun.' It's OK to laugh and celebrate together while talking about Christmas. If that means having Star Wars characters in costume and dancing storm troopers, I'm all for it."
Again, a huge Star Wars fan, Lucas admits that as a child he would "take the family nativity and replace it with 'Star Wars' action figurines." This has inspired a Star Wars nativity that is now in Liquid Church.
"At its core, Star Wars reflects spiritual faith. It's the battle between good and evil, the light versus the dark, and that's something we can all rally around."
There will always be those who say "we just do Jesus", implying that cultural engagement equates to cultural appeasement, but as Rogers says, the underlying truth in that statement is "That means we don't know culture so we are going to cling onto the religious world that we know." Jesus engaged with his culture, he wasn't afraid of it and he didn't hide behind religion. So why would we?
If donning a Darth Vader mask and brandishing a Lightsaber helps spread the good news, surely the only response is to get involved.