Breakthrough might challenge some of our stereotypes of Christian films. DeVon Franklin, an award-winning film and TV producer and preacher, worked with 20th Century Fox to tell a miracle story that is markedly Christian, but crafted for all audiences. Talent like Chrissy Metz (This Is Us), Josh Lucas (Sweet Home Alabama), and Topher Grace (That ’70s Show), offer believable acting that helps viewers wrestle with faith and doubts along with the on-screen characters. But what does this film teach us about God, both generally and through his work in the local church?
John Smith and his two basketball buddies do what young men naturally do—egg each other on to take boyish risks. They play on a frozen lake, and the ice suddenly breaks open. All three kids fall in, and John disappears under the ice.
By the time paramedics pull John out, he is cold, limp, and unresponsive. Emergency response teams offer CPR, medication, and electric shock for more than twenty minutes to jolt his heart to start beating, but no pulse is found. The doctor, considering him dead, invites his mom in to say goodbye. She weeps and prays, “Holy Spirit, please breathe life into my son.” John’s pulse returned to his body.
The rest of the plot of Breakthrough (based on Joyce Smith’s book of her experience) depicts a struggle to believe God, to hope, to hold on, to fight. Doctors struggle to look beyond statistics. John’s father emotionally hides. The man who found John in the depths of black, freezing water wonders if God even exists. And John Smith’s mom, Joyce, struggles to let go of her perceived control over John’s fate and surrender to God.
The doctor’s report reads, “Boy died. Mom prayed. Boy came back to life.” Does God still bring dead people back to life the way the Bible describes? If so, how do we need to pray, so that God will heal? What if someone never recovers after we pray? Does that mean we don’t have enough faith? Why does God choose to save some and not others?
The film offers varying starting points of faith, which I think helps audience members to connect with at least one character on the screen.I struggled with these kinds of questions when my son almost died at birth. I believed God would heal my son—not just that he might—so when God didn’t miraculously heal him, I questioned why. Some people told me I just needed more faith. Really? How much more? How is it measured? Or did God say, “Yes,” but used doctors and not a miracle? I believe God healed my newborn boy through doctors and divine aid, but I also know families who have prayed but never saw their children leave the hospital.
When Jesus traveled from town to town, many people clamored for his attention and his miraculous power, but sometimes he left people unhealed. In reading John 5, crowds of sick people lay on the porches, but he only healed one.
It’s difficult to trust that God’s ways are different from what we think they should be—especially when we hope for miracles and they never come. According to the scriptures, Christ will return to make all things new—but many of us long for that renewal now.
In one of the last scenes of the movie, John Smith returns to school, and his teacher asks him why he thinks he lived, but not her husband, who died of an aneurysm. The tension of miracle and death hang with no forced answer. I think that’s the way this tension hangs for most of us.
Jason Noble is the pastor depicted in the movie, as well as the author of the film’s companion book Breakthrough to Your Miracle. In an interview with me, Noble said that Breakthrough “doesn’t answer all the questions for you but starts the conversation in your mind.” The hope of the film, according to Jason, is for faith conversations to happen among those who watch the film.
How the Film Depicts Church
Church, as depicted in the film, includes a large modern building, rock music with a guest rapper for worship, a young staff who disregards the needs of older church members, and a sermon including very little scripture and lots of jokes and narrative.
Jason said not everything about the church in the film is depicted precisely the way things actually happened (especially the scene where he rips down the women ministry’s calendar and kicks out the Bible study from the conference room). Producers wanted to heighten the tension between Joyce’s character and Jason’s. They also made Joyce’s character a composite of the kind of backlash Jason encountered when he started pastoring at Grand Rapids First (she never really wrote an anonymous letter complaining about all the changes—and the pastor’s haircut).
The exaggerations make the story more enjoyable to watch, but at what cost to the image of what church should be? The way the scriptures and worship are treated so casually in the film pokes at my sensitivity to the holiness of God and the sacredness of his church. I’m concerned that non-Church goers who watch this film will think church is petty—and never show up on a Sunday. But then, again, DeVon Franklin’s purpose was to uplift the masses through entertainment, not necessarily recruit church members.
Something this film depicted well? Pastoral ministry. Jason shows up to the hospital and keeps showing up. He commits himself to walking alongside the Smiths through the unknown. As he stays, Joyce’s heart softens from criticism of her pastor toward thankfulness and humility. When doctors transition John off meds and breathing support, only family members stayed in the room—and Joyce includes Jason in her family. What does that teach us about pastoral ministry today? Show up. Walk alongside the people you serve. Stick with them even when they don’t like your preaching (or your haircut). The power in this movie from a church perspective is the example of what a shepherd does. A shepherd shows up for his sheep. I hope pastors who see this movie take that to heart.
At the end of the film, Jason interviews the Smiths on stage in his church. Then, he invites audience members to stand up who helped John survive. The paramedics, dispatch, police, emergency workers, hospital staff, and even those who prayed for John all stand, one group after another. Watching everyone in the room rise communicated to me the beauty of the church when we show up.
Faith Journey of Characters
The film offers varying starting points of faith, which I think helps audience members to connect with at least one character on the screen. This strategy from the producers helps with their aim: for this film to start faith conversations.
One example is when Brian Smith tells the pastor, “I believe, but maybe that only goes so far with something like this.” Also, when Tommy Shine (a paramedic on the scene who rescues John) thinks he hears a voice telling him where to look—then later realizes the voice might have been God’s—he wrestles with the question of whether or not God exists. Then the mother, Joyce, believes with full faith, but feels alone in her zeal. Sometimes God shakes our world to push us further in our faith, and sometimes he allows us the strength to believe when no one else will.
Despite the scene of an awkward candle vigil (in which someone sings a solo and you think they might start breaking out in choreography like an ’80s flick), and a few moments of unrealistic church life, Breakthrough broke through my expectations of the Christian feel-good genre and helped me suspend my disbelief for a couple hours. Hoping in what God can do and showing up to walk alongside others in pain are helpful lessons for any Christian—and those curious about faith. I hope helpful conversations happen as a result of watching this film as people talk about prayer, miracles, the modern church, and what it means to believe.