Summertime is the slow season for most churches. Pastors are faced with the perennial phenomenon of watching their congregants disappear from the pews, taking a vacation from church as well as from work and school.
At the Community Church of Wilmette, an American Baptist congregation that draws about 65 people for worship most Sundays, summer attendance drops by about half.
Tripp Hudgins, the wonderfully clever pastor of Community Church, seized this year's seasonal lull as an opportunity to do something artistically and spiritually creative. Beginning last month, Hudgins, 37, preached a four-week sermon series called "The Gospel According to John Hughes."
Hughes is, of course, the American film director/producer/writer responsible for some of the most popular and era-defining comedies of the 1980s, many of them set in Chicago's North Shore communities. He is the creator of such memorable characters as Ferris Bueller, Duckie Dale and Uncle Buck -- the man responsible for putting Molly Ringwald and the young Macaulay Culkin on the cinematic map.
Each week, Hudgins screened a different Hughes film on Wednesday evenings -- "Sixteen Candles," "Pretty in Pink," "Weird Science" and "The Breakfast Club" -- and on the following Sunday, preached a sermon about it.
Now, I'm a huge fan of John Hughes and can quote most of those films from start to finish by heart. (As a dreamy teenager, I even wrote a fan letter to the actor Jon Cryer, who played "Pretty in Pink"s quirky antihero, Duckie Dale.) Still, I never thought about Hughes' films as being particularly spiritual.
Hudgins and his congregation discovered spiritual themes running throughout the Hughes oeuvre.
"In two of the films, [Hughes] picked a tune that had 'tenderness' in the title. 'Try a Little Tenderness.' Otis Redding singing with Jon Cryer lip-synching. A classic scene," Hudgins said. "One of the things I learned re-watching these films is that Hughes puts in a scene completely untouched, that even lacks a lot of the flash of the rest of the movie, that says, 'This is the point of the film. Here it is.'
"So, 'Try a Little Tenderness' is absolutely what it's all about. That's part of his gospel. 'Don't You Forget About Me' [the Simple Minds anthem that appears in "The Breakfast Club"], says we are not forgotten. ... But everyone's forgotten on some level. Everyone's a little lost. The underlying theme is, 'I know you feel lost, but you're really not.'"
In that 1985 film, which follows five teens -- a jock, a burnout, a geek, a Goth girl, and a prissy rich chick -- imprisoned in the school library for a Saturday detention, Hudgins found parallels to a story from the New Testament. In the Book of Galatians, St. Paul writes to the church in Galatia, which is struggling with infighting about whether new converts had to first become Jews before they could become Christians.
St. Paul says, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Likewise, in the letter Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) writes to the detention master on behalf of the group, he says, "We are all a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal."
In "Pretty in Pink," Duckie "is a relational Job," Hudgins said. He's in love with Andie (Ringwald), a funky redhead who, like him, is from the wrong side of the tracks in a tony North Shore town. Andie is in love with Blane (Andrew McCarthy), a preppy rich kid with a kind heart. When Duckie admits his love for Andie and is rebuffed, it bruises his soul.
"Duckie is a lot like a lot of us, and I think that's why a lot of us like him," Hudgins said. "We're all able to say it -- 'It's supposed to be about tenderness. The world should be kind. This should be loving. I have a great friend and I'm in love with her and this should be working. Why isn't it working?' And so we rant and we push and eventually we come around, if we're kind. That's the thing: if we're tender with ourselves, eventually we'll come around. He has to learn that lesson."
There are no overt references to religion in the four Hughes films Community Church examined, except for a hilarious wedding scene at a church in "Sixteen Candles." Still, Hudgins argues, Hughes peppers his light-hearted films with deep, existential themes. "The kids are all very spiritual," he said. "They're searching and they're seeking. I think he understood that about kids, that they're not devoid of a spiritual existence. They just don't engage in the [religious] institutions. They're doing it all outside of them. ... These kids are unmoored. They're rootless. It's interesting."
Hudgins' creative experiment seems to have worked. His congregants -- many of them the parents of children who were teens in the '80s or the teens themselves (now in their 30s) -- embraced the Hughes sermon series and are already talking about what film they should analyze next.
"The congregation really wants me to try it with 'My Cousin Vinny,'" he said. "The joke at church yesterday was that the next series should be all Fellini films. Wow. OK, maybe we'll do that in Lent."
Searching for spiritual themes in pop culture strikes a chord with many churchgoers. "A lot of us believe that the best church can do is reinterpret, using pop culture tools to make its own art," Hudgins said. "I think people really need to have God pointed out where they live. They need encouragement to see it because they want to."
Text and video from the "Gospel According to John Hughes" sermon series can be found on the church Web site, www. communitychurchofwilmette.org.
Cathleen Falsani is religion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and
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