Heaven Is for Real…But the Preaching and Pastoral Care Were Not
The movie and book are based upon four-year-old Colton Burpo’s description of what he says he heard and saw in heaven during a near-death experience. The book upon which the movie is based, was co-authored by Colton’s father, Pastor Todd Burpo, and professional writer, Lynn Vincent.
I won’t be reviewing the movie. I won’t even be reviewing the movie’s depiction of heaven.
Instead, I will reflect on the movie’s depiction of:
- The Pastor as a Person
- The Pastor as a Preacher
- The Pastor as a Pastoral Care Giver
I do not know Pastor Todd Burpo, nor do I have any idea how well or how poorly the movie depicts the actual ministry of Pastor Burpo. I can only respond to the movie’s depiction of Pastor Burpo, his preaching in the movie, and his pastoral care in the movie.
The Pastor as a Person
As a former pastor, I always cringe at how TV and movies depict pastors. They usually are one-dimensional, boring, weak men at best, and hypocritical charlatans at worst. Not so in Heaven Is for Real.
Pastor Todd Burpo—the person—is something of a Renaissance Man. He owns his own repair business. He’s an active member of the local volunteer fire department. He coaches high school wrestling (though as a high school wrestling coach, I have to tell you that the one wrestling move they showed would never be allowed in high school wrestling). He’s a softball player. He loves his kids. He and his wife obviously love each other. He is fun loving, has a good sense of humor, and has many good friends. He is no hypocrite, but a man who honestly wrestles with God.
Pastor Todd Burpo—the person—is one of the best portraits of a pastor as a decent human being that I have seen in ages in a Hollywood movie.
The Pastor as a Preacher
I understand that the movie could not depict a full 30 or 45-minute sermon. However, the brief snippets that the movie did depict left much to be desired. To say they were “sermonettes for Christianettes” would do a disservice to “sermonettes.”
They weren’t just shallow sermons. They were not sermons at all. They were storytelling without the framework of the Bible’s main story.
The redemptive movement of the Bible was nowhere to be found in the movie. It was not there in the depiction of how one gets to heaven. It was not there in the “sermons.” “God is love” was the generic gist of the messages, but always in a vacuum that never mentioned that we are fallen sinners in need of God’s grace love through Christ’s sacrificial, substitutionary death.
Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins was never mentioned in any message or anywhere else in the movie. The closest the movie came to that was Colton saying that Jesus had scars on his hands and feet—but there was no discussion of why this Jesus had to be crucified.
Pastor Burpo was in the pulpit at least three times in the movie. They showed an open Bible. But he did not reference it. He did not develop a biblical text.
The constant emphasis on “God is love” in the absence of any mention of “we are fallen sinners,” conveys the message that all people universally will make it to heaven—regardless of whether they have ever acknowledged their sinfulness and their need for God’s grace in Christ.
If this movie is someone’s only depiction of preaching and of salvation, then they will not come away with a biblical concept of sin, salvation, or preaching the Word. In our “Gospel-Centered Evangelical World,” there was nothing gospel-centered about Heaven Is for Real.
The Pastor as a Pastoral Care Giver
As someone who counsels in a church and who equips counselors, my eyes were focused on Pastor Burpo’s pastoral care. He prayed the Lord’s Prayer with people. He listened to people. He felt people’s pain. He understood people’s doubts.
In the history of pastoral care, this would be called “sustaining”—identifying with people and helping them to know that “it’s normal to hurt.” This pastoral care by “presence” is vital—and Burpo did it well.
However, and this is a huge however, Burpo failed miserably in the movie to offer pastoral care by “healing.” In church history, “healing” pastoral care communicates that “it’s possible to hope.”
During an important scene, Burpo acknowledges to a female member of his church board that he had been totally ineffective in offering her comfort and hope. She was far too kind to him when she said, “But you listened and that was all I needed.” Yes, she needed a compassionate listening ear. But God also calls pastors to help people to listen to God’s eternal story.
I often describe counseling as pivoting between listening well to our parishioner’s earthly story (sustaining) and slowly, patiently journeying with our parishioner so we listen together to Christ’s eternal/heavenly story (healing hope).
Sadly, it was not until Pastor Todd Burpo finally believed his four-year-old son’s story, that he could begin to offer anyone any semblance of hope. Why would a pastor need the experience of a four-year-old child before the pastor believed in and offered heavenly hope?
That may be the biggest take-away from the movie. It communicates that what we need is an experience of heaven in order to have faith in heavenly hope.
The Bible, on the other hand, tells us that what we need is the promise of heaven given in God’s Word in order to have faith in heavenly hope.
Join the Conversation
If you saw Heaven Is for Real, what did you think of its depiction of heaven, of the pastor as a person, of the pastor as a preacher, and of the pastor as a pastoral care giver?
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