In January, hundreds of students packed an auditorium at the University of Florida in Gainesville, not to catch a performance by a popular rapper or a lecture from a powerful political leader, but to experience a one-man production detailing the journey of British scholar C. S. Lewis from settled atheist to influential Christian author and apologist.
The enthusiastic crowd for the Fellowship for Performing Arts production of The Most Reluctant Convert was similar to the reception the performance has received in recent years at campuses across the country, such as Princeton, Brown, Duke, the University of California at Berkeley, Northwestern, and the University of Virginia. This is part of FPA’s new campus initiative.
Founded by actor Max McLean, FPA is a nonprofit New York City-based company that aims to produce theater and film offerings from a Christian perspective that will appeal to a diverse audience. In addition to an annual season in New York City, FPA tours its productions in major cities from coast to coast and internationally. Through the campus initiative, FPA hopes to expose young adults to Lewis and other influential Christians.
McLean came to faith after attending a Bible study group with his then-girlfriend, Sharon. In a 2008 interview, he said the study group piqued his interest and he read the Gospel of John in one sitting. “As I read it, I could see and feel it in my mind’s eye. I thought Jesus was going to come right out of the pages of the Bible and take me with him.”
McLean became a Christian, married Sharon, did post-graduate work in theater in London, and performed professionally on the stage in Great Britain, New York and regional theaters before deciding to go to seminary. There, he said in the 2008 interview, “the Lord inspired me to do something different.”
He decided to apply the skills and techniques he had developed while working in theater to create dramatic presentations of the Bible and Bible-based narratives.
Since its establishment in 1992, FPA has recorded the Bible in three different versions (NIV, ESV and KJV), established a radio ministry that airs on hundreds of affiliates worldwide and produced a number of stage adaptations of Christian- and Bible-based material. In November 2021, FPA debuted its first feature film, a movie version of The Most Reluctant Convert with McLean in the role of Lewis as an older man. It has been seen in 130 countries and is currently rated one of the top independent films on Amazon.
For three decades, McLean has written, performed and produced high-quality material, casting some of the most seasoned performers on Broadway in his shows and staging them in historic New York City theaters and in touring groups that crisscross the country.
As a nonprofit organization, FPA derives about half of its budget through ticket sales and the other half from donors, according to its website. In a 2018 meeting with donors and board members, one donor challenged McLean to bring his productions — particularly the ones related to Lewis — to campuses.
McLean understood the reasoning behind that request.
“Nearly everyone I know who embraced Christianity as an adult has been influenced by what seemed to them to be the probability of God’s existence accompanied by something like a religious experience,” he said. “The intellectual assent converts religious experience from something strange to something desired. Intellectual arguments do not, in themselves, lead to conversion. They remove an inhibition that was preventing a move from skepticism to belief. This often happens, one way or the other, during university years.”
Courtney Menking was chosen in late 2018 to spearhead the campus initiative. Menking initially targeted large, secular institutions with a campus theater sufficient to accommodate a Broadway-style production and started learning how to get colleges to book FPA shows and how to get students into the seats. FPA currently offers The Most Reluctant Convert and C.S. Lewis on Stage in college and university settings.
Menking learned the value of partnering with campus ministries to help publicize the productions and encourage attendance. Rather than a free ticket, which a student wouldn’t value, offering an affordable $5 ticket increases their commitment, while FPA covers the rest of the bill, she said.
FPA productions are not welcome at all institutions, Menking acknowledged. “Sometimes universities will find out these are shows that spotlight a certain faith and won’t want us to come as a result. We’ve had some universities give away our performance date after an initial acceptance, and others outright tell us no because we’re a not-for-profit Christian organization.”
But many universities — including some of the most prominent ones in the country — welcome the shows to campus. They recognize the professionalism and solid history of FPA and understand the value of studying Lewis and his works, no matter his faith.
When asked why she believes the two Lewis-themed shows work so well on campus, Menking replied, “Lewis’ worldview began to change while an undergraduate, and the shows are set on campus in Oxford. It’s an incredibly logical, step-by-step story of one man’s journey to faith during extremely formative years in a person’s life. These students are in those years and face a lot of the same big questions the productions and film address. Plus, our productions have the high level of professionalism and production value that you see on Broadway or in a major motion film. It is impressive to college students and causes them to take a deeper look.”
Lewis himself didn’t believe rational argument created belief, McLean said in an interview with the Daily Northwestern. But he did think the lack of argument destroys convictions.
The stories presented in the FPA productions linger with students long after the show has packed up and moved on, Menking said, explaining that FPA leaves behind discussion guides to help campus pastors and groups continue the conversation.
“The show sparks conversations, so it’s been an aid to their presence on campuses,” she said. “As a side bonus, we’ve seen that it links together often competitive campus ministries — it changes how they interact with each other. What happens in the aftermath makes all the work and hoops we have to jump through bringing it to the campus worth it.”
McLean said the success of the film version of The Most Reluctant Convert has given a great boost to Fellowship of Performing Arts, which now has several more movies in the works. In addition, FPA just premiered a stage production of Further Up and Further In, which picks up where the Most Reluctant narrative ends. A stage version of Lewis’ The Great Divorce has returned to a national tour, and the campus initiative is picking up steam after being sidelined by COVID shutdowns.
Christina Ray Stanton wrote an award-winning book about surviving the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Out of the Shadow of 9-11: An Inspiring Tale of Escape and Transformation. Her faith articles have appeared in numerous publications all over the world. She also is the author of Faith in the Face of COVID-19: A Survivor’s Tale.