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Disney’s “Heavyweights” Is The Perfect Allegory For Toxic Churches

April 6, 2022

In 1995, Disney released a simple movie that quickly became a cult comedy classic called Heavyweights.

The movie follows Jerry Garner, a self-proclaimed “fat kid” being sent to fat camp for the summer to help him get into better shape. However, when he arrives, he finds out that the camp that had previously been a fun and encouraging way to lose weight had been overtaken by Tony Perkis, a self-obsessed ex-fitness instructor determined to force the kids to lose weight for his own personal gain.

The more I think about this movie (which I watched way too many times as a kid),the more I realized how much it aligns with the problems the current church is having in very specific ways:

While The Goal Was Positive, The Execution Caused Damage

In the film, the camp was presented to be a beautiful community where kids would come together and help each other lose weight. When Perkis (Ben Stiller) took over, the camp became toxic, selfish, and pitted the kids and staff against each other, however, the same “positive” goal still remained: To lose weight.

How many times do we see this happen with churches as well? A pastor has the goal of creating an environment where people can grow in their relationship with Christ, but because of their own personal flaws and struggles, they end up causing more harm than good.

About halfway through the movie, Perkis performs “check-ins” to see how much weight all of the kids had lost so far, and when he realizes they aren’t losing any weight, he demands the cameras cut off, yells at them, demeans them, and then forces them to go to extremes to lose weight.

Now, take campers and their weight, and exchange it for people in the church and their relationships with Christ. When toxic or hurt pastors don’t see change or even take time to build community with their churches, it can cause anger, frustration, and more. I’ve heard too many stories of people clearly hurting in the church only to have their concerns and questions not only ignored, but demeaned (sometimes publicly) for having simple questions about faith.

The Positive Staff May Be Stuck In A Toxic System

In the movie, Tony Perkis and his egotistical staff get mixed in with the original, kind, loving staff that existed in the past. While that staff still supports the vision of kids losing weight, they are forced to work under a leader that they don’t agree with.

I have heard countless stories of church staff members who have been mistreated, underutilized, or burnt out by unappreciative leadership, and this can go one of two ways:

  • They can’t take it anymore and leave
  • They try and change things for the better

In Heavyweights, Pat is the longtime staff member who wants to see things change, but recognizes that the environment is not healthy, so he teams up with Tim and Nurse Julie to encourage the kids, love them, and assure them that change will come. They’re the people in your church that while it may be hurtful, they help you realize that there is hope in Christianity, and that there are loving people out there.

Those Affected Need To Step Up and Demand Change

Throughout all the pain and suffering, the kids of Camp Hope know that this isn’t right, and that Tony Perkis’ way of getting healthy isn’t one that leads to a healthy life. Throughout the movie they demand change in different ways, only to be pushed back down by leadership until they all come together to expose their camp director and his harmful ways.

As Christians, when we see other Christians causing harm, we need to hold them accountable for their actions and help show the world a good example of Christ-like love. When one or two people stand up loudly, that is nowhere near as effective as coming together, using our strengths and taking a stand together against hateful Christian doctrine.

Just because you’ve been part of a harmful belief system doesn’t mean you have to abandon the belief system entirely. Those campers were being taught to lose weight in hurtful, unhealthy ways, but that doesn’t mean they can’t find healthy, positive ways to do the same thing. Christians that were taught harmful, damaging theology are also presented with the same opportunity to grow in Biblical, Christ-like ways.

Positive, Loving Environments Create Healthy, Loving People

I guess I could throw a spoiler alert in here, but I assume if you’ve read this far you’ve likely seen Heavyweights at some point in their life. At the end of the movie, Tony Perkis gets taken away after having a mental breakdown in front of all the camper’s parents, and the staff gives control of the camp to Pat, a lifelong fan and staff member.

Under his leadership, not only do the children lose weight, but we see a montage of every staff member working in a way that shows their gifts, the campers coming together to support each other, and a community being built.

I wish the solution were that simple. We’re at a point right now where we’re seeing big, multicampus churches being taken down by the selfish actions of pastors, so what we need to focus on is how to make the church the loving, Christ-like community that it was intended to be.

Some of the first things we can do we can learn from Heavyweights: Use the God-given gifts of your church staff to better grow your community, create a system of accountability where one person cannot demand and keep control, and genuinely love those who are in your church (not because you have to, but because you want to)

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