But to teenagers, films such as Terminator 2, Titanic and Star Wars offer deeper religious experiences than conventional churches, according to research presented yesterday.
"When I asked young people which film was most like their religious beliefs, many talked about Terminator," explained Lynn Schofield Clark of the University of Colorado's centre for mass media research.
Terminator 2, for example, is a futuristic battle between good and evil in which Arnold Schwarznegger goes back in time to save a child, with the initials "JC", who will subsequently save humanity against machines that take over the world.
"One young person said they thought of Terminator because you know that the people who Arnie kills first go to hell and the ones who die later in the film go to heaven," said Dr Clark, who was speaking at conference in Edinburgh University on the media and religion.
She said that although 85 per cent of people in the UK still believe in God, far fewer attend church and even regular observers spend more time watching television than attending services. "Kids consider themselves the ultimate authority on life and what it means and are no longer prepared to be told what to believe by an institution." she added.
"Also they don't find churches really explore their emotions. Teenage girls go to a film like Titanic and really feel their emotions about love and death.
"But if anyone was to give a sermon that made people cry, they would be treated with great suspicion by the churches."
Dr Clark added: "Young people are now looking to Darth Vader and the X Files as sources to help them unravel questions about what life is about.
"The X Files appeals because it looks at the whole idea of an unknown force controlling the universe. It raises the question that there are things unexplained by science. That's a religious question, but one that religion is not handling well."
Dr Clark, who questioned 200 US teenagers about their thoughts on films, detailed one story of a child watching the baptism of his brother. "As the priest picked up the child, the brother's eyes lit up with recognition and he shouted: `The Lion King'.
"Stories like this challenge the church to examine why it does not use popular culture better to convey its message. It needs to learn a lesson from the entertainments industry which is frequently only repackaging old, often, Biblical stories."
However, another speaker cast doubt on the established churches' abilities to appeal to young people. UK research suggested that representation of religion in soaps made young people think it was sinister or puritanical, said Ailsa Tomkinson, associate lecturer at Edinburgh's Queen Margaret University College.
"Adolescents observed that where Christianity cropped up in popular broadcasting it was usually an unsafe activity. Religion was dangerous and something that people had to be protected or saved from."
Highlighting plot lines in EastEnders, Coronation Street, Neighbours and Home and Away, Ms Tomkinson said: "My findings present real problems for evangelical methods which many churches hope will attract young people.
"Given what the message they are getting through popular broadcasting, young people are likely to regard such methods as scary. Young people assume, `Oh my God, I'm going to lose all my friends and end up naff and uncool.'"
Religious Experiences On Celluloid
Patrick Swayze is murdered, but his spirit lives on as a guardian angel to girlfriend Demi Moore. Saving her life is the good deed that gets him into heaven.
Battle between "the force" for good and Darth Vader, a satanic character leading evil storm troopers, it explores a common religious notion of a benevolent power controlling the universe.
Kate Winslet is loved, in the New Testament tradition, unconditionally by Leonardo Di Caprio. His death challenges them with the reality of dying, but love survives even that tragedy.
The Lion King
The emotional power of the baptismal scene could be straight out of a biblical story. Death and guilt are among the problems which are tackled in the film.
The X Files
Fox Mulder constantly raises questions about whether science really explains all phenomena. Could aliens be the answer to the puzzles investigated by Mulder? He seems to think so.
Terminator 1 and 2
Arnold Schwarznegger plays a God-like figure preventing the victory of evil and protects a Messianic child from an event which echoes Herod's slaughter of the innocents.Reuse content