The Passion Reloaded: is the silver screen really an outreach silver bullet?

Two years ago, Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ, was marketed heavily to church leaders as "perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2,000 years." Gibson stunned Hollywood naysayers by pocketing over $600 million as The Passion became the eighth highest grossing film of all time. By targeting churches The Passion may have uncovered the greatest marketing opportunity in 2000 years. But what about the film's spiritual impact - did The Passion deliver?

According to George Barna, it did not. Barna conducted an extensive survey of those who saw the film and concluded:

"Among the most startling outcomes?is the apparent absence of a direct evangelistic impact by the movie?. Less than one-tenth of one percent of those who saw the film stated that they made a profession of faith or accepted Jesus Christ as their savior in reaction to the film's content."

Either The Passion wasn't the greatest outreach opportunity in 2000 years, or churches simply squandered the opportunity it presented.

Barna thinks the problem was relying upon a film to impact lives in a culture saturated with media. "In an environment in which people spend more than 40 hours each week absorbing a range of messages from multiple media, it is rare that a single media experience will radically reorient someone's life."

After seeing Gibson's financial success Disney hired the same marketing firm used by The Passion. Motive Marketing helped Disney convince pastors that its Narnia film was a powerful tool for reaching non-Christians. And repeating The Passion frenzy of 2004, churches gobbled up tickets, reserved entire theaters, devised sermon series, and plastered Narnia marketing materials throughout their communities.

With Motive Marketing's church-based marketing campaign Disney has collected nearly $300 million from Narnia. And while data is still being assessed on the spiritual impact of the film, it's a safe bet that Narnia will have impacted fewer Americans than The Passion did. (Of course, with Disney releasing the DVD in time for Easter it's not too late for your church to launch another marketing campaign.)

Paul Lauer, president of Motive Marketing, says his company's primary mission isn't marketing movies, but rather "providing congregations with tools to further their goals." Given that The Passion and Narnia have collectively earned nearly one billion dollars, while the church's goal hasn't measurably advanced at all, maybe Mr. Lauer needs to reassess his company's mission.

The debate over using films for evangelism isn't new. Back in 2004, Leadership hosted a lively interaction about The Passion's potential for outreach featuring Rick Warren and Brian McLaren. Warren wrote that his church was eagerly riding the "spiritual tsunami" created by the film. He reported 892 commitments to Christ were made during his two-week sermon series based on The Passion, over 600 new smalls groups were formed, and his church's average attendance increased by 3,000. This response, while worth celebrating, according to George Barna does not represent the experience of most churches who reported little or no growth as a result of the film.

April 10, 2006

Displaying 1–10 of 38 comments

Randy Ehle

April 25, 2006  4:18pm

When individual followers of Christ do not take personal responsibility for talking about him with their friends, co-workers, neighbors, family, then the best evangelical tools in history are nothing more than clutter on a workbench. My biggest concern about "invitational evangelism" is that it becomes an easy out for people to sit back and not share their own personal faith with people. Instead of introducing people to Jesus, we simply invite them to church; and even if those people become "converted" to church, it may be a lifetime before they consciously decide to follow Jesus and accept his invitation to discipleship.

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April 20, 2006  7:24am

It seems quite possible that these films are creating more harm than they are good. Now movies are being produced so that they can be marketed to American Christians because Hollywood knows Christians will show up to any film that doesn't resemble the Left Behind movies? When does it end? What if Christianity is on it's way to becoming nothing more than the next big blockbuster?

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April 19, 2006  8:37am

In my heart, I did hope those films would make an impact but our church did not invest. It seems obvious that the original plan was for each person to be given a measure of faith and love to be given to those in their circle of influence so that others WHO KNOW THEM would see their life and follow. We can bank on that plan because it was God sent. Any deviation will leave us dumbfounded at the futility of our efforts. But without the hype and the parade, I recently purchased The Passion for my own viewing, sat alone watching it, repenting and worshipping Christ for what he gave me, undeserved. So I don't discount its impact in my own life. Maybe its best use is as a personal and private tool.

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Kevin Noble

April 18, 2006  6:00pm

Perhaps the purpose of The Passion of the Christ was not for outreach or evangelism, but to return a wayward church back to the central truth of Christianity...the redemptive power of the Cross! As I viewed the movie, I found myself transformed by the undisguised truth of Jesus' suffering and death for my sins and the sins of the world. As I left the movie theater, I committed to never again forget the price that Christ paid for my salvation and to always remember just how much God the Father loves us - collectively and as individuals. Perhaps this is the purpose of The remind us of the true ugliness and tragic penalty of sin so that we will serve Christ with the love and gratitude that such a sacrifice deserves.

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Ian McGuiggan

April 18, 2006  4:54pm

I'm a minister of the Word from Ireland living and ministering in the US. I didn't buy into or promote the Passion hype though appreciated the movie. I didn't buy into or promote the Narnia hype though loved the movie. I also don't buy into or promote the "President Bush & GOP will save us" hype. For some reason we seem to think embracing & using the gods of this world (Power, Popularity, Buety, Riches, Knowledge, business models, psycology etc) will bring people to the knowledge and love of the one true God and Jesus Christ – AND IT'S ALL NONSENSE! Let's put away the idols for goodness sake! Unbelievers see through and are abandoning these worthless idols. They are looking for Jesus, living and working in you. Let's give them Jesus! Sure...isn't Him their looking for?

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Dan Horwedel

April 18, 2006  2:37pm

I thought of The Passion of the Christ as a work of art. It seems to me people have expressed and/or shared their faith through art for centuries. Personally, I feel the hype surrounding the film was overplayed, but not the expression. Art moves different people in different ways. When we start to use it as a "tool"... is it still art?

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John Smith

April 18, 2006  12:54pm

Two hours of indescribable violence is supposed to attract people? Anyone who could sit through that without becoming violently ill is not someone I would listen to, much less even want to be in the same room with.

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April 16, 2006  10:46am

Perhaps church leaders should have spoken about the Passion at churches simply because it's a movie about Christ–and how many movies about Christ are we able to see? That was enough reason to see the film. I thought it was a beautiful film. If it didn't work as evangelism, that's too bad, but perhaps the film had another purpose. How about us–the already believing Christians? Perhaps the Passion was for us as much as for anyone. (And what's wrong with that?)

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James Barnard

April 16, 2006  12:30am

Yeah absolutely, the core of evangelism has to be based on your relationships with people. I havent seen the film but every non-christian I know who saw it thought it was either ridiculous, or asked me why it had all this non-scriptural stuff in it or as was often the case with my Jewish friends, felt somewhat threatened by it. (But my Christian friends all thought it was deeply moving.) In my experience guiding someone to Christ has to be based on genuinely loving them, and listening, and sharing my heart, and engaging the scriptures together. This is hard and takes lots of work and prayer and frustration. Relying just on a movie I think makes the church seem way too inwardly focused and kind of unhealthy. (But Ive definately used movies before, to illustrate certain points -like unsatisfaction with worldy riches- in my discussions, so it could have some evangelistic value.)

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Daniel Darling

April 14, 2006  6:51pm

I think Barna's research reflects two things: There was nothing wrong with the Passion movie-it was great and I think Christians can use that as a reference point for years to come when explaining the gospel. (have you seen the Passion move? Remember when he was on the cross . . . ) However, the church has fallen prey to slick marketing. Like the world, Christian marketers bill every book, movie, teaching series as the gotta-have-it-now latest and set the bar for success so high (it will revolutionize your church, change the world, and win a billion souls to Christ.) When those lofty goals aren't met we're left standing there wondering, "Why didnt't this happen?" Again, the problem wasn't the movie, but the marketing bandwagon that went with it. I also think the movie may have had more impact than can be quantified in a survey. There were undoubtedly many souls saved in one-on-one follow-up conversations, without the slick teaching packets, study guides, and books that were produced en-masse. The lesson here, I think, is that every book doesn't have to be a movement. Every movie isn't a revival. They all help, but the greatest number of souls are added to the Kingdom by the faithful one-on-one conversion that happens around the country. Churches have to stop doing church-out-of-the-box and affixing themselves to the latest marketing bandwagon. Be unique, do what God called you to do.

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