Some Christians See 'Passion' as Evangelism Tool
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
New York Times
For years it was an article of faith for many Christians that the most powerful vehicle for bringing nonbelievers to Jesus was a Billy Graham crusade.
Now, they expect it will be a Mel Gibson movie.
Three weeks before the release of "The Passion of the Christ," a graphic portrayal of the torture and crucifixion of Jesus, Christians nationwide are busy preparing to use it in an immense grass-roots evangelistic campaign.
Mr. Gibson, who produced, directed and largely financed the film, has tried to stoke their enthusiasm by screening it the past two months for at least 10,000 pastors and leaders of Christian ministries and media. Many emerged proclaiming it a searing, life-changing experience.
Now those leaders are buying blocks of tickets, encouraging church members to invite their "unsaved" friends and co-workers and producing television commercials that start with scenes from the movie and finish with a pitch for their churches.
"I don't know of anything since the Billy Graham crusades that has had the potential of touching so many lives," said Morris H. Chapman, president of the executive committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination. "It's like the Lord somehow laid in our lap something that could be a great catalyst for spiritual awakening in this nation."
The movie opens on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 25, and Christian groups are already distributing merchandise to capitalize on the moment. There are lapel pins in Aramaic, the language of much of the film, and "witnessing cards" to give those who ask about the pin; door hangers for the neighbors; one million tracts asking moviegoers to "Take a moment right now and say a prayer like this," and a CD-ROM for teenagers that features a downloadable picture of a nine-inch nail like those that pinned Jesus to the cross.
Although Mr. Gibson is Roman Catholic and the movie is replete with Catholic touches, like the Stations of the Cross and the centrality of Mary, influential Pentecostal and evangelical leaders have embraced it anyway, seeing its value as a tool in evangelism. Evangelical Christians account for 30 percent to 40 percent of the American population, and many of them have recently been hearing their leaders declare that the nation is primed for a return of the ecstatic Great Awakenings that moved Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries to convert to Christianity in droves.
Mr. Gibson's film company has hired several marketing firms experienced in reaching Christian audiences, including the publicist for the Rev. Billy Graham. But much of the promotion was initiated by an assortment of ministry agencies, churches and individual Christians.
One of these, the American Tract Society in Garland, Tex., proclaims on its Web site that the movie is "one of the greatest opportunities for evangelism in 2,000 years." Daniel Southern, the society's president, said his group had produced two tracts tied into the movie, and expected one to sell over one million copies. The only involvement of Mr. Gibson's company, Mr. Southern said, was in granting permission to use a movie photograph on the cover.
"This is an unprecedented opportunity that the average Christian needs to seize," Mr. Southern said. "You'll run into people at work who've seen the movie, and you can say, `Have you ever thought about why Christ had to die?' And then you can say: `This tract has one take on that and I'd like to share it with you.' And you hand them the tract."
Teen Mania, an evangelical group that holds youth crusades in stadiums, says at least 3,000 leaders of church youth groups have bought CD-ROM kits that instruct young people in how to use the film to deepen their own faith and bring their friends to accept Christ.
The film is rated R because of the violent scourging and crucifixion of Jesus that occupies much of its two hours. Ron Luce, president of Teen Mania, says children would benefit from seeing it, and the CD-ROM supplies information to persuade parents to allow their children to attend.
"This isn't just violence for violence's sake," Mr. Luce said. "This is what really happened, what it would have been like to have been there in person to see Jesus crucified."
Mr. Gibson invested $25 million of his own into the movie and has told supporters that he regards it as a spiritual calling. He has suggested that he is aware of the film's potential use in evangelism. In a promotional brochure for the movie given to 4,500 participants at a recent "Global Pastors Network" conference in Orlando, Fla., Mr. Gibson says, "I hope the film has the power to evangelize." He has told screeners in churches that on the movie set, he witnessed agnostics and Muslims converting to Christianity.
A spokesman for Mr. Gibson, Alan Nierob, explained the outreach efforts as more in the interest of marketing than evangelism. He said that although "The Passion of the Christ" was being released on about 2,000 screens by Newmarket Films, it did not have a large marketing budget to pay for focus groups and advertising.
"We don't have that luxury here," Mr. Nierob said. "So you've got to do what you can to get the film out there, get supporters, get word of mouth. That's really the grass-roots approach." Mr. Nierob likened it to the word-of-mouth and Internet buzz that turned "The Blair Witch Project" into a sleeper hit.
Mr. Gibson's company held early screenings of the film in churches led by pastors renowned in Christian circles for pioneering evangelization techniques. They include the Rev. Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill.; Bishop Eddie L. Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta; and the Rev. Rick Warren at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., author of the best seller "The Purpose-Driven Life."
Mr. Hybels was host to 4,500 viewers at a screening in his church last month, and said in an interview that he had invited a "sample group" of a dozen "nonchurchgoing community leaders and businessmen" to gauge their reaction. He said all 12 reported that the film "piqued their curiosity" about Jesus and caused some to go home and dig out Bibles they had not read for years.
Although the film has been praised by some Roman Catholics and promoted on some Catholic Web sites, Catholic clergy members and bishops have not latched onto it as a tool for church-building as the evangelicals have.
The same brutality in the film that has caused such an emotional response among many Christian filmgoers has alarmed some Jewish leaders who say it could stoke animosity toward Jews.
Christian supporters of the film say it merely adheres to the Bible. But some Jewish leaders say that it distorts the Scriptures and that they are alarmed at the prospect of the movie's being accepted as gospel.
David M. Elcott, director for interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said, "It would be a deep disappointment to the Jewish community if this movie would become the vehicle for teaching Christianity, even within Christian settings."
Christian leaders predict that the film will have a long afterlife on tape and DVD for use in homes, churches and Bible study classes. Some cautioned that the film's graphic brutality would limit its usefulness with youngsters and in some cultures.
But others said that missionaries would eventually adopt it as a conversion tool much like "Jesus," a 1970's film distributed by the group Campus Crusade for Christ. That film has been translated into more than 800 languages and shown in hundreds of countries.