Passion's Aftermath: Research Shows Film's Spiritual Impact Falling Short

By Jenni Parker

Agape Press

July 14, 2004

(AgapePress) - Although many fans predicted Mel Gibson's blockbuster, The Passion of the Christ, would have an intense and long-lasting spiritual impact, a Christian researcher's survey has revealed that the movie-going public has a short memory and an easily re-directed attention span.

Gibson's controversial picture astonished the filmmaking industry by becoming the eighth highest-grossing domestic film of all time. However, the results of a recent national survey conducted by The Barna Research Group (BRG) suggest that what some thought would be a life-transforming and culture-changing influence may have been, after all, just a really popular movie.

Through a research tool that polled more than 1,600 adults across the U.S., BRG researchers examined not only how many people saw The Passion of the Christ, but also what impact the film had on their lives. The survey discovered that one out of every three adults in America (31 percent) say they have seen the film, and despite how some media critics trashed it, most viewers gave the movie rave reviews, from "good" (23 percent) to "excellent" (67 percent). But when viewers were asked if The Passion affected their religious beliefs, only one out of six (16 percent) said it had.

When that small segment of the viewing audience was asked to describe how the movie had affected their religious beliefs, some said it had affected their perception of the importance of how they treat other people (3 percent); others said the film caused them to be more concerned about the effect of their life choices and personal behavior (3 percent); and still others said watching the film, which portrayed the last hours of Christ's life leading up to the crucifixion, gave them a deeper understanding of, or appreciation for, what Christ had done for them through His death and resurrection (3 percent).

Asked whether seeing The Passion of the Christ had affected their religious practices, less than a fifth of the movie's viewers (18 percent) indicated that it had changed some aspect of their religious behavior. Among the most commonly cited behavioral differences were praying more often (9 percent), attending church services more frequently (8 percent), and becoming more involved in church-related activities (3 percent). Only one out of every ten people who saw The Passion indicated that the experience had resulted in their changing both their religious beliefs and practices in some way.

One of the most disappointing things the research revealed was the apparent lack of a direct evangelistic impact by the film. Less than one-tenth of one percent of the people who saw The Passion said they responded to it by making a profession of faith or accepting Christ as their Savior. And equally startling is how little impact the film had on people's determination to get more involved in evangelism. Less than one-half of one percent claimed seeing the movie had motivated them to become more active in sharing their faith in Christ with others.

Research Implications
George Barna, founder of BRG and director of the research, anticipates that many people will be surprised to learn that The Passion of the Christ has not had a more lasting and intense effect on those who saw it. "Immediate reaction to the movie seemed quite intense," he says, "but people's memories are short and are easily redirected in a media saturated, fast-paced culture like ours. The typical adult had already watched another six movies at the time of the survey interview, not including dozens of hours of television programs they had also watched."

One of the lessons to be learned here, Barna says, is that major transformation is unlikely to come about from a single exposure to a specific media product. In a cultural environment in which people spend upwards of 40 hours a week absorbing a wide range of messages from a variety of media, the researcher says, "it is rare that a single media experience will radically re-orient someone's life."

While these facts do not negate the potency or value of The Passion of the Christ and its message, Barna says it does remind us that a single effort without adequate reinforcement is unlikely to result in a lasting effects. The Christian cultural analyst says media's greatest impact seems to come from constant exposure to a consistent message that is both well presented and personally relevant.

Still, Barna believes it is significant that 13 million adults said they changed some aspect of their typical religious behavior because they saw Gibson's biblically-themed film, and about 11 million people had some pre-existing religious beliefs altered as a result of the experience. "That's enormous influence," the researcher says. Ultimately, he contends, The Passion of the Christ cannot be faulted for failing to satisfy the "religious agendas that some people assigned to it."

And Barna adds, "More than any other movie in recent years, The Passion focused people on the person and purpose of Jesus Christ." In a society that "revolves on relativism, spiritual diversity, tolerance and independence," the researcher says galvanizing such a response is, in itself, a major achievement.

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