[R-G] Some Christians See 'Passion' as Evangelism Tool
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Wed Feb 4 23:57:59 MST 2004
Yes folks prepare for a global tidal wave of postmodernist fundamentalist
Xtian religious psychosis
February 5, 2004
New York Times
Some Christians See 'Passion' as Evangelism Tool
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
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