Touted as “perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2000 years,” Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” had relatively little lasting impact on people’s religious beliefs or practice, according to a Barna survey.
The survey by Barna Research in Ventura, Calif., reported July 10, found four out of 10 adults said they had in the last two years seen a movie that caused them to think more seriously about their religious faith. Six in 10 listed “The Passion” as one of those movies.
Only 6 percent, however, said any movie during the past two years had led them to change something they believed about the Christian faith.
Eighteen percent of people who saw Gibson’s movie said it had affected their religious practice. The most common changes were praying more often (9 percent), attending church services more frequently (8 percent) and becoming more involved in church-related activities (3 percent.)
Just one-half of 1 percent who saw the film, however, said they accepted Christ as a result.
Equally surprising, Barna said, was the lack of impact on influencing people to engage in evangelism. Less than one-half of 1 percent seeing the movie said it motivated them to become more active in sharing their faith.
A “Passion” evangelistic Web site before the movie’s February release touted it as “perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2000 years.”
Evangelical leaders strongly endorsed the movie, and churches across the nation bought tickets in bulk.
The Baptist General Convention of Texas sought to capitalize on buzz about the movie by purchasing ads at theaters. One theater chain rejected the original ad as “too dark,” but later agreed to accept a modified version.
The movie is the year’s biggest money maker, earning $370 million in the United States and $609 million in worldwide ticket sales.
The movie comes out on video Aug. 31, which will likely spark another marketing boost. Advance sales are brisk, and Sam’s Club is selling the DVD to churches in bulk packs of 50 for $898.
Research director George Barna said many people would probably be surprised that the movie didn’t have more lasting spiritual impact.
“Immediate reaction to the movie seemed to be quite intense,” he said, but “people’s memories are short.”
The lesson for churches, Barna said, is that spiritual transformation is unlikely to take place from exposure to a single media product. That doesn’t negate the power or message of Gibson’s movie, he said, “but it does remind us that a single effort that is not adequately reinforced is not likely to make a lasting impression.”
Barna’s findings aside, Ricky Chelette, single adult and outreach minister at First Baptist Church of Arlington, Texas, said using “The Passion” is still bringing in first-time visitors.
Like many congregations, the Texas church reserved a theater and encouraged members to bring a guest. At the screening, two days before the movie’s official opening, everyone in attendance filled out an information ticket for follow-up.
The church immediately noted a steady stream of visitors whose first contact with the church was the movie screening, Chelette said. At first it was at least one a week for several months, but the church still continues to see visitors who were at the movie.
“Personally, I think it was a tremendous outreach tool and continue to see results from our investment in it,” he said.
Nearly one in three Americans claimed to see the movie, and most liked it. Ninety percent rated it either excellent (67 percent) or good (23 percent).
About half of the people who saw the movie (53 percent) were born-again Christians, which is somewhat higher than their 38 percent of the total population. Atheists and agnostics tended to stay away. They comprise 12 percent of the population but 4 percent of “The Passion” audience.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.