Many churches look to ‘Passion’ as evangelism tool
Feb. 20, 2004 

A UMNS Report By Amy Green*

Mel Gibson (director/producer) directs Jim Caviezel (Jesus) for The Passion of The Christ, a film by Mel Gibson. © 2003 Icon Distribution Inc. All Rights Reserved. A Newmarket Films release. Photo credit: Philippe Antonello.
These days it often takes a good movie to get people reading the book. Take “Seabiscuit’’ and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy for example.
 
Many Christians hope for the same reaction with “The Passion of the Christ,” Mel Gibson’s controversial take on Jesus’ last hours. Describing it as a one-of-a-kind evangelism opportunity, many United Methodist churches are promoting the film as part of their ministries. The film will be released Feb. 25, Ash Wednesday, and it is already one of the most talked-about movies of recent years.
 
United Methodists, like other Christians, have bought out many of the film’s first showings to share free tickets with nonbelievers. Many congregations plan to be at the theaters — some are setting up tables — to answer questions and share prayers. And they are mailing fliers across their communities urging people to see the film and direct questions about it to their congregations.
 
They feel the film presents a unique opportunity to share Christianity in a way today’s public can identify with, says John Tanner, pastor of Cove United Methodist Church near Huntsville, Ala., which draws about 900 on an average Sunday.
 
“The bottom line is that throughout the ages of church history, the arts have been an important part of the way the story has been communicated,” he says. “The art form of our age ... is this art form of the motion picture.”
 
Jesus (Jim Caviezel) in a scene from The Passion of The Christ, a film by Mel Gibson. © 2003 Icon Distribution Inc. All Rights Reserved. A Newmarket Films release. Photo credit: Philippe Antonello.
Congregations also welcome “Passion” promotional materials available through the film’s Web site and a dozen others. The film’s Web site offers posters, bookmarks and other materials for free. Teen Mania, a youth ministry, offers a CD-ROM and DVD package for youth based on the movie. The International Bible Society has created a special edition New Testament and Gospel of Luke with scenes from the movie.
 
Among the publicists hired to promote the film are Larry Ross, Billy Graham’s publicist, and others known among Christians. Film executives are like any others trying to penetrate their core audience, Ross says. But they are getting their best support at the grass-roots level.
 
Cove United Methodist Church put together a four-week series of sermons, titled “CSI: Jerusalem,” taking an investigative look at Jesus’ trial and death. The church is promoting the series with mailings around the community inviting “Passion” viewers to visit the congregation for a better understanding of the film’s claims.
 
The United Methodist Church of Visilia, south of Fresno, Calif., bought out three showings of the film and is planning panel discussions after each showing. The church also is tying the film into a Lenten study of Jesus’ trial and death.
 
Faithbridge United Methodist Church in Houston is mailing out flyers and sending members to the film’s showings with business cards inviting viewers to visit the congregation for discussion of the film. 
 
Mary Magdalene (Monica Bellucci), Mary (Maia Morgenstern) and John (Hristo Jivkov) in a scene from The Passion of The Christ, a film by Mel Gibson. © 2003 Icon Distribution Inc. All Rights Reserved. A Newmarket Films release. Photo credit: Philippe Antonello.
“It’s a very provocative film, and it would be hard for anyone who is not a follower of Jesus Christ to see the movie and just walk out and be done with it,” says Ken Werlein, pastor of Faithbridge United Methodist Church, which draws about 1,100 on an average Sunday.
 
Gibson — who produced, directed and helped write the film — stoked this support by inviting Christians to screenings across the country in the months leading up to the film’s release. They came away from those screenings proclaiming a film that they described as powerful for its realistic and unrelenting portrayal of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. 
 
The film is said to have moved the venerable Graham to tears and Pope John Paul II to remark, “It is as it was.” First lady Laura Bush said in mid-February that she would like to see the film.   
 
Gibson says his intent is to inspire introspection and dialogue. He began researching the four Gospels 12 years ago when a spiritual crisis led him to re-evaluate his faith. The result, he says, is a film that closely represents the Gospels’ portrayal of Jesus’ last hours.
 
But the film sparked criticism for its violence and what some describe as anti-Semitism.
 
Jesus (Jim Caviezel) carries the Cross in a scene from The Passion of The Christ, a film by Mel Gibson. © 2003 Icon Distribution Inc. All Rights Reserved. A Newmarket Films release. Photo credit: Philippe Antonello.
“My concern about it is the use of graphic violence and heart-wrenching emotional trauma to get people to follow Jesus,” says Susan Bond, an associate professor at the Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn., who teaches a course on Jesus in film. “It seems to me enormously manipulative.”
 
Bond also frets the film could renew anti-Semitism and believes these concerns could overshadow its evangelistic merit. However, others disagree. They point out that Jews were not alone in crucifying Jesus, and they say the film’s realism — even if it is violent — sets it apart from other films about Jesus.
 
Lin Goodyear, pastor of the United Methodist Church of Visilia, which draws about 1,000 on an average Sunday, believes the film will become a religious classic that will do more than get people reading the book.
 
“It just aims right at the heart,” he says. “Instead of knowing about Christ, they will know Christ.”

*Green is a freelance journalist based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Tim Tanton (615)742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org

Online Discussion
Movie Trailers
Windows Media
QuickTime
Suggested Resources
Experiencing the Passion, Discerning the Times
The Passion of The Christ Web Site
The Passion of The Christ Free Promotional Materials
Purchase Teen Mania's Multimedia Package
Purchase Resources From the International Bible Society
Facts, Faith, and Film-Making: Jesus’ Passion and Its Portrayal
Sensing the Passion: Reflections During Lent
Frequently Asked Questions
What is a Passion play?
What is the history of the Passion play?
What is the relationship between The United Methodist Church and the Jewish community?


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