LOS ANGELES (ABP) — Once upon a time, pastors warned churchgoers against the evils of the silver screen. Now they are packing believers and unchurched guests alike into movie houses across the land.
The difference is what's playing — “The Passion of the Christ,” by Hollywood heavyweight Mel Gibson. With its R-rated, bloodstained recreation of the last hours of Jesus' life told in English-subtitled Aramaic and Latin, film insiders predicted Gibson's quixotic project would be a box-office flop. Instead, the movie opened with numbers rivaling Hollywood's biggest blockbusters. And in the audience sit many faithful church members, their seats often reserved for them by pastors.
Making its debut on Ash Wednesday, Gibson's movie opened on 4,643 screens in 3,006 theaters with $10 million in advance ticket sales, according to Larry Ross, media representative for Icon Productions, which made the film. The media and public relations firm that Ross heads, Dallas-based A. Larry Ross and Associates, is known for its work with religious clients.
Churches are buying out entire movie houses — “four-walling,” as it's known in the trade — to encourage their members to attend “The Passion” and take their unchurched friends with them.
In northeastern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., McLean Bible Church reserved 11,306 tickets for members and their guests, said Denny Harris, the church's director of ministry operations. The process that snowballed into securing thousands of movie seats started with an e-mailed invitation from a theater chain asking if the church wanted to buy a couple of hundred tickets so members could see the film.
As they considered the invitation, congregation leaders were struck with the opportunities for outreach the movie offered. The goal then became to “commandeer theaters” for viewings, Harris said.
With its more than 11,000 reserved movie seats, the church scheduled the film over four evenings. Interviewed after the first two nights, Harris estimated that guests invited by church members made up more than half the audience.
One of the congregation's pastors showed up at each screening to talk to the audience about the “personal implications” of the gospel story they have just watched. And the church scheduled three workshops on “Personalizing the Passion” for people interested in finding out more.
Using Gibson's widely publicized movie for evangelism is part of a multifaceted promotional effort by Vista, Calif.-based Outreach magazine. The magazine's website offers a variety of products based on the film, ranging from direct-mail postcards to “affordable Passion-themed New Testaments.” Outreach sent “most churches in the United States” a DVD that included a movie trailer.
“Take time during your weekend services to show the G-rated trailer . . . to your congregation and then share with them how your church will be helping equip them to reach their friends and neighbors for Christ,” the website recommends. Outreach even suggests linking the movie to Easter services, perhaps by showing scenes from the DVD “to illustrate points in the sermon.”
Accompanying the recommendations are endorsements by prominent religious leaders, including well-known evangelicals Billy Graham, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, and Southern Baptist Convention president Jack Graham.
“I am praying that Mel Gibson's movie will have a powerful impact on our culture and that it will appeal to millions of movie lovers who are starving for a glimmer of honesty regarding the miraculous and life-changing story of the one who died for everyone,” Falwell says on the site.
While marketing religiously themed films to churches is nothing new, Gibson's movie has brought the pitch to believers to a new level of intensity, according to Gabriel Snyder, who has covered “The Passion” for the benchmark entertainment newspaper “Variety.” Compared with other movies similarly targeting religious markets, like the 2002 Veggie Tales feature “Jonah,” the push to pique believers' interest in Gibson's film comes on “a massive scale,” Snyder said.
In early January, Outreach screened the film at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., where best-selling author Rick Warren is pastor. More than 3,000 pastors and church leaders saw the movie and heard Gibson talk about it at the church, according to David Chrzan, pastor and chief of staff at Saddleback.
Warren's church subsequently bought 18,000 tickets to offer members. When it made the tickets available on the church website, Saddleback sold nearly 10,000 in the first 48 hours, Chrzan said. The church bought out more than 40 screens.
With Warren offering a two-part sermon series on “Understanding the Passion,” Chrzan said Saddleback already felt the impact of Gibson's movie. The weekend Warren began the series, 23,000 people attended, the largest crowd ever except Christmas and Easter. And Chrzan said the church anticipated 30,000 to 35,000 people this weekend, when Warren presents the concluding installment of the Passion series.
In Plano, Texas, Prestonwood Baptist Church member Arch Bonnema decided to go beyond reserving seats for others, instead buying 6,000 tickets to give away. Owner of a small financial planning agency, Bonnema saw the movie in December with a group of pastors.
“When I saw it, it really changed my life,” Bonnema said, adding, “It made everything else I had done look meaningless.” The Texas businessman said he decided after the screening that he had to do something so that other people could see the film. When he sent out a few e-mails in December offering people the chance to go, Bonnema said he received 23,000 e-mail requests in three days.
Bonnema scheduled his showings early on the day the film opened, Ash Wednesday. With the first screening at 6:30 a.m., Bonnema said that at 5:30 — notwithstanding a 20-degree windchill and a winter downpour — a thousand people showed up to get in line.
“Just seeing these people come today, it was worth everything I own,” Bonnema said.
Nathan Mellor, minister of Hixson Church of Christ, Chattanooga, Tenn., echoed other church leaders across the nation convinced that Gibson's movie offers a unique chance to rekindle the passion of believers, as well as reach people normally uninterested in the gospel message.
Observing that watching the movie with members of his congregation in a nearby cinema was “a real bonding experience,” Mellor reflected, “This is the biggest conversation starter we have ever had for this generation.”