Note: I’ve written about this topic elsewhere, but would like to explore the issue in more depth (or at least more length) here.
Earlier this year I watched The Passion of the Christ–perhaps you’ve heard of it? In the weeks leading up to its release, the buzz within the “Christian community” (have fun defining that one) had become a deafening roar. Amidst all the controversy about the film, Christians and ministries throughout the country were gearing up to take advantage of what they anticipated would be a massive spiritual revival. Passion-themed websites were created, books were written, tracts were penned, Bible studies and discussion guides were distributed. All were designed in the hopes of sharing the Gospel with non-Christians who saw the film and were sufficiently moved or interested by it to do some research into What It All Means. At least one or two organizations touted The Passion as the greatest evangelistic opportunity in recent history.
Now, I am oversimplifying things a bit for effect–none of the Christians I talked to (or read) believed that millions of moviegoers would instantly convert upon watching the movie. But there was a very, very strong hope that the film would break down the walls of resistance in unbelievers and give Christians an unprecedented opportunity to share the Gospel with people who might otherwise not give it a second thought. The ministry where I work was closely involved in efforts to promote the film as an evangelistic opportunity, and I shared the hope that the film, good or bad, would pique a popular interest in Jesus that would lead them to turn to the Gospels for answers.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to have happened at all. Recent Barna research noted positive initial spiritual responses to the film, but concludes with a troubling piece of news:
Among the most startling outcomes drawn from the research is the apparent absence of a direct evangelistic impact by the movie. Despite marketing campaigns labeling the movie the “greatest evangelistic tool” of our era, less than one-tenth of one percent of those who saw the film stated that they made a profession of faith or accepted Jesus Christ as their savior in reaction to the film’s content.
Equally surprising was the lack of impact on people’s determination to engage in evangelism. Less than one-half of one percent of the audience said they were motivated to be more active in sharing their faith in Christ with others as a result of having seen the movie.
Now, “less than one-tenth of one percent of those who saw the film” means that some people did find Christ as a result of watching it–and that’s good news. But that’s a tiny, tiny number compared to the hopes Christians had for Passion-related evangelism. In numerical form, thats what, <.05%? Ouch.
So what does this mean? One of the biggest-hyped evangelism opportunities in recent years has proved to be a bust (with the disclaimer that a small number of people were positively impacted by it). Somewhere, something went wrong. Where, and what should we think about all this?
One possibility is that the film simply didn’t live up to Christian expectations. Perhaps the film was so bad or so inaccurate that nobody liked it, let alone felt inspired by it? This seems unlikely given the movie’s massive success in theaters, and I don’t know anyone personally who didn’t find the film both moving and well-crafted. I saw it myself, and while I can easily imagine somebody not liking it, it certainly doesn’t fall into the category of “cringe-o-matic Christian cheese.” (Well, it does cause cringing, but not for the usual reasons.) Furthermore, many of the Christians who hoped to see a spiritual revival in the wake of the movie didn’t pin those hopes on the anticipated high quality of the movie–for many, it was enough that the person of Jesus was the subject of such intense public scrutiny, whether out of adoration or controversy or anything else. If the movie turned out to be good, so much the better, but it didn’t have to be good or accurate from an evangelistic perspective–it just had to get people thinking about Christ. The person of Christ, and the story of the Gospel, would speak for themselves, no matter what the movie did or didn’t get right–or so their hopes went.
So I don’t think it’s a simple matter of the movie not meeting expectations or standards of quality. What are some other reasons?
One other troubling possibility is simply that the Christian community utterly and completely misjudged the situation and saw an evangelism opportunity where none really existed. It wouldn’t be the first time that Christians have predicted a mass spiritual awakening, only to be disappointed: it happened after 9/11 and before that–oh, how it pains me to even write this–regarding the Left Behind movie. The idea of “Big Event” evangelism–witnessing based around a major world event or prevailing cultural trends–isn’t new, and there are success stories to be found in history. Sometimes it works–think everything from Jonathan Edwards to the Billy Graham crusades–and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s what happens when fallible humans try to anticipate the inner workings of the heart–or the plans of the Holy Spirit. If it is the case that the Christian community misjudged, maybe it’s just another item in a very long list of hits and misses when it comes to anticipating pop culture’s response to the Gospel.
Which leads me to another possibility, and that is that God simply didn’t intend to use this movie to spread the Gospel far and wide. I believe strongly that words and images–even when crafted into something as compelling as The Passion of the Christ–have no power to bring you to God unless God himself chooses to work through them for his purposes. Perhaps it is simply the case that Christians’ hopes for the film just didn’t match up with God’s plans, and that’s that. If so, it wouldn’t be the first time Christians have embarked on evangelism efforts without first checking to see if it’s what God really wants (not that figuring out “what God wants” is as easy as that, of course).
And lastly, I suppose it’s possible that this film really did hold massive evangelistic potential, and we as Christians completely botched it somehow. Perhaps we have separated ourselves so far from the interests, loves, and desires of non-Christians that we are unable to anticipate their spiritual impulses–and thus cannot provide them with the Answer in a way that they understand. If this is the case–that Christians dropped the ball on a huge opportunity–I’d say we as a community of believers have a lot of thinking, talking, and praying to do about how we should be bringing the Gospel to the world.
What do you think? It’s an issue that has been on my mind lately. Why do you think that Passion evangelism has produced so little fruit compared to the veritable harvest for which evangelicals hoped? Somewhere along the line, we miscalulated or misguessed the impact that this film would have. Some were saved, yes, but for the most part, spiritual life in America has returned to its pre-Passion levels. We shouldn’t judge Passion evangelism a failure just because it produced fewer visible results than anticipated, but I think it’s important to ask ourselves why our expectations of spiritual revival so far exceeded the results.
final paragraph edited 8/15 for clarity and to remove an implication I hadn’t intended to make.