Whatever happened to The Passion?

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.

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6 thoughts on “Whatever happened to The Passion?

  1. topher

    There’s yet another possibility, and that is that the Passion WILL produce a very high rate of evangelism, but it will be spread out so far and over so much time, we’ll not think to associate it with the movie. All those people saw it, and it’s in their head. Maybe THEY won’t even realize the movie had anything to do with it.
    Who are we to judge if we messed up? Perhaps God needed the message to go out there and hit a bunch of people, knowing they wouldn’t accept right now?
    I’ve given up on trying to decide if a given campaign, or mission, or sermon, or whatever has been a success. If God wanted it done, and I or you or they did it, then it was a success. Not because it produced what WE thought it should, but because it was something that needed to be done at that time and place to further God’s plans.

  2. Bill

    I thought your post on the Passion was really interesting. I was just thinking about the movie and the waxing and waning of the interest in it.
    Your post also brought back to mind my dad’s sermon on the Passion. At one point, he preached that it would be wonderful if this movie encouraged widespread spiritual change, but he thought it was unlikely to do so because in church history attention to these kind of “excitements” done with the purpose of creating widespread belief immediately have almost always failed. Even worse, they almost always serve to weaken the church by eroding the doctrine upon which the church stands.
    One of the greatest examples of this was Charles Finney. He was the king of creating the type of revivalistic “excitements” that would bring people to saving faith. He basically equated faith to obedience and terrorized the consciences of people. I’m sure there were genuine converts to Christianity in the bunch, but he also adopted a basically full Pelagian view of salvation. He ended up creating a famous “burned-over district” where some of the staunchest and most skeptical anti-Christian attitudes prevailed for decades.
    I’m currently reading Iain Murray’s “Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858.” And it is really interesting how his argument is advancing. I’m not very far along, but he is basically taking a historic look at how American evangelicalism made a radical shift during the Second Great Awakening and how that influences evangelical movements up to this day. So far it is an outstanding historical work and, in my opinion, the Passion would fit into his scheme as another in a long line of well-meaning efforts on the part of evangelicals in this country to try to make revival happen with disappointing results.
    I can’t imagine the Passion having any more influence in the future that it has (or hasn’t) already. Clearly it has passed its prime as a phenomenon, and I’m sad to see that it made very little impact on a sinful world. I’m heartily sorry for it, but in light of church history and biblical revelation, I can’t say that I’m all that surprised.

  3. Ed

    Really good point from Topher.
    Also, if one-tenth of one percent of those who saw the movie made an altar call or whatever, think about how many people saw the movie. That might still be a tremendous number. Think about what fraction of the people who saw the movie were in a position to convert (i.e. weren’t already Christians, or were somehow significantly lapsed in their faith, and weren’t strongly committed to another faith like Judaism or Islam). Probably a fairly small fraction of those who saw it, which would pump up the 1/10 of 1% significantly. 1/10 of 1% seems like a small amount but 1/10 of 1% of a very large number might still be pretty big.
    I wonder how many dollars Mel Gibson made in personal profit from the movie per conversion, though? Those would be interesting numbers. 🙂
    But then he’s not really the “accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior” type of Christian, he’s more a “pray the Rosary in Latin, not English like the rotten liberal heathen” type of Christian, I understand.

  4. jrau

    Thanks for the comments, guys! Good points all around.
    I feel I should clarify a bit that I’m not really trying to label an evangelistic effort a failure just because the number of “souls saved” falls below a certain arbitrary threshold. I rejoice that people turned to Christ as a result of this film, and I definitely agree that counting numbers like that is a terrible way to evaluate the success or failure or an outreach attempt. What I’m trying to understand is the vast discrepency between what many Christians hoped to see in the aftermath of the movie, and what actually happened. Why the discrepency, I wonder?
    Hope that clarifies my position a bit. Just didn’t want anyone to think that I’d advocate judging evangelism success by simply tallying up a list of salvation reports. I just want to know why Christians expected millions of conversions but got “only” thousands.

  5. Bill

    I feel I should clarify that one of the reasons that I was not surprised that the movie didn’t live up to expectations is because the hope of all true Christians is to see the whole world brought into fellowship with Christ.
    When things like this movie come along we are all hoping that this will be the medium that God will use to reach all the millions, if not billions of lost souls around the globe. We have a heart for all the non-believers, saying with Paul that it is Christ “we proclaim, warning EVERYONE and teaching EVERYONE with all wisdom that we may present EVERYONE mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” (Col. 1:28-29, emphasis added)
    Our expectations are in keeping with the mission we’ve been given by God to show Christ to everyone. But I think several people have made the excellent point that although we can carry the gospel to people, God needs to make that message effective, and sadly there are many for whom the message will not result in true conversion. Because of our zeal for God and our passion for the lost, we often are not content to accept the means God gives us as being too slow, but they are the means that God himself promises to bless.
    I think if we encouraged as many people to come to church with us as we’ve encouraged people to see this movie, better and lasting change will be seen. But I do agree that just because the message is ineffective does not necessarily mean the messenger didn’t do something profitable or worthy of praise.

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