April 10, 2006
The Passion Reloaded: is the silver screen really an outreach silver bullet?
Two years ago, Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ, was marketed heavily to church leaders as "perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2,000 years." Gibson stunned Hollywood naysayers by pocketing over $600 million as The Passion became the eighth highest grossing film of all time. By targeting churches The Passion may have uncovered the greatest marketing opportunity in 2000 years. But what about the film's spiritual impact - did The Passion deliver?
According to George Barna, it did not. Barna conducted an extensive survey of those who saw the film and concluded:
"Among the most startling outcomes?is the apparent absence of a direct evangelistic impact by the movie?. 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."
Either The Passion wasn't the greatest outreach opportunity in 2000 years, or churches simply squandered the opportunity it presented.
Barna thinks the problem was relying upon a film to impact lives in a culture saturated with media. "In an environment in which people spend more than 40 hours each week absorbing a range of messages from multiple media, it is rare that a single media experience will radically reorient someone's life."
After seeing Gibson's financial success Disney hired the same marketing firm used by The Passion. Motive Marketing helped Disney convince pastors that its Narnia film was a powerful tool for reaching non-Christians. And repeating The Passion frenzy of 2004, churches gobbled up tickets, reserved entire theaters, devised sermon series, and plastered Narnia marketing materials throughout their communities.
With Motive Marketing's church-based marketing campaign Disney has collected nearly $300 million from Narnia. And while data is still being assessed on the spiritual impact of the film, it's a safe bet that Narnia will have impacted fewer Americans than The Passion did. (Of course, with Disney releasing the DVD in time for Easter it's not too late for your church to launch another marketing campaign.)
Paul Lauer, president of Motive Marketing, says his company's primary mission isn't marketing movies, but rather "providing congregations with tools to further their goals." Given that The Passion and Narnia have collectively earned nearly one billion dollars, while the church's goal hasn't measurably advanced at all, maybe Mr. Lauer needs to reassess his company's mission.
The debate over using films for evangelism isn't new. Back in 2004, Leadership hosted a lively interaction about The Passion's potential for outreach featuring Rick Warren and Brian McLaren. Warren wrote that his church was eagerly riding the "spiritual tsunami" created by the film. He reported 892 commitments to Christ were made during his two-week sermon series based on The Passion, over 600 new smalls groups were formed, and his church's average attendance increased by 3,000. This response, while worth celebrating, according to George Barna does not represent the experience of most churches who reported little or no growth as a result of the film.
Brian McLaren, on the other hand, was hopeful that millions would be impacted by Gibson's film but he remained skeptical. McLaren was bothered by the hype surrounding the movie and questioned why slogans such as "the greatest outreach opportunity in 2000 years" held such sway with church leaders. He cautioned us to not put our hope in "products (like films, radio broadcasts, boxed programs, etc.)," but in the good works of disciples filled with God's love."
McLaren's cautions seem to be validated by Barna's research. Despite having more media resources than ever before to accomplish its mission, including big-budget films, the church in America isn't growing. Barna reported that church attendance has been experiencing "a very slow but steady descent" for the last 15 years. Disturbingly, at the same time churches are increasingly looking to the silver screen to aid in outreach, Barna reports that less then one in 25 churches ranks prayer as a top priority.
Disregarding the measurable ineffectiveness of film as an outreach tool, church leaders continue their love affair with Hollywood. Outreach Inc. conducted a survey in January that revealed 68% of churches were "likely" or "very likely" to use The Da Vinci Code film (opening May 19) as an evangelistic tool, and a staggering 77% said they were planning a sermon series on the film. (Proverbs 26:11 anyone?) Accountants at Columbia Pictures, producer of The Da Vinci Code, must be salivating at this forecast.
It seems many church leaders have lost the healthy skepticism anyone navigating a consumer culture must possess. Rather than pinning our missional hopes on the latest pop culture wave, which is artificially produced by marketers, church leaders might benefit from remembering the old adage, if it sounds too good to be true it probably is. Evidence shows that there is no outreach silver bullet, no "greatest opportunity ever." As Craig Detweiler, the chair of mass communications at Biola University, says, "Salvation certainly won't come from Hollywood."
Modeling a balanced perspective too rare today, Detweiler believes films must be linked to a more incarnational approach to outreach, "Movies give us an easy, non-threatening way to continue a conversation and deepen relationships with pre-believers that we've already started." As Brian McLaren said two years ago, our culture doesn't need to see "a movie about Jesus: show them a movement of people living like Jesus."