FAYETTEVILLE, Ga. (BP)–In the first month after its Feb. 25 release, “The Passion of The Christ” generated an estimated $305 million in domestic ticket sales and $32 million overseas, according to an industry website, boxofficemojo.com.
What excites John Avant, though, isn’t the numbers of people going to see the movie but those who are winding up at New Hope Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Ga., just south of Atlanta.
Average attendance has risen by 12 percent in recent weeks, which Avant, the church’s pastor, attributes to the interest stimulated by the film.
“A movie has the world focused on the cross,” Avant said. “We’re up 300 people over last year and a whole lot of that is people coming, seeking to know more [about Christ].”
Such reports are becoming commonplace. For example:
— In eastern Pennsylvania, the owner of a Christian bookstore said he sees several new customers each day wanting Bibles after seeing the movie.
Joe Hackman, the owner of Hackman’s Bible Bookstore in Whitehall, Pa., said he can tell when they don’t come from a church background, such as the customer who asked, “What’s a New Testament?”
— After learning a multiplex cinema in his area didn’t plan to screen the movie, a bookstore owner in New Boston, Ohio, persuaded 65 area churches to help sell tickets. The churches also helped pay for two half-page advertisements in the Portsmouth Times.
Jeff Dunn, who runs Praises bookstore, said the effort resulted in the sale of 6,400 tickets in two weeks.
Dunn also arranged for local pastors to present an evangelistic message after each showing, with eight professions of faith in Christ recorded the first week.
“In my lifetime, this is the greatest evangelistic opportunity I’ve had to affect my community,” said Dunn, who formerly pastored an independent Baptist church.
Alvin Reid, an evangelism professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, said a seminary graduate who pastors Great Hills Baptist Church in Austin, Texas, e-mailed him to say that 59 people had accepted Christ after the premiere.
In addition, many students on Southeastern’s North Carolina campus have distributed flyers about the film door-to-door. They also have taken friends to see it, with some of them later praying to accept Christ.
The most significant place in America for evangelism in late February and early March, Reid noted, was a movie theater, not a church building.
Reid said he had recently studied the Book of Acts and noticed that the Apostle Paul left the synagogue in Ephesus because of Jewish opposition and went to the hall at Tryannus. Ultimately, Paul remained there for two years and all of Asia heard the Gospel.
“So he went to a secular hall and got a much greater response,” Reid said. “We’re seeing in the ‘Passion of the Christ’ exactly what Paul saw in the New Testament.”
Reid emphasized that church attendance is important, since the Book of Hebrews directs Christians to regularly meet with each other.
However, the professor said too many believers have lost sight of the need to reason with others in the culture during their daily lives.
“I think there’s a tremendous message in [the movie’s success] for the church,” Reid said. “It demonstrates to me we think so much about our local church on Sunday. But we ought to start thinking about evangelism outside the church building a little more.”
Ken Hemphill, national strategist for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Empowering Kingdom Growth emphasis, whose job includes frequent traveling, finds it easy to strike up conversations about the movie with strangers.
He talked with a young man on a recent flight who had only seen advertisements and some film clips, but immediately wanted to know, “Do you think it’s anti-Semitic?”
“If you think about it, you can bear witness,” Hemphill said. “I told him, ‘I didn’t see that. The impact it had on me was knowing it was my sin [that crucified Christ]. Jesus made that clear.’
“So I just talked through the Gospel at that point. He was very receptive. I think it could be a real trigger for an awakening in our own hearts and lives and a great evangelistic harvest.”
Still, Avant has encountered negative comments that, for him, show that God’s people often may be the greatest opponents of revival. “I just did a radio show about The Passion and pointed out every time in history God begins to move the biggest block is God’s people,” he said. “The problem is in the church.”
Among the skepticism Avant has heard expressed is that the film may violate the Second Commandment against worshiping idols. Too often, Avant said Christians try to put clamps on revival, isolate it or isolate themselves from it, as shown by this kind of reaction.
“Every one of them ought to be jumping to the forefront to say, ‘How does the church join in what God is doing in bringing the cross of Christ to the center of attention in the world?’” the pastor said.
“If instead, we begin debating on whether a picture on a movie screen is a graven image, I think God’s going to move on and find somebody who will join Him in what He’s doing.”
Avant sees the “buzz” that has greeted The Passion as a historic opportunity.
Twenty years from now, he doesn’t want to look back and wish he had spoken up about opportunities the movie presented the church instead of remaining silent as critics nitpicked.
And Avant noted that he sees cause for optimism: “It seems to me there’s a far greater percentage of our churches who are in tune with the possibilities that are in front of us now,” he said. “So I’m hopeful.”