NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Great Hills Baptist Church in Austin, Texas, began planning for "The Passion of The Christ" last fall when the congregation organized a lay-led ministry team to develop a plan for maximizing the impact of the film.

One of the major components of the effort was to rent a theater and pass out decision cards to everyone who attended the showing of "The Passion." During an early showing the church secured the day before the movie officially opened, 59 people indicated on the decision cards they had accepted Jesus as Savior after watching the film and listening to a Gospel presentation.

During another showing Feb. 28, another 31 people accepted Christ, for a total of 90.

Brian Devany, a member of Great Hills and one of the lay people on the "Passion" ministry team, said the results may be due in part to the "bring a buddy" program the church promoted. Members were encouraged to purchase a ticket for themselves as well as lost friends, and some members bought as many as 10 tickets at a time. The ratio of nonbelievers to believers who saw the film with the church was probably 3-1, Devany said.

"I am getting feedback from multiple members who took friends that professed to be agnostics, professed to be atheists, had a real problem with religious institutions, telling me they were very glad they were invited to the film. Their life was changed because of it," Devany told Baptist Press. "Only a week has gone by, but there has been a noticeable change in their behavior – the way they treat other people at the workplace, what their outlook is on life [being less cynical], more full of hope. It has been a very, very positive experience."

On the decision cards, viewers also were asked to rate the film on a scale of 1 to 10. The average rating was 9.6, Devany said.

Also, as an incentive to fill out the decision cards, the church promised door prizes. The church's FAITH evangelism teams then made visits to people who made professions of faith to deliver door prizes and follow up on decisions.

Devany shared a personal story about a friend coming to Christ after watching the movie. He had been ministering to the woman for several months.

"She actually had to leave the film about two-thirds of the way through," he said. "She was just destroyed emotionally. It just really touched her and she got to the point where she couldn't take it anymore – not the gore, but the whole emotional experience. She wants to see the ending of the film, and it has without a doubt reaffirmed her faith. She was swaying to other religions, toward the side of non-belief, maybe even rejecting the whole message altogether when I first met her, and now seeing this movie has really reaffirmed her faith."

Devany said he has been witnessing to other acquaintances for quite some time as well, trying to get them to attend a church service, hear a Gospel presentation, attend a Bible study or whatever it would take.

"They don't want to hear any of that, but every one of them without exception will go see this film," he said, "which is encouraging because it's probably one of the most powerful ministry tools we've seen in our lifetime."

At Magnolia Avenue Baptist Church in Riverside, Calif., church members were promised a free ticket to "The Passion" if they would commit to bringing an unchurched friend with them. The church was able to present the Gospel at the close of two of the three screenings they attended as of March 2, and a few professions of faith were made.

What Magnolia Avenue experienced was an overwhelming number of people wanting to pray with someone as they left the theater.

"The movie impacted some in such a way that I've had several who have said, 'My lifestyle is not pleasing to God. Would you pray with me? This reminded me what Jesus did for me,'" Montia Setzler, pastor of Magnolia Avenue, told Baptist Press. "We saw a strong movement toward repentance."

Magnolia Avenue has been part of a 19-church coalition in Riverside working together to take full advantage of "The Passion." The churches rotate theaters, with one church's volunteers working prayer booths or information booths at a theater where another church is watching the movie.

"We had 23 professions of faith between 19 churches at theaters," he said.

Theaters asked the churches to be less aggressive in interacting with moviegoers in theaters they did not rent, so the church volunteers remained at tables with signs that said, "Would you like to pray?"

"It has been good to just be involved in a coalition of churches in Riverside of all shapes and sizes to be available for follow-up," Setzler said.

The film as an evangelistic tool for a person who has no biblical background will serve more to create interest than answer questions, Setzler noted.

"They're not given a lot of background about why everyone was so upset at Jesus [in the movie]," he said. "The movie really air-drops you right into those last 12 hours. A lot of things have happened that the uniformed viewer really has no perspective of."

Because of that, Magnolia Avenue has started two classes on Sunday mornings designed specifically for doubters and led by two of the church's best apologists.

"In the theater where we had purchased the showings, we had slides that showed before the movie that advertised our church and said, 'Doubters Welcome,'" Setzler said.

Fifteen people attended the classes the first Sunday, and several said they planned to bring their friends next time. The classes are intended to be a place where people can ask questions, Setzler said. There is no set agenda, so the classes will move at the speed of the participants.

Just outside Nashville, Tenn., Jeff Lovingood at Long Hollow Baptist Church in Hendersonville reported 1,500 people from his church had seen the film, and more than 700 believers from the group said it had inspired them to be a stronger Christian witness. And though the church has experienced booming attendance in recent months, Lovingood said there was a 36 percent increase the Sunday after "The Passion" opened.

He noted the film has caused Christ to become a common topic of conversation across all sectors of society these days, and that cannot be a bad thing.

"Anytime the Lord is being talked about, He's going to cause all things to work together for good and bring people to Himself and use this movie as a tool to tell people about Christ," Lovingood told Baptist Press. "The word passion itself in Webster's dictionary means 'strong emotion that has an effect.' I think this is a passionate movie that has strong emotion. If you are a Christian, it has strong emotion because it's understanding who Christ is dying for. And then it has strong emotion for someone who doesn't know Christ because it's the realization that this guy died for me. It's most definitely having an effect."


© 2004 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press.  All rights reserved.  Used with permission.