FAYETTEVILLE, Ga. – 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.”