January 27--Christian supporters of Mel Gibson's upcoming movie "The Passion of the Christ" are calling the film "the cultural event of our time"--and urging believers to use it as a Christian witnessing tool. The movie, which portrays the last hours of Jesus, premiers Feb. 25 (Ash Wednesday). It has received advance praise for its realistic and moving depiction of Christ's pain, but has also been criticized for the way it portrays the Jewish leadership's role in Jesus' death.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the controversy, Gibson's savvy outreach to Christian groups has borne fruit. His production company, Icon, has selectively pre-screened the movie to sympathetic audiences and is providing Christian ministries with promotional material to fuel a grassroots movement in support of "The Passion." Through websites, e-mail, tracts, and even lapel pins, Protestant and Catholic outlets are galvanizing church leaders, youth groups, and individuals to promote the film.

"Are you looking for materials your church can use to publicize showings of The Passion?" asks the website passiontoolbox.com, billed as a "database offering multi-lingual, multi-format Christian resources to share your faith in Christ as it relates to the Mel Gibson movie." A site sponsored by Teen Mania calls the movie a "one-of-a-kind opportunity" and offers multimedia products for church youth groups; their DVD set helps youth workers lead "a four-week curriculum leading up to the movie, a guide to the outreach itself, and a two-week post-outreach curriculum."

The movie has an international fan website with information in many languages, including Hebrew, Russian, Polish, Arabic, Vietnamese, Croatian--and Latin. It offers seven ways to promote the Passion, such as distributing flyers in church parking lots, using web banners, signing petitions to theater operators, and e-mailing friends.

The fan site displays maps of the United States showing areas of greatest interest in the movie marked in red ("light interest" in yellow), based on data supplied by web visitors. As of October 2003, cities in the American Southwest, Florida, and Texas were leading.

Other "Passion" supporters are urging people to sell out the film's debut by buying advance tickets--including extra tickets for the unchurched. "WHO WILL YOU BRING TO THE PASSION?" asks email from the orthodox Catholic website CatholiCity. The email, signed by "A Man Who Loves the Cross," says "I know the Lord is going to send people into your life and my life who will ONLY go to the movie if you and I give them tickets as a gift. ...Our financial sacrifice is nothing compared to His sacrifice. ...We should have extra tickets ready for our relatives, for the folks at work, and for our friends at church. A thousand years might pass before Christians have another chance like this one."

Several websites, including the leading Catholic website CatholicExchange.com, refer readers to a phone number to set up group screenings for churches. "The more people who see 'The Passion of the Christ,' the greater evangelizing impact it will have worldwide--and the more movies of this kind will emerge from profit-oriented Hollywood," writes Tom Allen, the site's editor. "Turning out the Catholic grassroots in an unprecedented way for this film will ensure that many more such movies about great Christian saints and heroes are produced in its wake."

Ascension Press, an evangelical Catholic publisher, is offering a 70-page "Guide to the Passion: 100 Questions about Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ" for $5.95, with additional resources available for free on its Catholic Passion Outreach website. Following two marketing e-mails, the guide recently sold 15,000 copies in 30 hours, according to Ascension's president, Matthew Pinto.

Included in the guide are questions which link film scenes to Catholic catechesis, such as "In the Garden, Jesus crushes a snake under his foot. What is the symbolism here?" and "Why does the devil react in such a frenzied manner to Christ's death on the cross?" In conjunction with the guide, the Catholic Outreach site offers a "Diocese and Parish Action Plan," with Passion-related flyers to promote a parish's small group study. "There is fever pitch excitement out there over this Catholic initiative," says Pinto, who says that a Catholic diocese in the Midwest has ordered hundreds of the program's posters and flyers to mail to its parishes.

"We hear stories about people buying movie tickets by the thousands," says Dan Hedman, Director of Conferences and Training at Faith Highway Media Outreach, which coordinates television ads for churches. Faith Highway is now offering churches an Icon-approved TV commercial which shows scenes from the movie and can end with the tagline "See the Passion and worship with us." The 30-second commercial costs $795; churches pay for extras and for airtime themselves. Hedman says one pastor is preparing lessons to help moviegoers understand the questions it will raise. "Jesus went where people are, and that's what we're trying to do. People are in front of their TVs, they're not going to just stroll by the church. We have to go where they are." Hedman says Faith Highway has seen a 50% increase in phone calls this week from churches interested in purchasing the Passion TV commercial.

The American Tract Society, which often creates evangelical witnessing tracts pegged to movies like "Finding Nemo" and "The Lord of the Rings," has released two Passion-related tracts, one called "The Passion-Who Crucified Jesus?" Experts in Jewish-Christian relations can breathe easy: according to the tract, "The culprit is God," whose love for humanity caused him to sacrifice his son. "People will react to this movie's deep and moving experience with Jesus," says promotional info for the tract. "Many will be wondering how to know the Lord! Millions of people will be seeing this movie and some will be discovering Jesus for the first time."