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."

Mark Brown, Director of Marketing at ATS, says ATS received requests for the Passion tract even before it was released, and is going through its print run quickly. He also looks towards "Passion's" DVD release: "Its greatest ministry opportunity might be when a person can take it home and watch it there with others."

"See the movie. Share the book that inspired it," says promotional material from The International Bible Society, which publishes the Bible in a variety of formats. IBS is selling a special "Servant King" edition of the New Testamant with scenes from the movie; the edition is available for 99 cents when bought in bulk.

The magazine Outreach, whose parent company Outreach Inc. operates The Passion Outreach website, is featuring the film in its January/February Special Issue. The issue includes a free DVD insert with a trailer and interviews; the DVD is provided by both the magazine publisher and Icon. The Outreach website offers practical ideas for using the movie to reach both believers and the unchurched. Evangelization ideas include sponsoring a Passion Prayer Walk through a "neighborhood you believe God wants you to reach" and inviting others "to see the movie with you and to attend a Passion-related event or sermon series at your church."

Calling the movie "perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2,000 years," the site, like others, encourages supporters to purchase blocks of movie tickets and buy out movie theaters. It also sells Icon-approved postcards, booklets, door hangers, and bulletin shells for church leaders who want to create a service around the movie's themes. "Icon wanted to initiate a grassroots effort and engage the church," says Lynne Marian, editor of the magazine. "There's been a significant response from hundreds of churches about purchasing these products. I think this is going to be unprecedented in terms of the number of churches who are interested--across every denomination, ethnic group, and region of the country."

On the Share the Passion of the Christ website, a "witnessing tools" section offers officially licensed products. Included is a Passion-themed lapel pin ($2.49) with an Aramaic inscription, accompanied by a witnessing card; promoters wear the pin and give cards to others who are interested in the movie. The card features "three simple scriptures and a sinner's prayer." Visitors to passionmaterials.com can "Send a Letter of Encouragement to Mel Gibson."

And at sermoncentral.com, ministers can access 20 sermons "inspired by the movie," written by a team of pastors who saw a private screening.

To the extent that Icon is involved, "it's shrewd marketing," says Brent Plate, Assistant Professor of Religion and the Visual Arts at Texas Christian University. "[Mel Gibson] knows this is going to be a big part of his audience--he knows the conservative church can mobilize people to see his film." Icon, like other production companies, knows that providing promotional materials "will probably pay off." Citing church efforts to buy up group tickets for the movie's opening weekend, Plate says "it's tit for tat--paying each other back."

Will the movie really bring people to Jesus? "I think just like the Lord of the Rings causes publishing houses to rerelease the book, people will undoubtedly go back and read the gospels," says Plate. But he is skeptical about whether the film will spark a religious revival, as some supporters hope. "A revival is when people begin to do something afterwards...what it takes is followup. It would depend on how mobilized churches are to do something with it."

But the movie's supporters are keeping the faith. The film "offers a tremendous opportunity for Christians across America to introduce people to Jesus Christ," says Paul Cedar, chairman of the Mission America Coalition, whose honorary co-chair is evangelist Billy Graham. Cedar hopes that if Christians invite others to "The Passion," "tens of thousands of people will come to believe in Christ through the film." Says Marian: "If this is a Holy Spirit-led thing--if Mel Gibson was inspired--we have to sit back and watch what happens."

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