By Vicki Brown
Word&Way News Writer
While controversy continues to swirl around Mel Gibson's movie, "The Passion of the Christ," what effect, if any, has it created in Missouri Baptist churches?
Plenty and in some unexpected ways.
Several ministers agreed that perhaps the greatest and most surprising outcome is the movie's impact on believers. "The biggest single thing that's happened, the biggest impact...is that it has given our people the opportunity to talk to their unchurched friends and neighbors," David Emmert, associate pastor of outreach at Pleasant Valley Baptist Church, Liberty, explained.
Calling the movie "an excellent tool," Emmert added that the church's emphasis on it has been one in a series of events to reach out to the community. The church had just completed a three-month evangelistic emphasis before coordinating outreach with the movie. The congregation also had initiated adult small group studies on the Gospel of John, which began the first Sunday of January.
Pleasant Valley bought out seven showings of the film, including four showings of the Feb. 22 premier. The church offered half-priced tickets as an incentive for members to invite unchurched friends. More than half of the 2,500 reserved seats went to people who normally do not attend services.
Thinking people would want to talk about what they had seen, members had counselors in place during the first showing. But they discovered that moviegoers generally were not able to discuss it immediately after seeing the film. "This thing makes you think about the gospel. It doesn't really give the gospel," Emmert said.
That's why Emmert and other ministers believe overt evangelistic results will appear more slowly. Several noted that individuals have accepted Christ as Savior and others have experienced dramatic lifestyle changes as a direct result of viewing the movie.
Several stories have surfaced at Pleasant Valley from people who have been able to lead friends to Christ. One individual told how he had been witnessing to a friend for four years. After the friend saw the film, he became a Christian.
Since people did not respond to counselors, Pleasant Valley sought and was granted permission to place tracts in theater lobbies. More than 11,000 booklets were picked up. Emmert said one woman had a booklet in hand when she came to church and accepted Christ.
About 60 people currently attend seeker groups set up to answer questions that the film generates. "This is not an evangelistic film...but it creates a tremendous opportunity to fill in the gaps," Emmert said. "It's going to take time to see the results...I think we are going to see this thing continue to play out."
Members of Windsor Baptist Church, Imperial, bought out an afternoon showing at a local theater and asked church members to give tickets to unreached friends and family. The church also gave 40 tickets to the area's pregnancy center.
Pastor Ron Mackey said that while the church has seen some decisions made, the movie has mostly generated discussion. "It seems that wherever I go for lunch, someone wants to ask questions," he said.
Mackey said his church also has seen a 15-percent increase in Sunday School and worship attendance and an increase in the number of visitors in each service. And a Wednesday night Bible study on the life of Christ has attracted several people who do not regularly attend worship.
Members, particularly youth, have been more open to share their faith with others, the pastor explained.
Mackey also pointed out that "The Passion of the Christ" has affected the way most of Windsor's members approach worship. Members who have seen the film come with more expectancy and excitement about what God will do. "I'm seeing people come to church with a different expectation of what might occur," he said.
Members at First Baptist Church, Cameron, joined efforts with First Baptist churches of Maysville and Hamilton and other churches to reach out in their area. Church members manned a table at the theater and distributed more than 1,000 Bibles and 600 CDs with an audio message by Cameron pastor Jay Raines.
The response following the movie's showing surprised outreach teams that were prepared to answer questions as people left the theater. Church members thought people would "go in thirsty" and would stop at the table to pick up material and ask questions. Instead, "people came out shocked." Members started distributing material as moviegoers entered.
Raines noted that at least two or three families have started attending his church as a direct result of the film and that Sunday School attendance cracked the 300-mark for the first time.
He also pointed to long-term witnessing opportunities as the film's major outcome in his area. "We are seeing more of a long-term effect," he said. "It's opened doors to dialog...giving us an opportunity to address the questions. I think salvations will come."
Ministers also acknowledged another unexpected effect - believers more fully grasping the Savior's gift.
"[The movie] has made Christians appreciate who they are and what Christ has done for them," said Skip Leininger, pastor of Mehlville Baptist Church. "That is going to be one of the greatest things to come out of this.
"Sometimes we get smug about the church...and we think we are the keeper of the light. Then something like this comes out of Hollywood and boom!"
The film is generating conversation in the community - at work, with family and in other venues - that the church hasn't generated.
"They see the price that was paid," Raines noted. "They live more passionately, seem to make bigger sacrifices and seem to be more willing to talk."
First Baptist Church, Rolla, also provided tickets and facilitated opportunities for international students to see the movie.
Associate pastor Bruce Wade said he believes the film will more directly affect Christians. "I think it was really for believers rather than for lost people," he said.
"So many of us were saved at a young age and didn't really experience separation from God. Many of us lack gratitude for the grace we receive...I hope that the film reminds us of what it cost." (4-8-04)