In late 2003 and early 2004, we were told that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was going to change the world. We saw breathless slogans like, “perhaps the best outreach opportunity in 2,000 years.” Rick Warren, whose book The Purpose Driven Life had made him a household name, predicted “a spiritual tsunami” would hit when the film released. When he saw this tsunami coming, he planned a two-week preaching series leading up to the movie’s release, booked 47 theatre screens so members of his church could attend with their lost friends, invited a long list of celebrities and billionaires to a premier showing, and prepared a three-week small group curriculum for follow-up. He claimed that his church rode this tsunami to incredible results: “Over 600 unchurched community leaders attended our VIP showing; 892 friends of members were saved during the two-week sermon series. Over 600 new small groups were formed, and our average attendance increased by 3,000.”
It is hard to overestimate the buzz, the excitement, and the anticipation prior to The Passion. Do you remember it? I do.
Back in 2004, I was a member of a Southern Baptist church that tried to ride the Passion wave by mimicking just about everything Rick Warren did. The pastors raised tens of thousands of dollars from the congregation, then bought movie passes, booked theaters, distributed tickets, formed small groups, bought Warren’s follow-up curriculum, and waited to transform the city. Giving away the tickets was the easy part—people gladly accepted free movie passes to the film everyone was talking about. All the tickets went, but as far as I know, not a single person—not even one—came to any of the follow-up studies. No one was saved. Nothing happened. All the time, energy and resources gained nothing.
In the film’s aftermath George Barna got to work and found that the results we saw were far more typical than what Warren reported. “Among the most startling outcomes is the apparent absence of a direct evangelistic impact by the movie. Less than one-tenth of one percent of those who saw the film stated that they made a profession of faith or accepted Jesus Christ as their savior in reaction to the film’s content.” Either The Passion was not actually a great opportunity for evangelism, or most churches botched it.
Ten years later it is indisputable that all the talk of The Passion of the Christ being a powerful tool for evangelism was far more hype than reality. The marketing slogans earned Mel Gibson hundreds of millions of dollars, and brought lots of money to marketers and merchandisers. But the claim that it was the best outreach opportunity since Pentecost is downright embarrassing. For all the good the movie did, we may as well have just written checks to Mel Gibson and skipped the movie.
Yet here we go again. We are just a couple of weeks away from the next The Passion of the Christ: Mark Burnett’s Son of God. Based on the 2013 miniseries The Bible, it is being marketed much like The Passion before it. B&H has just announced a new small-group Bible study from Rick Warren titled Son of God: The Life of Jesus in You. The press release quotes Warren as saying, Son of God is “the best movie I’ve seen on the life of Jesus in years.” The release also says, “The film has made headlines in the build-up to its Feb. 28 nationwide release as churches and organizations across the country have been renting out cinema multiplexes to show the film on every screen the night before its official release.”
As far as I can tell, and measuring two weeks prior to release, there is far less enthusiasm for Son of God than there was for The Passion of the Christ. I expect the reason is largely attributable to the old phrase, “once bitten, twice shy.” There’s a feeling of deja vu about this film. Still, I see marketers applying pressure and I see some churches buying in.
I want to urge caution, and I can draw these cautions directly from lessons we learned—or should have learned—from The Passion of the Christ.
The first caution is that The Passion caused us to look away from Scripture. This is ironic, of course, since The Passion was based on Scripture (plus a bit of imagination and a dash of Roman Catholic tradition). The fact is, though, that God saw fit to give us the Bible written, not displayed. He chose to give us a book, not a film. Those who pushed churches to embrace The Passion as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity made all kinds of promises, and many of those promises were based on the media. They claimed that by putting the old message into a new media it would come alive to a whole new generation and would do what preaching would not or could not. Many churches looked away from Scripture, even if only for a few weeks, and put their hope in a film.
The second caution is that The Passion took us off-mission. There is nothing more central to the church than the preaching of God’s Word. There is nothing that cuts deeper or builds stronger than the Bible faithfully taught. There is nothing we should expect God to use more powerfully than the preaching of his Word. Every revival in days past—every true revival, at least—has been a revival sparked by and carried on through preaching. We should have no expectation that God will accomplish through a film what he has only promised to accomplish through preaching. Too many churches veered off-mission when faced with the opportunity of The Passion of the Christ.
I have not seen Son of God. It may be a powerful film that is faithful to Scripture. I hope that is the case. It is entirely possible that God may choose to use Son of God to call people to faith. He may use it to generate interest in himself. He has used stranger means than this to work his will. Rick Warren’s follow-up Bible study may be excellent and may drive people from the screen to the Book. Lots of good may come. But still, both of these cautions apply to Son of God just as they did to The Passion. Don’t look away from Scripture and don’t get off-mission.
As you consider this new film, remember that we have been here before. Remember that there are a lot of people hoping to make a lot of money from this film. Remember that God promises to bless the preaching of his Word, not the display of that Word on the silver screen. Don’t expect a movie to do the Word’s work.