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Barna Examines The Passion’s Impact

George Barna has released a long-awaited study of the impact of The Passion of the Christ. To do this study, Barna Group surveyed over 1600 people to determine whether they had seen the movie and what impact it had on their lives.

Here are a few of his findings:

  • 31% of Americans claim to have seen the movie. This is a significant number considering that the movie has not yet been released on DVD.
  • 89% of people who saw it gave it a rating of “excellent” and Protestants were 10% more likely to give it this rating than Catholics.
  • 53% of people who saw the movie identified themselves as “born-again Christians.” By Barna’s definition of that term, it is safe to assume that another large percentage of people who saw it would identify themselves as Christians.
  • 41% of respondants said that in the past 2 years they had seen a movie that made them think about their religious beliefs. 59% of these people identified The Passion as one of the movies that caused such reconsideration.

But now we come to the crux of the matter. What impact did this movie have on believers and what impact did it have on unbelievers? Was this, as promised, one of the greatest (or even the greatest) opportunity for evangelism in the past two thousand years? The answer according to Barna is a big, resounding no.

People who had seen The Passion were asked if it affected their religious beliefs in any way. Just one out of every six viewers (16%) said it had. When pressed to describe the specific shifts in their spiritual perspectives, the most common changes were the perceived importance of how they treat other people, becoming more concerned about the affect of their life choices and personal behavior, and gaining a deeper understanding of, or appreciation for what Christ had done for them through His death and resurrection. Each of those changes was named by 3% of the aggregate viewing audience.

The audience was also asked if viewing the movie had affected their religious practices. In total, 18% said some aspect of their religious behavior was different due to seeing the movie. The most common behavioral changes listed included praying more often (listed by 9% of those who saw the film), attending church services more often (8%), and becoming more involved in church-related activities (3%).

Overall, one out of every ten viewers of The Passion (10%) indicated that they had changed some aspect of both their religious beliefs and practices in response to the movie.

Among the most startling outcomes drawn from the research is the apparent absence of a direct evangelistic impact by the movie. Despite marketing campaigns labeling the movie the “greatest evangelistic tool” of our era, 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.

Equally surprising was the lack of impact on people’s determination to engage in evangelism. Less than one-half of one percent of the audience said they were motivated to be more active in sharing their faith in Christ with others as a result of having seen the movie.

A few things to point out here. First, the movie did have some impact on professed Christians, as many said they changed some aspect of their religious behavior after seeing the film. This meant going to church more often, praying more often or becoming more involved in church activities. A small percentage of people also indicated that the movie had changed their spiritual perspectives, so that they now have a greater appreciation for what Christ did or are more concerned with their moral choices and behavior than they were before.

When we look at the data for evangelism, we see that this movie made no significant impact whatsoever. Fewer than one tenth of one percent of respondants indicated they became Christians directly as a result of seeing this movie. Of course we praise God for those who did (in this survey I presume that 1 out of 1600+ people surveyed indicated he became a Christian). Perhaps even more startling is that this movie gave professed Christians no motivation to share their faith, as only one half of a percent of respondants said they are now more motivated to share their faith than before (which I believe means 2 out of 1600+ people surveyed).

The article closes with some thoughts by George Barna. He noted that “people’s memories are short and are easily redirected in a media-saturated, fast-paced culture like ours. The typical adult had already watched another six movies at the time of the survey interview, not including dozens of hours of television programs they had also watched.” In other words, we are already saturated with this form of media, so a single movie running only a couple of hours simply cannot have any significant impact. “In an environment in which people spend more than 40 hours each week absorbing a range of messages from multiple media, it is rare that a single media experience will radically reorient someone’s life.”

He does point out that we should not “lose sight of the fact that about 13 million adults changed some aspect of their typical religious behavior because of the movie and about 11 million people altered some pre-existing religious beliefs because of the content of that film.” While I agree those numbers are significant, I believe they need to be properly measured. What good does it do if people turned to rosaries or other unscriptural practices in response to this movie? Until we know what those religious behaviors are and whether they became part of the believer’s lives, we cannot truly measure their success.

Barna closed with this thought: “More than any other movie in recent years, The Passion focused people on the person and purpose of Jesus Christ. In a society that revolves on relativism, spiritual diversity, tolerance and independence, galvanizing such intense consideration of Jesus Christ is a major achievement in itself.” And I agree with that. The movie did bring Jesus into our society’s consciousness in a way that has not been seen for a long time. Whether this is a good or bad thing remains to be seen. Jesus in the mainstream is not necessarily a good thing. Just take a look at Hollywood and their new fixation for blasphemous Jesus apparel and you can see how this might not necessarily be good.

Unfortunately Barna does not say the one thing that needs to be said the most. This movie failed in both its mode and message. It was destined to fail from the beginning. The movie did not present the gospel, without which it is impossible for anyone to be saved. It provided a dramatic interpretation of Jesus’ last hours, but nowhere did it present the glorious gospel. And secondly, the movie was not capable of preaching the gospel, for God has ordained that the gospel be preached, not displayed as entertainment. There is little entertainment or amusement to be found in the suffering and death of our Lord and Savior.

I wonder how many of those Christian leaders who lent their names to The Passion’s marketing campaign will admit they were wrong and say that this really was a failure in evangelism. Will they see this failure as a problem inherent in the movie or, as Barna did, only in the people who saw the movie? After all, Barna concluded that the movie was not the problem; it was the public’s media saturation that did not allow them to see and absorb the message. Therefore, perhaps what we need are more movies since “a single effort that is not adequately reinforced is not likely to make a lasting impression.”

I wonder if Satan isn’t having a laugh right now at the church’s expense. He had Christians spend hundreds of millions of dollars on marketing and watching this movie. He had tens of thousands of people make extraordinary efforts in time and expense to bring people to the movie. He had almost the entire Christian world participate in an activity that just a few years ago we would have had the collective wisdom to see for what it is. He had the church sell itself to him for just a little while.

And I wonder what lessons the church should be drawing from this. Here are a few things I have learned:

  • A method of evangelism that is not centered in the presentation of the Good News will fail.
  • God has ordained that the Good News go forth by preaching both as message and as mode.
  • My skepticism (and even pessimism) towards “the next big thing” has grown. When the Christian leaders start hooting and hollering about the next big movie or program or book, knowing that this is the one God has chosen to change the world, I will be even more skeptical.

God has chosen foolish people to present a foolish message in a foolish way. We may try to dress it up and make the gospel fresh and relevant and sexy, but in the end we must not deviate from the gospel that changed the world by the preaching of the apostles, that shook the earth in the days of the Reformers and that is still powerful and relevant and sufficient today.

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