- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2004

Area church leaders say the opening of filmmaker Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” next week could be the evangelical tool of a lifetime — and they are poised to take advantage of it.

McLean Bible Church, an 8,500-member Fairfax County congregation, bought more than 11,000 tickets for private screenings of the film next week. Other pastors have canceled or scaled back services, encouraging their flocks to see the R-rated movie instead. A Fairfax resident has plunked down $2,675 to rent out a theater for himself and his friends for a showing.

This appears to be a nationwide phenomenon.

“Pastors have awakened to the fact that this is a major cultural phenomenon that will present many opportunities to share the Gospel,” said Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

Denny Harris, director of ministry operations at McLean Bible Church, said special showings of “Passion” for members of the church and their guests begin Monday, two days before the film opens in 2,000 theaters nationwide.

Members are encouraged to bring non-Christian friends to one of the 40 screenings scheduled over four days in 10 area theaters.

Mr. Harris called the event “the most significant outreach we have ever done.”

Church leaders hope to turn the cinematic experience into teaching moments by handing out books containing the Gospel of St. Luke to attendees at each show. One of the church’s nine pastors also will be on hand after each screening to discuss the film and answer questions, and church officials also plan follow-up workshops.

The film, criticized by some Jewish leaders for graphic depiction of the Crucifixion of Christ, which they say could spark an anti-Semitic backlash, has been staunchly defended by its creator, Academy Award-winning director Mr. Gibson.

Mr. Gibson, a member of a conservative branch of the Roman Catholic Church, has said he wanted the film to be difficult to watch, to dramatize the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice.

He also created enormous interest in Christian communities nationwide by crisscrossing the country in past weeks, screening the film for select audiences of religious leaders and film buffs.

If the anticipation in the Washington area is any indication, “Passion” could be a blockbuster — on several levels.

Fairfax resident Dan O’Brien has invested $2,675 to rent out the Multiplex Theater in Centerville on opening night. He also sent 800 invitations for people to attend and bring friends. Those who join Mr. O’Brien’s party also will hear a short message after the film.

And the groundswell isn’t happening just in big churches. In Maryland, 600-member Mount Airy Bible Church plans to rent out a theater.

The Rev. Wallace Webster said his Howard County congregation wants to use the showings to introduce non-Christians to its faith. “This is not just for our people,” he said. “We’ve read the story.”

He said he hopes that those interested in Christ after seeing the film will join services at his church. “If only one person comes to Christ from this, it is worth it,” he said.

One Arlington church is especially well-positioned to take advantage of the interest in the film. National Community Church, which meets in the Theaters at Ballston Common Mall, is replacing its Feb. 29 services with free viewings of “Passion.”

“We feel that we are perfectly positioned at a theater to take advantage of it,” said the Rev. Mark Batterson, lead pastor at the church. Churchgoers will have their pick of two showings, 9:30 and 10:30 a.m.

“I think this will bring people face to face with the Crucifixion,” Mr. Batterson said. But he added that parents should realize that the movie is not for everyone. “This is violent and the truth is, the Crucifixion was violent,” he said. Children under 13, he cautioned, probably should not see the film.

Some area religious leaders are less enthusiastic about the two-hour, subtitled epic.

“I think the film has potential to be positive and negative,” said Rabbi Barry Rubin, who leads a messianic Jewish congregation in Ellicott City, Md. As a believer in Jesus, he said, he appreciates what Christ went through. But as a Jew, he is concerned about the film’s potential for fueling anti-Semitism.

In local Jewish synagogues, the movie is a hot topic.

“They want to know what to think,” said Rabbi Jack Moline of the Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria. “I’ve been telling them, ‘Let’s see the movie.’ But there’s been so much written and said about it that I want to at least frame the issues for them so we can look at this intelligently and not just viscerally.”

Mr. Moline, who has bought a ticket online to see the movie on opening night with a Christian friend, said he is not concerned that filmgoers might be inspired to violence by “Passion.”

“I really object to the way motives have been imputed to Gibson by Jews and non-Jews alike. This is a spiritual quest for Gibson, and I think it’s been of ultimate importance for him,” the rabbi said. “Clearly, this is his expression of his own conversionary experience. If you and I had $30 million, we might do something similar. … He’s an artist, and he used his art to express his own spiritual yearnings.”

In a sermon Sunday, the Rev. Mark Dever told his Capitol Hill Baptist Church congregation in Northeast that his church will not plan special outings to see the film.

“If this movie is so emotionally engaging, I’m going to be very careful before I give it an entree into my mind about the most important thing in my life,” he said from the pulpit. “Because I have a question of whether it’s sin, I probably shouldn’t go see it.”

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