- 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.

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