Sunday, March 7, 2004

Mel Gibson’s epic film “The Passion of The Christ” has filled theaters as well as church pews in the Washington area and around the country.

Evangelical pastors said visitors are flocking to their churches, new members are being added, and they are planning on an even larger number of visitors at Easter than usual.

Meanwhile, members of mainline denominations, inspired by the movie, are committing to spiritual disciplines during Lent, and Catholics are returning to their faith, pastors said.

At National Community Church last weekend, more than 150 visitors attended its two services, one at Union Station and the other in the Ballston neighborhood of Arlington. The interdenominational church, which holds its services in movie theaters, showed screenings of “The Passion” at Ballston instead of its regular service there.

National Community, which averages a combined attendance of about 850 people, had more than 1,000 last Sunday.

“We’re hoping that it’s not just a one-time thing that people come. We’re hoping that it begins a process of people searching spiritually for answers,” senior pastor Mark Batterson said.

The evangelical Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., drew 3,000 visitors last weekend on top of its average attendance of 20,000. Pastor Rick Warren, author of the best-selling book, “The Purpose Driven Life,” designed a three-week small-group study curriculum, which members are going through now.

Capitalizing on the momentum built by “The Passion” is “like catching a spiritual wave,” said David Chrzan, chief of staff at Saddleback.

“It’s like surfing. There are events that create a constant or heightened interest in spiritual things. We have built Saddleback off those moments.”

More than 900 people at Saddleback signed a card indicating they had become new converts over the last two weekends, Mr. Chrzan said.

Many other churches are preaching sermons about the movie, as well as teaching classes or holding Bible studies over several weeks, like Saddleback, because of the movie.

The Rev. C.J. Mahaney, senior pastor at Covenant Life Church, a 2,600-member evangelical church in Gaithersburg, will preach the third of a three-part series on the cross this morning. In his previous two messages, he emphasized the spiritual suffering Christ endured on the cross, and looked past the swirling controversies to point out that the most important question raised by the movie is what each individual believes about Jesus.

Covenant Life’s attendance was about 200 persons higher than normal last month, though February typically is the month of heaviest attendance, said Corby Megorden, the church’s administrator.

The church is planning to offer two services on Easter, something it does not do throughout the year.

Members of mainline faiths have responded differently, however, though still positively, to Mr. Gibson’s film, which grossed $125 million in its first five days. While evangelicals have viewed “The Passion” primarily as a tool for outreach, others have viewed the movie as more suitable for believers already in the fold.

“I have not met anybody who has said, ‘This is going to be a great tool for evangelism.’ It has been a movie by a Christian for Christians, and I think it has deepened already-existent spiritual life,” said the Rev. Michael Mills of the Episcopal Cathedral Church of St. Matthew in east Dallas.

Mr. Mills said members of his church, 50 percent of whom are Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrants, had committed to daily prayer or Bible study during Lent as a result of seeing “The Passion.”

He saw the movie Friday night with some 40 members of his congregation. Mr. Mills said he expected his experience to be like a Good Friday service.

“You know it’s not the whole story, but it has a strong emotional effect,” he said. “Being liturgical Christians, we are used to presenting little pieces at a time. It’s not a movie I would want to see over and over again, but I wouldn’t want to go to Good Friday services over and over again, either.”

Some Christians are wary of overenthusiasm about the film, even if they approve of it in general. Mr. Gibson’s film, which depicts the brutal torture and Crucifixion of Jesus during his last 12 hours, has come under criticism since its Ash Wednesday release for its graphic detail, and some of the pre-release ferment over anti-Semitism lingers.

Christians, however, are cautious for different reasons. “We see it as a venue to talk about the Gospel, but the movie is Mel Gibson’s vision of the passion of the Christ. It’s not the Bible. It’s his vision. It’s a good vision, but we’re uncomfortable with tying ourselves to anything that’s marketed that heavily,” said the Rev. Steve Shelby, founding pastor of the West End Presbyterian Church in Richmond, a congregation of 900 members whose average age is 32.

“Sometimes in marketing, you lose authenticity, and that’s what we’re more concerned about with people having an authentic encounter with the Gospel,” Mr. Shelby said.

West End displayed information about the movie before its release, but Mr. Shelby did not promote it from the pulpit because he had not seen it, he said. Since seeing it with his staff, he said he is happy the movie has provoked broad discussion about Jesus.

“We’d rather have people talking about this than about Janet Jackson’s exposed breast,” Mr. Shelby said, referring to the Super Bowl controversy. But, he said, “I’m not going to preach a sermon series about it.”

Catholics also have responded positively, but more personally, to what some have called a heavily Catholic film.

In lower Manhattan, the Rev. James Hayes of St. Andrew Catholic Church said his parish, across the street from the city courthouse, was packed on Ash Wednesday, when the buzz about Mr. Gibson’s movie was at a crescendo.

He called the Mass that day “a moment where faith shined through.”

” The effect perhaps spiritually will bring some people back to the faith.”

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