Art and souls

March 11, 2004|by BRIAN SHAPPELL

HAGERSTOWN - Pastor Randy Buchman of Tri-State Fellowship Evangelical Free Church in Hagerstown readily admits to using the popularity of "The Passion of the Christ" to boost attendance at his church.

Nearly three weeks after its release, Buchman said he is being an "opportunist," and he believes there is no shame in tapping into this pop culture phenomenon as a marketing tool because he believes in the message.

"A testament writer said make the most out of every opportunity," Buchman said.

Buchman's church and several others have promoted services by citing the movie, which topped the box office in its first two weeks in theaters.


Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," released nationally on Ash Wednesday, depicts the final hours of the life of Jesus Christ. In its first five days, "The Passion" took in $117.5 million, second only to last year's third installment of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, according to the Associated Press.

Tri-State Fellowship has taken an aggressive approach to piggy-backing off that success including "The Passion"-driven fliers and a six-part series at Sunday services based on questions many had in connection with the film, Buchman said.

Buchman said some have criticized such marketing, believing it to be inappropriate to use the movie for the gain of an organization. However, he said it's the churches' role to spread the word about the movie's importance and accuracy.

"If there's something in pop culture that is of the greatest importance, why wouldn't we jump on that?" he asked. "We'd be lousy Christians if we didn't point to this. We'd be horrible Christians if we didn't seize the moment and say, 'Look at the value of this.'"

While many members of the clergy in Washington County say attendance increases are small or attributable to other factors, Christ Lutheran Church Pastor Raymond H. Shriver said attendance there has risen sharply because of the film and a learning series based on the book, "The Purpose Driven Life."

Shriver said the movie especially drove many curious "non-churched" people to seek answers to questions like, "Why was I so moved?" and "Why was this so powerful?"

"I think it's the kind of thing that will make them ask a lot of questions, which basically opens doors of conversation about what God is all about and what churches are all about," he said.

Spike in attendance

Shriver said the Hagerstown church spent about $6,000 to purchase tickets to showings, send out thousands of invitations and create advertisement banners to attract non-members from neighborhoods near its North Cleveland Avenue location.

Shriver said, as planned, the move caused a noticeable spike in attendance from people with questions about the movie and their own spirituality.

Shriver said no faith-based film has had such an impact on popular culture since "The Ten Commandments" came out in the 1950s.

"It was an advantageous moment," Shriver said. "When something comes along like this, you have to ride the wave."

Shriver said that, while the short-term intent of the church's efforts was to increase attendance there, he believes it does not matter what church the newcomers decide to affiliate with in the long term.

"What is important is that they have been introduced to who Jesus is, and it has become a part of their life," Shriver said.

Church of the Nazarene Pastor Steve Johnson said the attendance increase there was only slight, but the church still is plugging its services by putting a sign on North Edgewood Drive encouraging people to "Experience the Passion" by attending one.

Johnson said a series of messages was developed, like at Tri-State Fellowship, for services to coincide with the themes of the movie and the last 12 hours of Christ's life.

Despite some skepticism he had about the movie having such a direct impact on services, Johnson said the film was well done and helped many gain "a new appreciation for what Jesus suffered on the cross."

"I had to wrestle a little bit with Mel Gibson and Hollywood establishing an agenda for the church," he said.

Senior Pastor John Miller of Faith Christian Fellowship in Williamsport said attendance has risen by about 10 percent since the film opened, and the church had a record high attendance, 326, for the Sunday service following the release.

Miller said he thinks promotional efforts, such as advertisements, relying on the film's notoriety is important because of the country's "media-based culture."

"I think we should use it wisely - It doesn't replace scripture itself, but it gets people thinking," he said.

Cast your vote: Has the movie - The Passion of the Christ - caused more people to attend church?

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