Reports of changed lives abound as thousands take in 'Passion'

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--After months of speculation surrounding Mel Gibson's "The Passion of The Christ," the film opened as a blockbuster Feb. 25 with an estimated first-day earning of more than $26 million. But more significant than the dollars is the number of changed lives that emerged from the 3,000-plus theaters on the first day alone.

In Maryland, 13-year-old Michael McKoy said the movie about the last 12 hours of Jesus' life has caused him to reconsider his daily behavior.

"There are some days when I wake up in the morning, when I feel like I do not have the time to pray, to read the Word of God," McKoy said. "While I have read the Gospel accounts of the passion, seeing it portrayed on the big screen, seeing the length that Jesus was willing to go to die for me, makes it impossible for me to wake up in the morning and feel like I don't have time to read the Word and to pray."

In Dallas, 27-year-old Lauren Reagin found the film to be emotional and difficult to watch. She said knowing that at any time during the excruciating beating Jesus had the power to say it was enough and quit was a powerful testimony that will have an impact on her outlook for the future.

"It wasn't just being nailed to the cross, it was all of it -- the beating," she said. "I just can't imagine Him doing that. As a believer, I get a little persecution from somebody and want to quit."

Scott Barkley of Canton, Ga., took note of the audience reaction as he watched the film.

"The resurrection scene seemed to usher in a holy moment of sorts for the crowd," he recounted. "Some cheered. Some clapped. Most sat in stunned silence. This silence could have been from the shock of having seen what they had read about since the early days of VBS [Vacation Bible School]."

He said as the closing credits rolled, a shout or two of "Thank you, Jesus!" came from the crowd as others discussed what they had just seen and still others gave invitations to accept Jesus.

"It was obvious that this film had a profound effect on the crowd," Barkley said. "One person commented they had never been punched in the face and gut by a movie until then."

David Clippard, executive director of the Missouri Baptist Convention, said that while the movie is impressive and has certainly made a difference in lives, evangelism still is key to effecting the most change.

"The movie was an excellent graphic illustration of what really happened in the passion of Christ," he said. "It was a very intense two hours for me, but I believe it will still take believers to apply the truth for a lot of lost people who see the movie. There's still going to be a need for evangelism."

Monte Shinkle, immediate past president of the Missouri convention, gave an example of why believers will need to step up and be ready with answers after people see the movie.

"Some people told me they felt as if the beating [of Christ] was overdone," he said. "They had the feeling that it was almost a relief for Christ to get to the cross. And they were asking about why the Bible demands death. It will be our responsibility as pastors to make the connection as to why Christ had to die."

At the Regal Beaches theater in Jacksonville, Fla., the first showing of The Passion at noon was nearly sold out, and a dozen more showings were planned. The theater's lights quickly dimmed as the Icon Productions logo flashed on the screen. In just moments, without any previews to distract the audience, the scene of Jesus praying in the garden captured the attention of those watching. Soon the sound of soft sobbing competed with the sound of people munching popcorn. Some began to pull out tissues to wipe away tears, and some gasped audibly as Jesus was lashed.

Les Fauth, one of the viewers at Regal Beaches, said the violence leading up to the crucifixion served as an important reminder that Jesus did not simply lay down his life.

"It didn't spare you any pain," he said. "I thought they'd never stop beating Him. I don't think an average person would have held up. He would have expired. But Jesus is the Son of God and He did this for everybody's sins, so it had to be."

Dwight McKissic of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram the violence in the film was not unnecessary because it was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy that the Messiah's blood would be spilled.

"I see the blood as absolutely necessary," he said. Without blood, it's like every other religion."

Sam Porter, men's ministry and missions specialist for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, said he made a point to observe the reactions of those around him in the theater.

"I think the people that it is gripping more than anyone else are those that maybe have conviction in their heart but have never done anything with that in a commitment to Jesus Christ," he said. "To me that's one of the most important things that this movie can do is to maybe bring those people to a full understanding of the price Jesus paid for their sin."

Mike Hasha, pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville Beach, Fla., said he thinks the graphic portrayal of the brutality will speak in a special way to the young generation of Reality TV viewers, those ages 17-30.

"Their education and experience with life, with the Internet, with cable TV is much more visual now than it's ever been in history."

Some moviegoers said the film was successful at making them consider that everyone is a part of the crowd that condemned Jesus. Twenty-six-year-old Kandy Lamb of Irving, Texas, found herself wondering "which one I would have been."

"I'm not even sure I have words, really," she said when trying to reflect on the movie's impact.

Across the country, churches are taking advantage of the open door to evangelism sparked by the Hollywood production.

Outside Dallas, for example, churches of different denominations are joining for a follow-up roundtable discussion of the film Feb. 29 at The Heights Baptist Church in Richardson. Banners about The Passion appear on the lawns of many Southern Baptist churches, encouraging moviegoers to find answers to their questions by attending services. Pastors nationwide are offering sermons series based on the film.

Jack Graham, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of the Dallas-area Prestonwood Baptist Church, was among a group of ministers on hand at a theater in Plano "not to preach a sermon but to sum up the message and meaning of the cross," he told the Associated Press. "We anticipate that there will be a tremendous outpouring of God's favor on this movie."

Many churches have rented entire theaters so they will have the opportunity to provide immediate counseling and present an invitation to accept Christ after the film. Some are giving away tracts, church information and copies of Scripture. Others are making a point to have church members discuss the film over coffee with unbelievers.

In Hot Springs, Ark., the media pastor at Second Baptist Church created a website called www.whydidhedoit.com to answer the question of why Jesus endured the beating and the crucifixion.

"The tools are now available at a cost that is affordable for us to embrace and utilize to spread the message of Christ in a creative way," Allen Hendrix said of the website.

Once he completed the website, he invited other churches from California to Florida to become partner churches. Each partner church is listed on the site with their own church website link.

"Instead of promoting one church or another at the movie theater, our website is featured," Hendrix said. "Once audiences explore the answers, they can then select from a number of churches in their area."

Hendrix summed up what many believers around the nation are thinking in regard to The Passion.

"Mel Gibson has left the door wide open for us as a church and has helped jog the thoughts and ideas of a nation," he said. "It would be crazy for us not to take advantage of this opportunity."


With reporting by Joni Hannigan, Tammi Ledbetter, Bob Baysinger, Alanna Davis, Carolyn Nichols & Rodney Hayes. (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: CLEAR VISION, A TEARFUL OPINION and SCRIPTURE COME ALIVE.

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