The Barna Group, the leading research company of Christian views in contemporary America, found that of the Americans who said they had “undergone a movie-driven change in their beliefs,” more than half identified Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” as the source of that change.
“The Passion of the Christ,” which was released in theaters this April, had been a theatrical phenomenon driven by the passion of the evangelical Christian audience. Hundreds of churches across the nation bought out whole movie theaters, and dozens tabled outside of the theaters to answer onlookers’ questions about Christ. Most of these churches labeled the controversial movie about the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus as “one of the greatest evangelistic tools in history” and not surprisingly, Barna’s survey, which was released on July 10, reflected this view.
Barna’s study of 1,600 randomly selected American adults found that 41% of American movie-goers have seen a movie “that has caused them to think more seriously about their religious faith.” More specifically, 68% of movie goers with active personal faiths and 65% of those who pray, read the Bible and regularly attend church shared this experience.
When Barna asked these “impacted” people to list the movies, “The Passion” came in the lead; Mel Gibson’s movie was identified by 59% of the viewers.
Additionally, when Barna asked the audience to “indicate if they had seen any movie during the past two years” that had led them to change their belief about the Christian faith, some 6% answered positively. Of them, 53 percent listed “The Passion” as the movie that had given them the change. Other movies listed in this category included “Left Behind”, “A Walk to Remember” and “Joshua.”
Upon his analysis, George Barna, the director of the research, noted that many would most likely be surprised that there was not a more “lasting and intense impact from the movie.”
“Immediate reaction to the movie seemed to be quite intense,” he said, “but people’s memories are short and are easily redirected in a media-saturated, fast-paced culture like ours. The typical adult had already watched another six movies at the time of the survey interview, not including dozens of hours of television programs they had also watched.”
Barna explained the reason in media terms, saying that major transformation does not come from a “one-time exposure” to the products.
“In an environment in which people spend more than 40 hours each week absorbing a range of messages from multiple media, it is rare that a single media experience will radically reorient someone’s life. The greatest impact through media seems to come from constant exposure to a consistent message that is well-presented and is personally meaningful or useful,” said Barna. “The passion was well-received and stopped many people long enough to cause them to rethink some of their basic assumptions about life. But within hours those same individuals were exposed to competing messages that began to diminish the effect of what they had seen in Mr. Gibson’s movie. That does not negate the power of the movie or the value of the message it sent, but it does remind us that a single effort that is not adequately reinforced is not likely to make a lasting impression.”
Nevertheless, Barna added that movies are a powerful outlet to transform people’s lives.
“Don’t lose sight of the fact that about 13 million adults changed some aspect of their typical religious behavior because of the movie and about 11 million people altered some pre-existing religious beliefs because of the content of that film. That’s enormous influence,” said Barna. “You cannot fault The Passion for not satisfying religious agendas that some people assigned to it. More than any other movie in recent years, The Passion focused people on the person and purpose of Jesus Christ. In a society that revolves on relativism, spiritual diversity, tolerance and independence, galvanizing such intense consideration of Jesus Christ is a major achievement in itself.”
In conducting the survey, Barna randomly selected 1,618 adults on the last week of May for questioning. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample of adults is ±2.4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. In total, there were 646 adults who had viewed The Passion, a sample group that has a maximum margin of sampling error of ±3.9 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
The Barna Group, Ltd., and its research division (The Barna Research Group), is an independent cultural analysis and strategic consulting firm located in Ventura, California. Since 1984, it has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, bi-weekly update on the latest research findings from The Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna web site (www.barna.org).