Mel Gibson’s controversial movie about the last twelve hours of the life of Jesus, The Passion of the Christ, stunned the movie industry by becoming the eighth highest-grossing domestic film of all-time. Much of that success can be attributed to the fervent support of churches, many of whom labeled the movie as one of the greatest evangelistic tools in history. A new national survey of more than 1600 adults, conducted by The Barna Group, examines not only how many people saw the movie, but what impact the film had on their life.
Americans Love Movies
When people were asked about movies, nearly half said that viewing movies is one of their two or three favorite types of entertainment. That love of films was underscored by the finding that 95% of all adults saw at least one movie in the past year, and that the median number of movies watched by movie-viewers in the previous 12 months was 38 movies. That is an average of one movie every 10 days, or about three per month. (This includes movies seen in theatres, rented movies and those watched on television.)
The nation’s most prolific movie viewers tend to be people under 40 years of age, Asian-Americans and homosexuals. Other groups who watch more movies that the norm included those who cohabit, atheists and agnostics, born again Christians who are neither conservative nor liberal on political matters, and residents of Texas and New York.
The survey found that the typical adult watches about nine out of every ten movies they view within their homes, either via television (cable, satellite or broadcast) or rental (video or DVD). The typical adult sees one movie per quarter in a theatre.
Spiritual Overtones on Film
Four out of ten adults (41%) said that within the past two years they had seen a movie that had caused them to think more seriously about their religious faith. Not surprisingly, it was the people who were already most inclined to think about faith matters who said this, such as evangelicals (68%) and people with an active personal faith (65% of those who pray, read the Bible and attend a church service in a typical week).
When asked to identify the movies that had led them to ponder their faith, The Passion was the only movie to be listed by more than 5% of this segment. Overall, six out of ten adults who had reflected on their faith in response to a movie (59%) identified The Passion as one of the movies that caused such reconsideration.
When asked to indicate if they had seen any movie during the past two years that had led them to change something they believed about the Christian faith, only 6% of the movie-viewing populace admitted to such influence. Once again, The Passion was the leader, listed by half (53%) of those who said they had undergone a movie-driven change in their beliefs. Other movies attributed with such influence included Left Behind (7%), A Walk to Remember (3%) and Joshua (3%).
The Passion Was Popular
Box-office receipts provide one measure of the popularity of Mel Gibson’s movie about Jesus Christ. The survey discovered that nearly one out of every three adults in the country (31%) claim to have seen the movie. While that is considerably less than the numbers who said they had seen other recent mega-hits such as Finding Nemo (57%), Pirates of the Caribbean (45%) and Bruce Almighty (42%), each of those movies had the benefit of increasing its audience share through video and DVD rentals after their theatrical release came to an end. The Passion has yet to be released for home viewing.
An even more impressive indicator of the film’s popularity is the quality rating it received from those who saw it. While the film critics of many leading newspapers and magazines trashed the movie, viewers raved about it. Overall, two out of every three adults (67%) said it was “excellent,” and most of the rest (23%) described it as “good.” Seven percent said The Passion was “average,” while a combined 2% rated it as “below average” or “terrible.”
As might have been expected, evangelicals were the most enthusiastic about the movie (89% said the movie was excellent) while the lowest ratings came from atheists and agnostics, homosexuals and liberal Democrats. Protestants were more likely than Catholics to give The Passion an “excellent” rating (78% versus 68%, respectively).
While such enviable ratings and ticket revenues might suggest that The Passion was simply a rallying point for religious zealots, the survey data indicate that Gibson’s movie drew a broad-based audience into theatres. There were no significant variances between those who saw The Passion and the national population related to age, gender, education, household income or presence of children in the household.
The only population groups that were more highly represented at showings of The Passion than they are in the national population were single adults (48% of the 18-and-older population is single yet 53% of the movie’s audience was not married) and Hispanics (13% of the national population compared to 20% of the audience). Roughly half of the people who saw the movie (53%) were born again Christians, which is somewhat higher than their incidence in the adult population (38%). Similarly, adults who are atheists or agnostics represent about 12% of the national population but were just 4% of the viewing audience for this movie.
If the statistics concerning the spiritual inclinations of viewers are projected to the U.S. population, then the study would estimate that approximately 36 million adults who saw the movie were born again Christians and an additional 31 million were not born again.
Lasting Impact of the Movie
People who had seen The Passion were asked if it affected their religious beliefs in any way. Just one out of every six viewers (16%) said it had. When pressed to describe the specific shifts in their spiritual perspectives, the most common changes were the perceived importance of how they treat other people, becoming more concerned about the affect of their life choices and personal behavior, and gaining a deeper understanding of, or appreciation for what Christ had done for them through His death and resurrection. Each of those changes was named by 3% of the aggregate viewing audience.
The audience was also asked if viewing the movie had affected their religious practices. In total, 18% said some aspect of their religious behavior was different due to seeing the movie. The most common behavioral changes listed included praying more often (listed by 9% of those who saw the film), attending church services more often (8%), and becoming more involved in church-related activities (3%).
Overall, one out of every ten viewers of The Passion (10%) indicated that they had changed some aspect of both their religious beliefs and practices in response to the movie.
Among the most startling outcomes drawn from the research is the apparent absence of a direct evangelistic impact by the movie. Despite marketing campaigns labeling the movie the “greatest evangelistic tool” of our era, less than one-tenth of one percent of those who saw the film stated that they made a profession of faith or accepted Jesus Christ as their savior in reaction to the film’s content.
Equally surprising was the lack of impact on people’s determination to engage in evangelism. Less than one-half of one percent of the audience said they were motivated to be more active in sharing their faith in Christ with others as a result of having seen the movie.
Perspective on the Influence of The Passion
George Barna, the director of the research, commented that many people would probably 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 noted, “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.”
One of the lessons from this situation, according to Barna, is that major transformation is not likely to result from one-time exposure to a specific media product. “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. 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.”
At the same time, Barna also highlighted the power of movies in transforming 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,” the California-based researcher noted, “and 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.”
The data in this report are based on a nationwide survey conducted by The Barna Group among 1,618 randomly selected adults during the last week of May. 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.
People in the 48 continental states were eligible to be interviewed and the distribution of those individuals coincided with the geographic dispersion of the U.S. population. The data were subjected to minimal statistical weighting to calibrate the survey base to national demographic proportions. The survey data were collected through a combination of telephone and online surveys. Households selected for inclusion in the telephone sample received multiple callbacks to increase the probability of including a reliable distribution of qualified individuals.
“Born again Christians” were defined in these surveys as people who said they have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today” and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “born again.” Being classified as “born again” is not dependent upon any church or denominational affiliation or involvement.
“Evangelicals” are a subset of born again Christians in Barna surveys. In addition to meeting the born again criteria, evangelicals also meet seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; contending that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not determined by church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church they attend. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”
The Barna Research Group, Ltd. is an independent marketing research company located in southern California. Since 1984, it has been studying cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. If you would like to receive regular e-mailings of a brief overview of each new bi-weekly update on the latest research findings from the Barna Research Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna Research web site (www.barna.org).
© The Barna Group, Ltd, 2009.
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