Strengthening and Uniting the American Church through Media Outreach

The Mission America Coalition* (MAC, was formed with the vision of Ì¢‰âÒthe whole Church taking the whole gospel to the whole nation,Ì¢‰âÂå and for many years has carried out that charter as the Ì¢‰âÒbehind-the-scenesÌ¢‰âÂå organizer of a long series of successful national evangelism initiatives. While there have been many opportunities for successful, national campaigns in a variety of different areas, MAC had never been involved in promoting a movie as an evangelism opportunity until 2004 when actor Mel Gibson and Motive Entertainment approached MAC about helping to promote The Passion of the Christ movie to the faith community.

The Passion of the Christ Movie
The traditional Hollywood establishment had turned their backs on Gibson’s effort to accurately and dramatically portray the suffering of Christ in a high-quality cinematic production, so Gibson elected to financially underwrite the production himself, and seek help from non-traditional sources for marketing and distribution. Motive, a faith and family marketing company, was retained to help organize the effort, and MAC was approached to help mobilize the Church as a primary audience in support of the movie.

MAC determined quickly that while it is not in the business of promoting movies, it is in the business of promoting evangelism opportunities, and that the release of this movie had great potential for teaching as well as outreach in local communities. The MAC board saw the film not only as a unique national evangelism opportunity, but also as a potential watershed event in a culture that has become increasingly dominated by a morally bankrupt media establishment. It was time, for Ì¢‰âÒthe whole ChurchÌ¢‰âÂå to stand up and be counted.

MAC staff consulted with Motive and with Gibson’s production company about how to approach the Christian community to encourage them to use the movie as a teaching and evangelism opportunity, and how to mobilize them in support of the film itself. MAC helped develop and distribute promotional materials, engaged the support of denominational and national ministry leaders and organized movie screenings and other promotional events in over one hundred key cities throughout the United States. Using the City and Community Ministry network of local church and community leaders, MAC partners sponsored, resourced and helped orchestrate these meetings at churches and other local ministry locations, and then facilitated the purchase of large blocks of theater tickets and even entire theater seatings for local churches to share the movie with friends and neighbors.

Due in large part to these efforts, the movie turned out to be a record-breaking blockbuster, and became the watershed media and cultural event MAC had anticipated. The Church had come together publicly, on a nationwide scale, and with a unity of purpose and consistency of message not seen for a long time. The effort served not only to revive public discussions of such bedrock Christian themes as Christ’s love for us, his sacrifice and resurrection, and what that means to each of us personally; but also served to re-engage the church as an important influence on the entertainment industry and, in turn, on the culture. During the campaign and in the months following, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) received an all-time record number of comments from the public about the profanity and obscenity that has become all-too-common in the public media, and as a result assessed a record number of fines and license suspensions against companies and individuals who had been some of the worst offenders. There emerged a new awareness by the Church of the media’s toxic effect on the culture, and a new willingness to address the issue.


The Chronicles of Narnia Movie
While the Mission America Coalition was pleased with the results of The Passion campaign, it didn’t expect to become involved with the film industry again any time soon. As a result, when The Chronicles of Narnia movie came to MAC’s attention early last year, it was supportive, but not inclined to get directly involved as it had with The Passion. But as MAC began to consider the potential of a blockbuster fantasy and adventure film, which would likely have great popular appeal and reach deep into our cultureÌ¢‰â‰۝far deeper than The Passion did with its Ì¢‰âÒRÌ¢‰âÂå rating and overtly Christian themeÌ¢‰â‰۝it began to watch Narnia’s development very carefully. If Narnia could be made with the highest artistic and production quality of Hollywood, while still retaining the wonderful Christian themes and imagery that C.S. Lewis had woven into his imaginative stories, it could present a truly remarkable opportunity for evangelism. As MAC became convinced that both of these criteria would be met by Walden Media (the producer) with oversight by the C.S. Lewis Estate, MAC became increasingly excited about the opportunity and decided to support the film.

MAC’s effort to promote the evangelism opportunities afforded by the release of Narnia was a much larger and far more complex undertaking than the campaign with The Passion. It was larger in the sense that MAC needed to start by bringing church leaders to the same level of appreciation of the film’s potential value as an evangelism tool, and secondly because to go deeper into the culture meant that MAC needed to go deeper into the Christian community with the message. As a result, MAC spent a great deal of time and effort designing and helping produce outreach-oriented promotional materials, including thousands of Ì¢‰âÒNarnia event-in-a-boxÌ¢‰âÂå kits which contained samples of both free and low-cost promotional materials; individual resource guides to support outreach efforts by pastors, teachers, youth leaders and parents; and a resource DVD containing: exclusive clips from the film; messages from pastors, teachers, parents and young people about how they could use the materials; and messages from the film’s producers and directors, including a fascinating discussion of how the film was made. The DVD also contained an introduction by Douglas Gresham, stepson of C.S. Lewis and heir to the C.S. Lewis Estate; a music video collage by leading Christian musicians who composed and performed songs created especially for the Narnia film; and of course, the film’s popular trailer.

Jarvis Ward, Douglas Gresham and Paul Lauer
at the Chicago, IL Narnia Sneak Peek

To promote the evangelism opportunity broadly in key media markets, MAC designed and helped produce five major events in key American cities including: New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles. These events were co-hosted by Mission America Coalition staff, and included live appearances by both Walden and Disney executives, Douglas Gresham from the C.S. Lewis Estate, live performances by leading Christian artists such as Stephen Curtis Chapman and Rebecca St. James and extended exclusive film sequences from the movie itself. Three smaller Ì¢‰âÒsneak peeksÌ¢‰âÂå were held with live appearances at prime locations such as: Boston; at the Vision New England meeting of church leaders from five northeastern U.S. states; and Colorado Springs, where Focus on the Family co-hosted a group of over one thousand local and national ministries.

To communicate even deeper into the Christian community, MAC designed and produced smaller Narnia events in 150 additional U.S. cities, a fifty percent increase in the number it had done for The Passion. These local Ì¢‰âÒsneak peeksÌ¢‰âÂå were used to inform, inspire and equip local pastors and other ministry leaders, who in turn would hold own promotional meetings at their own facilities and drive the message of this opportunity even deeper into the grassroots of the faith community. The work consisted of identifying and recruiting both facilities and leader hosts in the target cities, providing them with the necessary resources, agendas and supporting audio/video materials, and supplying resources such as the Narnia event kits for attendees to use at their own meetings.

All of these promotional meetingsÌ¢‰â‰۝and the campaign overallÌ¢‰â‰۝were remarkably successful.  However, the underlying and behind-the-scenes processes were very complex. The logistical issues involved in arranging, coordinating and resourcing this series of meetings at locations all over the country were formidable, and made even more difficult by having to secure legal and artistic permissions and approvals for the use of film assets and other promotional content. Coordinating the work of several resource providers including Disney itself, launching and maintaining an information website and handling the volumes of phone calls and emails put significant stress on MAC’s home office staff.

But the greatest complexity arose from the need to avoid creating the perception that the film is a Ì¢‰âÒChristian movie,Ì¢‰âÂå which could potentially reduce its appeal in certain culture groups MAC wants to reach, while at the same time preserving the conviction within the Church that Lewis’ imbedded Christian themesÌ¢‰â‰۝the Ì¢‰âÒstory within the storyÌ¢‰âÂåÌ¢‰â‰۝makes it a very real and very powerful opportunity for evangelism. Walking that fine line in the creation of promotional materials; obtaining permissions to use movie assets and Disney resources at Church meetings; conducting interviews with the press; and a host of other politically-sensitive situations was a daily and often frustrating challenge.

In the final analysis, MAC is very pleased with the effort and with the results. The movie opened with a record-breaking box office and Disney’s biggest opening day ever. It overcame both the first and second Lord of the Rings openings, and was still beating most of the competition several weeks into its theatrical run. Even secular commentators attribute this Ì¢‰âÒstaying powerÌ¢‰âÂå to the continuing teaching and outreach efforts in the faith community. Most important, however, it is achieving the spiritual objectives MAC had hoped and prayed for. In fact prayer was a very important component in supporting the Narnia outreach opportunities. Starting in August 2005, every week, a nationwide prayer conference call was held to pray specifically for the outreach of the film, and hundreds of prayer intercessors prayed regularly for the opportunities afforded by the movie. Thousands of Christians also received a series of emails with prayer suggestions and information on the release of the film.

MAC continues to get glowing reports from churches of a wonderful Christmas season harvest of new believers. The movie has made a significant difference. Newspapers across the country have featured stories about Narnia and highlighted its faith themes, usually reflecting in positive terms that Ì¢‰âÒfine lineÌ¢‰âÂå we had sought to establish. The collective voice of the Church as an important audience, and a strong influence for change in Hollywood, was heard loud and clear.

For the Mission America Coalition, the experience was very gratifying. It was another opportunity to unite the Church in communities across America, and strengthen their sense of common purpose in reaching the culture with the gospel message. It illustrated in a powerful way that if Christians want to be involved in the evangelism of our culture in the twenty-first century, we have to be engaged with the media. We have seen that demonstrated in a very positive way with The Passion and Narnia films, and we will soon see it from a different perspective this spring when the The Da Vinci Code movie is released. This film promises to deliver a direct assaultÌ¢‰â‰۝in what is likely to be a blockbuster productionÌ¢‰â‰۝on the fundamental truths of Christianity. The Church’s voice will need to be heard in connection with that film as well, and individual Christians will have another opportunity to teach and share their faith. Preparations have been under way for several months to both equip individual believers and prepare the Church to respond in an effective manner.

*The Mission America Coalition is the name used by the U.S. Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization.

Jim Overholt is executive director of the Mission America Coalition.