Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ created controversy and took in $370 million at the U.S. box office, but a new poll suggests that it did not have a spiritual impact on most people who saw it.
One in six people, or 16 percent, said the film affected their religious beliefs, according to a telephone survey released this month by The Barma Group, a Ventura, Calif., firm that conducts scientific polls on Christian topics.
Christian leaders, such as the Rev. Billy Graham, praised the film's great potential to evangelize. The Rev. Gregg Simmons of Grapevine regards the film as a powerful tool for proselytizing, but said some Christians may have lost perspective on the effect it would have.
Less than one-tenth of 1 percent converted to Christianity because they saw the film, according to the poll, which questioned 1,618 randomly selected adults. The margin of error was 2.4 to 3.9 percentage points.
"We want home runs," said Simmons, whose Memorial Baptist Church was one of many in North Texas that rented theaters to screen the film. "We want easy things that are going to bring lots of folks into the kingdom."
The vast majority of people who saw the film were Christian, the poll found. About 4 percent of the audience described themselves as atheist or agnostic, compared with about 12 percent of the general population who describe themselves that way, according to The Barna Group.
The film's effect was blunted to some degree by the fact that it appeals largely to emotions, not intellect, said Bruce David Forbes, an author and religion professor at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa.
"One of the problems with highly emotional religious experiences is that sometimes they wash away," said Forbes, who co-edited the boo Religion and Popular Culture in America.
After seeing the film, less than 10 percent said they prayed more often or attended church more frequently. And less than one half of 1 percent had attempted to evangelize others because of the film, the poll found.
But, Barna noted, about 13 million adults changed their religious behavior because of the film.
"The percentages may seem low, but it's amazing that lives can be changed to the amount they can be ... because of a two- or three-hour movie," said Ferrell Foster, a spokesman for the Baptist General Convention of Texas. The convention used ads tied to The Passion to promote Baptist churches.
Micki Allen of Arlington said she's seen the movie four times and doubts that anyone who saw it went away unchanged.
"Something has been planted, even if it's only a question of who God is, why am I here? What am I supposed to do?" she said.