Those who pack the pews for Easter Sunday services today may come with the best-ever collective understanding of Jesus, given the unprecedented media that have been showcasing his life in recent months.
Area pastors said the Easter crowd will have high expectations about building on their "The Passion of the Christ" experience.
Jesus became a mainstream phenomenon, beginning in February, with the longawaited release of Mel Gibson’s "Passion" film, which has been seen by more than 30 million Americans and has grossed in excess of $350 million. Many East Valley churches bought out whole theaters, and their congregations watched the film en masse, unlike anything before.
"I think people will probably come to the Easter services with a higher expectation of the sermons and of the Easter worship, because they have been exposed to all the audio-visuals, movies and specials on television," said the Rev. Larry Corbett, senior pastor of Pinnacle Presbyterian Church in Scottsdale.
The Gibson film spawned weeks of news segments and lengthy specials, with Bible scholars, on networks and cable channels, including a three-hour prime-time special on Monday on ABC-TV, "Jesus and Paul: The Word and the Witness," narrated by Peter Jennings. The April 12 issue of Time magazine includes an eight-page cover story titled "Why Did Jesus Die?" Add to that the recent release of "The Glorious Appearing," the 12th and last book in the popular fictionalized "Left Behind" book series.
"I honestly feel like ‘The Passion’ has ignited what might have been something that was smoldering in people’s hearts and minds prior to this, but the movie just brought it out in a strong way," said the Rev. Roger Storms, senior pastor of Chandler Christian Church. He estimated that 90 percent of his congregation may have seen the film.
In fact, the church bought tickets and gave members an extra ticket if they would promise to take an unchurched person to see the film, Storms said. On the Sunday after the screening, his church registered a 20 percent jump in attendance. The church, which had 3,131 attend last weekend, is registering all-time attendance, directly related to the impact of "The Passion," he said.
"People are thinking spiritual thoughts," Storms said. "They are thinking about what it means to live, and I think people are turning to try to find answers, not from the economy and from social needs, but spiritually. They are looking to the spiritual outlet -- that being the church."
A Scottsdale pastor said she is pleased that "Christianity is getting so much exposure and interest." Society "does an extremely inadequate job of teaching people that to grow and change one’s thinking, consciousness and mind-set is the key to fulfillment and joy in life," said the Rev. Lori Martin-Dewitt, senior pastor of Scottsdale United Methodist Church.
Despite those who say the Christian message and meaning "are becoming obsolete and mundane," the "tremendous soar in attention over the past weeks has helped to bring the story and faith itself to the forefront once again," she said.
Expecting "a real strong turnout" today for Easter is the Rev. Craig Carter, pastor of Mesa First Assembly of God, who said "The Passion" had such a strong impact on increasing attendance since it debuted on Ash Wednesday (Feb. 25) that it has erased any dip that comes when winter residents begin heading home.
"There has been a tremendous increase in people talking about ‘The Passion,’ " he said, noting that evangelical Christians typically are "a little more prone to talk their faith" and more willing to invite others to join them in worship.
Albuquerque, N.M.-based Catholic author Megan McKenna agrees.
"I think people come to belief when they meet other people who believe, or they come to belief at crucial moments in their own life --when they face death, they face suffering, they face violence," she said. "And it is like, ‘Do I believe that death has the last word? Or do I believe what Jesus says that I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly?’ "
"Most of the interest (in Jesus) has been in the passion and death and not in the resurrection," said McKenna, who has written more than 15 books, including her latest, "And Morning Came: Scriptures of the Resurrection."
McKenna calls the resurrection a "belief statement," in which believers stake their lives that God raised Jesus from the dead and that death is not the last word. "It is almost like a birth into a new kind of life," she said.
Easter churchgoers come looking for a connection or a reconnection, she said. Lapsed churchgoers "really come back," she said, when they "find a community that talks about how to live, how to make moral decisions, how to make political decisions, how to deal with unemployment, violence and terrorism, to not be reactive, but really responding to life in a shared community."
"Just after Sept. 11 (2001), people surged to churches, but it didn’t last, so I think people are looking for a way of life," she said. "To say you believe in the resurrection means that you believe in a way of life more than anything else."