Byline: Kara Spak Daily Herald Staff Writer
When Rev. Ed Doepel saw "The Passion of the Christ," he believed he was watching the truth packaged as a "golden opportunity" for proselytizing.
The senior pastor at Naperville's Crossroads Community Church had marketed the church's salvation message before, passing out free cups of coffee at train stations, sending out neighborhood newsletters and hosting a popular annual Easter egg hunt.
But in "The Passion," he and other church leaders saw a unique angle to bring "unchurch" people, as Doepel calls them, into the fold.
Pegged on Mel Gibson's controversial movie, new Crossroads Community Church ads now play before a variety of movies, including "Hellboy," at Warrenville's AMC Cantera 30.
For the first time, Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington also purchased pre-movie ads at AMC South Barrington 30, connecting their programs and services with Gibson's film.
A large "The Passion of the Christ" banner hangs outside East Dundee's Immanuel Lutheran Church, among others, asking passers-by to see the movie, then join them inside for discussion.
"You can have the best product in the world, but if no one knows you exist or what you are trying to share with them..." Doepel said of the ads. "For us, the Lord uses different ways to get that out. It's not a cheap thing, but it definitely works for us."
Religious leaders said the film - or the direct connection they draw to it - prompted a mild surge in the numbers of worshippers in their pews.
Though viewers responded to the movie to the tune of more than $330 million, making the film one of the top 10 grossing of all time, churches aren't teeming with hundreds of new people interested in learning more about Christianity as religious leaders had hoped.
Rather, what Christian leaders thought might be a recruiting tool has become more of a focal point for those already regularly worshipping. And that's OK, they said.
"It's not a big feat to draw a crowd," Doepel said. "We're shooting for changed lives."
Camille Burner, assistant director of communications at Willow Creek, said Willow Creek leaders don't know if it's the ads that are bringing more people in, but she believes "The Passion of the Christ" is responsible for a surge in …