History's Most-Watched Film Celebrates 25th Anniversary

By far the most-watched and most-translated movie in history, as well as one of the church’s most potent evangelism tools, the “JESUS” film marked the 25th year of its amazing run last month. Since it first appeared in theaters in 1979, “JESUS” has been seen and heard in 874 languages, shown in 228 countries to more than 5.8 billion people, and led to more than 197 million decisions to follow Christ.

“Almost anywhere you find the gospel and people hungry for it you'll find ‘JESUS,’” wrote Erich Bridges, a senior writer at the Southern Baptist International Mission Board (IMB).

It was on Oct. 19, 1979, that the “JESUS” film made its first public screening and brought the dream of Campus Crusade for Christ (CCC) founder Bill Bright into reality. Bright—who envisioned the creation of a historically accurate, artistically excellent film about the life of Jesus—dreamed of making the story of Jesus available to every single person in the world in a language they can understand.

Now that dream is being distributed by the JESUS Film Project—an arm of Campus Crusade for Christ—giving billions the opportunity to see the life of Jesus and understand his words through the “JESUS” film, often for the first time.

“The emotional impact of witnessing Jesus’ life and death—particularly His crucifixion—also explains part of the film’s appeal,” Bridges stated. “In many places, audiences weep, tear their clothes and toss dirt in the air to express grief, throw sticks at the Roman soldiers for beating Jesus on the screen—or sit in silent awe.”

Bridges said that the true source of the film’s power, however, is that it conveys the Word of God, specifically the Gospel of Luke, with virtually word-for-word faithfulness. According to CCC, more than 450 religious leaders and scholars evaluated the script of the “JESUS” film before production began to ensure historical and biblical accuracy. The script closely follows Luke’s Gospel, so almost every word Jesus speaks is from the Bible.

So great is the film’s impact that IMB mission strategists include its availability as one of their measures of the evangelization of a people group, Bridges reported. At a recent campaign in Tomsk, Siberia, thousands of people around the city were drawn to free screenings. Theaters overflowed, and at least 150 people turned away from one cinema walked more than a mile in the cold to see the movie at another location.

Since the JESUS Film Project formally partnered with the International Mission Board in 1997, Southern Baptist mission teams have remained the top users of the film worldwide—and they continue to find new and more effective ways to utilize it.

As missionaries "continue to push into people groups that have little literacy and no Bible knowledge, it's requiring them to re-think using the ‘JESUS' film," says IMB media strategist Mark Snowden. "In many places, they delay showing the film until basic concepts of God, sin and redemption are understood by the people. Otherwise, in places where ancestors or other gods are worshipped, the people will just add Jesus to their pantheon of gods."

When those concepts are effectively communicated first, the film is increasingly becoming "a discipleship tool for new believers," Snowden adds. "They view Jesus' life and readily identify with the disciples who are seeking to follow Jesus."

And according to Bridges, there’s no slowing down on the horizon. In addition to its availability in tailored versions for various formats and age groups, “JESUS” recently made its Internet “debut.” Last month, the entire film became accessible online—in more than 300 languages—via streaming video at www.JesusFilm.org.

"To our knowledge, a film has never been freely available on the Internet in so many different languages," said Jim Green, who directs The JESUS Film Project. "The 300-plus translations available represent the heart language of more than 90 percent of the world's population."

And with 229 more film/audio translations in the works, “JESUS” will certainly continue its amazing run towards the goal of reaching every nation, tribe, people and tongue, helping them see and hear the story of Jesus in a language they can understand—in a language "of the heart."