It’s been a tick over 40 years since The Jesus Film was first released at the end of 1979. Since then the film has been translated into more than 1,800 languages and been viewed more than eight billion times, plaudits which have earned it the title of the most watched - and the most translated - film in history.

It’s also at the centre of an app released a couple of years ago to break into the mobile market which, as well as including the film and a series of scenes from it, also features a plethora of short films and to mark the 40th anniversary, the Australian arm of the US organisation behind it – formerly known as Campus Crusade for Christ, it’s now known in the US as Cru and, in Australia, as Power to Change – are keen to spruik its usefulness as a tool for evangelism.

The Jesus Film app

Promotion for the The Jesus Film app.

Geoff Folland, Power for Change’s campus team leader at the University of Sydney, has been working with Power to Change for some 25 years and is spear-heading an Australian initiative to raise awareness about the app.

He first saw The Jesus Film when on a mission trip to India in 1996.

“We turned up at a village one night and saw The Jesus Film team showing the film projected onto a screen…with a classic film projector and PA system,” he recalls, noting that the screening was one of numerous taking place in the area in a deliberate strategy aimed at reaching as much of the population as possible.

Folland, who recounts how he and his wife subsequently included VHS copies of the film in a gift pack they gave to neighbours, says one of the reasons the film has been so enduring is the fact that it draws solely on the Gospel of Luke as it follows the story of Jesus, from His birth to His death and resurrection.

“There’s not really much interpretation in it,” he says. “It avoids theological controversy by having the straight script from Scripture and that I think makes it broadly useful to lots of different people…It’s been viewed eight billion times [and] we’ve counted 500,000 decisions [to follow Christ] as a result of it.”

Its wide availability – including in a constantly growing number of languages - has also been key. Folland says that when Campus Crusade for Christ first aired the film - which was made across five years at more than 200 locations across Israel and features a cast of more than 5,000 - it was with the idea of using it as an evangelistic tool in the US context. But it quickly became clear it was to have a much wider audience.

“It got picked up and translated very quickly into about 15 languages within the next couple of years,” he says. “But then lots of different mission organisations started seeing the value of it and they asked if they could partner and so Campus Crusade basically ended up creating a whole division where they just partnered with other organisations.”

That ethos of ready availability has continued with the app. Thanks to the Jesus Film Project, it’s available for free download anytime and the plethora of material available on it is constantly being added to (the first Australian-made film – Alone – is about to be listed on the app with more expected to follow).

“They’re great for conversation starters…” says Folland of the short films available on the app. “It’s a huge resource.”

Geoff Folland

Geoff Folland, a Power to Change team member at the University of Sydney.

 

“I have it on my phone because I know that whoever I’m talking to – and whatever country they’re from – I have a resource that speaks their language.”

Folland, who is one of eight Power to Change team members working at the University of Sydney with local and international students - and part of a team of 150 at different campuses across the country, says that while the app has been widely used in many countries around the world since its release.

“People are using it in short-film festivals, social media campaigns, churches and kids’ programs, home discussion groups..." he says.

Yet in Australia, it's uptake has been limited - and that's something he hopes will change.

Folland describes its creation as the latest chapter in a “story of innovation” surrounding the film, pointing out the key role Australia has played in that story. It was in Australia during the 1990s, he recalls, that what was then a 16 millimetre film was first converted to VHS format and subsequently distributed to people all around the nation through partnerships with local churches. That initiative, known as 'Jesus: Gift to the Nation', saw a million copies of The Jesus Film distributed in 100 languages via both VHS and DVD formats.

“So as Australia was realising how multicultural it had become after the 1970s and into the late 1980s and 1990s, The Jesus Film became this tool that just empowered local churches to reach out into their local communities," he says, noting that the model Australia developed was soon taken up in other nations.

Folland says that the app has not only become an increasingly important tool for Power to Changes workers at universities - he recounts, for example, how students have, during the coronavirus pandemic, held Zoom gatherings in which they've shown the film and then used the app to talk about the Gospel message - but, thanks to the wonders of mobile phone technology, a tool he always has at the ready.

“I have it on my phone because I know that whoever I’m talking to – and whatever country they’re from – I have a resource that speaks their language.”

The Jesus Film app can be downloaded for free at the Apple App Store or Google Play. For more information from Power to Change, head to www.powertochange.org.au.