A funny thing happened on the way to the church. It became a stand-up comedy show. And a blockbuster movie. Oh, ye of little faith: It’s true. They’re being advertised on the MTR throughout Hong Kong.

The city is better known for its unrelenting materialism and belief in gilded shopping malls than its religious fervor. But nearly one in every 10 people here, or 540,000, are Catholic or Protestant. That’s not a small community and parts of it are stepping out these days in ways that may seem unusual.

“Christianity has just begun its move into [popular] culture here,” says Pastor Enoch Lam. “The hostility and the misunderstanding have softened – but a lot of people have very sensitive nerves.”

A former insurance salesman and one-time radio talkshow host, Lam’s stand-up Christian comedy shows sell out Hong Kong Stadium.

Lam’s shows are advertised on the MTR alongside a locally made evangelical documentary film called The Days of Noah. Both have done extremely well and both are a sign of how evangelical Christians, here and elsewhere, are using modern media to save souls.

We are more used to traditional expressions of Christianity. Some 5,000 Hong Kong people turned up for the requiem mass for Pope John Paul II last week and our very own Roman Catholic Acting Chief Executive Donald Tsang is often shown at daily prayers. Catholic Bishop Joseph Zen is sought for comment on everything from Taiwan to universal suffrage.

But just as born-again fervor gripped Hollywood in the form of Mel Gibson’s visceral – and very profitable – The Passion of the Christ, Hong Kong has its own unlikely box office hit with The Days of Noah, a film about close encounters of the supernatural kind during a search for Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat in Turkey. Made by two Hong Kong evangelicals, Andrew Yuen and Yeung Wing-cheung, it was produced by a local group called Media Evangelism and distributed by Golden Scene with support from local churches and schools. Its aim is to convert people to Christianity.

Claiming to be the first locally made large-scale documentary – and an evangelical one at that – Noah has set Hong Kong box office records alight. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 was screened at seven cinemas last year, Noah is shown six times a day in 27 mainstream theaters.

It is bringing in the money and money is a good thing, says Pastor Lam, the man behind a series of controversial large-scale evangelical comedy shows. Lam’s approach to his creed, which combines the sharing, singing and testifying of traditional gatherings with gimmicky, often outrageously funny, promotional posters and stand-up comedy, has been received with both applause and outrage from within the Christian community.

“A pastor’s job is to use all the ways he can to tell people religion is a large part of life,” Lam says. “We used to be seen as hiding in churches, but now we’re breaking that wall. When I first started doing this the reaction within the church was overwhelming. It was totally unexpected.”

What the community finds hard to accept, Lam explains, are the money and the laughter.

“Commerce is a part of modern life and there’s no way you can avoid it,” he argues. “But `commercialized’ and `commercially run’ are distinct to me. I have not turned the gospel into a vulgar product, and our ticket sales barely cover 70 per cent of our costs. Plus we have no real sponsorship and we rely heavily on donations.”

There are many benefits of ticket sales, which Lam stresses. “You make sure the people with the tickets really will turn up, for a start,” he says. “Free distribution is not fair and not effective, and it makes marketing efforts meaningless because you’ll never know your market value.”

The market value of Noah was established quickly. Spurred on by churches and schools, about 50,000 people have seen the film since its release over Easter weekend. More than 200 groups – most of them from churches – have made reservations to see the picture. In its first two weeks of release, the film racked up HK$3.3 million. It ranks behind local teen comedy AV, but it has beaten the popular French drama A Very Long Engagement hands down.

“It’s the first time a religious film has been screened on such a scale in Hong Kong,” says Winnie Tsang, managing director at Golden Scene, who is a Christian. “I am not surprised by its success. It could have been even better. The cinemas are rather conservative and tend to give us the less popular daytime screening slots.”

Noah is the third venture by Media Evangelism and Golden Scene into mainstream cinema in recent years. Life is a Miracle, screened in 2001, grossed HK$5 million, and 2003’s record-breaking Miracle Box, a movie about Dr Tse Yuen-man and her death during the SARS epidemic, grossed HK$6 million and reached 150,000 people globally.

Media Evangelism’s network extends far beyond the territory. It is a registered, non-profit Christian organization in Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, and Noahwill be shown to a mostly Chinese-speaking audience in large-scale evangelical gatherings in those countries.

When it was founded 15 years ago by a group of multimedia workers, including Andrew Yuen, the group’s general secretary as well as expedition leader and producer of Noah, the group made only religious slideshows. Later, it moved on to videos, and various evangelical programs shown on both TVB Jade and ATV. In 2003 Media Evangelism launched a 24-hour channel, Creation TV, on Cable TV, the first of its kind in China. The group now employs 90 full-time staff, including a TV crew, accountants, and promoters. The organization is backed by “a few hundred” core volunteers.

“We’re the biggest and the only organization of its kind in Chinese society worldwide,” Yuen says.

Together with the territory’s only other Christian broadcast network, US-based God TV (which first broadcast on Cable TV last year), religious documentaries and evangelical soap operas reach about 700,000 Hong Kong homes and Cable TV says they are good for business.

“The quality of their programmes has been up to our standards, and they have brought in additional audiences for us,” says Garmen Chan, a Cable TV spokesman. “The feedback so far has been very favourable.” No figures on audience numbers are available but no complaints or negative responses have been received, he says.

Religious media is nothing new, says Professor Lai Pan-chiu, head of the Cultural and Religious Studies department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “But Christians in Hong Kong are relatively ahead of other religions in making use of the mass media.”

A 24-hour Taoist channel has been launched on NOW Broadband TV, he says, and Buddhist TV is on air in Taiwan.

Lai believes religious voices have become more pronounced as a result of the territory’s political and social climate. “Before 1997, public debate was clearly focused on issues related to the handover,” he explains. “In recent years, however, we’ve experienced a shift to social or ethical debates such as the legalization of football gambling and homosexuality. These are issues the religious sector is concerned with, and they have been more outspoken than before.”

The rise of Christian entertainment in the territory has also coincided with a blurring of the once-clear line between God and politics, Lai adds.

He refers to Bishop Zen’s frequently bold comments which, if not directly affecting politics in Hong Kong, have at least raised awareness of Catholics as a force. “Catholicism has a clear hierarchy and its stance on issues often comes across more strongly than other churches,” he says.

For upstart evangelicals, here and elsewhere, venturing into mainstream media has meant adopting to the marketplace, using tools of persuasion to draw followers who once were born for life into an established denomination such as Catholicism. Creation TV and the success of Noah are clearly the result of aggressive marketing wedded to a spiritual message. In the United States the formula has been wildly successful, helping to propel conservative church-backed Republicans into power and giving conservative Christians, who constitute about a third of US believers, the power to dictate policy on a range of moral issues such as abortion and sex education in schools.

In Hong Kong, born-agains have not yet ventured into politics but sophisticated campaigns to promote the faith are evident. Christian celebrities are invited to perform the theme song for Noah, and the release of the documentary was accompanied by a blitz of posters, leaflets, a movie tie-in novel and LCD ads on trains. Noah’s Ark paper models were given away. The film’s Web site is packed with promotional material. A looping video showing enthusiastic viewers emerging from the cinema plays as the page opens, press releases catalogue records the film has broken, and there are lengthy lists of Chinese clergymen from around the globe recommending the film. The site’s hardcore appeal is illustrated by the rather incredible claim it makes that the documentary has “converted people at every screening.”

Although Noah had little strong competition from local movies during Easter, Yuen said he is surprised by how well it has done given its clearly religious subject. “2003’s Miracle Box was not an overtly religious story and a lot of people didn’t know what it was about until they’d seen it. But most people are familiar with the Biblical story of Noah, and the fact that the movie was shown during Easter made it quite obvious. It’s the most heavily religious topic we have concentrated on.”

Noah has successfully reached out to people of diverse beliefs, Yuen continues. “We’ve attracted all kinds of people: Christians who haven’t put a foot in a cinema for years, a lot of non-believers, and some Buddhists as well. I saw teenagers coming out of the cinema discussing whether there really was an Ark. It’s good we’ve provided a hot discussion topic.

“The Da Vinci Code has done something to arouse interest in history, religion and anthropology among the public. There’s a trend going on; people say, `everyone’s talking about it, I want to follow it too.’ That’s a good trend.”

But some non-believers remain unconvinced. Audrey Lau, a 27-year-old accountant and atheist, refuses to see the film because she is “tired and sickened” by the image of the evangelicals. “The way those gung-ho evangelistic groups preach their Christian faith really annoys me,” she says. “I’ve seen their documentaries on TV and they are always the same: Some people go through a great deal of misery and God always ends up saving them. They’re so mushy and predictable.”

The Days of Noah should be no exception. I won’t see it because I don’t want to feel cheated. It’s difficult for me to take what they do seriously.”

Vincent Ng, a 24-year-old solicitor and non-believer, is less critical but says he will not be persuaded to give Christianity a go through evangelical films. “[These evangelicals] are becoming overtly commercialized and spread religion like business marketing, but I can’t really think of a reason why they should stop doing so. There’s nothing wrong with that,” he says.

Reaching the crowd is one thing; making them love Jesus is another. Even among Christians, opinion varies about the effectiveness of preaching to the non-believing audience through mainstream media. Rachel Tam, a 19-year-old student and Christian, says she will not encourage non-believers to be introduced to God through Noah because she is embarrassed by it.

“I’m not sure if the film should be shown to so many non-believers. I thought the documentary wasn’t all that scientific, especially the parts about the supernatural experiences. I was thinking as I watched it, `how will a non-believer regard this stuff?”’

Her friend Jacky Wong, another Christian, disagrees. “It doesn’t matter whether it proved the Ark is on Mount Ararat. The important [thing] is to arouse people’s interest in the story and the moral and spiritual implications behind the story, which is that we should come back to God.”

“We have a clear stance and yes, we aim to convert,” Yuen says. “But it isn’t about convincing audiences that the Ark existed. It doesn’t stop at proving. It’s more about warning modern people through history about Jesus’s return.”

As with many such Christian ventures, producers are quick to say the events of the day propel their vision. The Asian tsunami, Yuen adds, was “a sign that what we did is important and timely.”

On the Internet, Christian forums are abuzz with discussions about the film. Golden Scene’s Tsang observes: “ I’ve seen Christians criticizing the film [on the Web] and for us it is disappointing that even they miss the whole point and message.”

For Yuen, having his foot in two doors – competing with the big film producers and winning support from churches – has not been easy. “ The Church will not understand why we have to compete with the big producers. People ask me whether the crowd can be controlled in the theater and whether it’s worth it to spend so much money and resources in producing [the films],” he says. “ We don’t have the promotion resources those big film producers have. It’s really a miracle that a non-profit organization like us can compete with the big names in entertainment.”

Yuen says making the documentary, including five visits to Mount Ararat over two years, was funded mainly by donations and ticket sales, but the group is evasive when it comes to the actual cost.

“We don’t want to highlight the costs,” said the group’s planning and development manager, Angela Kwan.

Like Lam, Yuen believes maximum contact with the crowds is the right direction the gospel should take and defends his organization against charges of commercialization. “Before, the church insisted that we can’t be reconciled with the business world, but there has been increasing acceptance. “I must stress that business is only the means to this end.”