Washington Post

Megachurches put on megaproductions for the Christmas story

This story appeared on the AP national wire and ran on Page A14 of The Washington Post.

The Associated Press State & Local Wire

December 22, 2003, Monday, BC cycle

Megachurches put on megaproductions for the Christmas story

BYLINE: By BOBBY ROSS JR., Associated Press Writer

SECTION: State and Regional

LENGTH: 1430 words


In the biblical account of the Christmas story, a heavenly host of angels appeared to shepherds tending their flock near the stable where baby Jesus lay in a manger.

In Prestonwood Baptist Church’s retelling, brightly lit angels with fluttering, 12-foot-long organza gowns, shiny headbands and red wigs fly over a sanctuary filled with about 6,500 spectators.

The angels hang six stories up – suspended from harnesses attached to 150-foot long tracks on the sanctuary’s ceiling. Fifteen operators with wired headsets control the angels’ movement toward the stage, where shepherds with real sheep herald the Messiah’s arrival.

“After Jesus was born, the Bible says that the angels were singing praises and giving glory to the Lord,” said Amanda Lee, one of five angels in the annual Dallas Christmas Festival at the 22,000-member church. “And that’s just what I think about when I’m flying out there. I’m just thinking about that night, how incredible it must have been.”

At Christmas, Easter and even the Fourth of July, giant, Broadway-style productions like the one at Prestonwood have become the norm for the nation’s Protestant “megachurches.”

“It’s the music and the pageantry that put the melody in the heart in the greatest story ever told,” said the Rev. Jack Graham, Prestonwood’s senior pastor and president of the Nashville, Tenn.-based Southern Baptist Convention.

To critics, however, the productions are emblematic of what’s wrong with super-sized churches: too much spectacle, too little substance.

“The distinction between the church and pop culture is so skewed,” said Adam Eitel, a 22-year-old Baylor University senior who plans to go into Presbyterian ministry. “It seems as though people no longer come to church to worship. We view it as another means of entertainment.”

With average weekly attendance of at least 2,000, the nearly 800 megachurches in the United States share distinct characteristics, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut. They include charismatic, authoritative senior ministers; active, seven-day-a-week congregational communities; and multitudes of social and outreach ministries.

To some, Christmas pageants are simply another way these religious communities spread their faith – though there’s no argument that the scale is bigger than at other churches.

From “The Living Christmas Tree” at Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., to “The Glory of Christmas” at Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., megachurches’ holiday extravaganzas cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and involve hundreds of cast members and volunteers.

“When a normal 300- to 400-person church has a Christmas pageant, the Sunday school class parades through and sings songs and does a re-enactment of the birth of Jesus,” said Scott Thumma, a Hartford Seminary researcher who studies megachurches. “And everyone says, ‘This is a wonderful thing.’

“Well, a megachurch can’t do it at that scale. They do it at a scale that is 10 to 50 to 100 times larger. It very much becomes this grand performance,” he said. “This is just a megachurch doing megaministry.”

At the 28,000-member Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, Tenn., just outside Memphis, 165 vocalists sing from 11 tiers built into a 46-foot Christmas tree.

Joined on stage by a “Sanctuary Orchestra” and a “Victory Marching Band,” the singers stand amid 1,800 feet of garland, 1,050 ornaments, 69 wreaths and more than 7,500 computer-controlled lights.

It’s an eye-popping sight that even the unchurched can appreciate.

“It’s to glorify God and help people find a relationship with God in the person of Jesus Christ,” said the Rev. Larry Thompson, Bellevue’s minister of communications.

A few Sundays before Christmas, the Prestonwood parking lot is as full as the shopping mall down the street.

Poinsettias and decorated trees abound as families in their holiday best sip Starbucks coffee sold at the church, wait in the buffet line at the church’s Main Street Cafe and browse through one of two Christian bookstores. The Dallas Cowboys’ game plays on the big screen in the main dining hall.

It’s about an hour before the Sunday matinee performance of the Christmas festival. Tickets sell for $17 to $24 at the church box office. Most of the 13 performances this year sold out; the last one was Dec. 14.

Prestonwood won’t divulge its production costs or revenues, but the performances drew more than 70,000 people. At the minimum price, that amounts to $1.2 million.

Church officials say the sheer magnitude of the pageant demands charging for it.

Plus, they say, the price is about one-third of what someone would pay to see a major theatrical production in Dallas.

“A lot of times, if you don’t charge for something, people don’t think it’s any great value to go see it,” production manager Cyndi Nine said. “I will tell you, we have many, many members who buy tickets and give them to friends.”

From dancing gingerbread men and a Santa rocket to a toy machine that makes life-size Raggedy Anns, light-heart moments mark Act I of the three-hour production.

Act II features a medley of Christmas songs by the 500-member Prestonwood choir, giving way to Act III and the Gospels’ story of Jesus’ life, complete with a high-tech light show heralding the resurrected savior’s ascension to heaven.

Walter Dean, a 58-year-old Methodist, paid $24 for a floor seat. He nudges the guy beside him when three 2,000-pound camels trek up a stage ramp specially designed to handle their weight.

“I bet that’s the first time you’ve seen camels in a church, isn’t it?” he whispers.

Or a donkey. That’s what Mary rides as she and Joseph make their way to Bethlehem.

A Kansas production company provides the animals, caring for them in a 40-foot long tent outside the church. A handful of volunteers, armed with brooms and pails, trail the animals in the sanctuary – waste management is just one of many details faced by pageant organizers.

“The mere size of the cast makes it an unusual theatrical production,” said the Rev. R. Todd Bell, senior minister of music and worship. “You know, most Broadway shows won’t have a cast over 65. So, to have at one time 600 or 700 people on stage, it’s pretty amazing. And they’re all in costume.”

Those costumes range from silver dresses for a “Silver Bells” waltz to biblical attire for hundreds of choir members who carry candles as they approach the manger.

Each person portraying a biblical character pays $10 for a makeup kit designed to paint the players’ faces, arms and legs a similar shade of olive. A video instructs the actors on how to apply foundation, eyeliner and lipstick.

The role of Baby Jesus – a coveted one, at least for the parents – is played by a different church member’s child each night.

Then there are the hundreds of props, from a 24-foot wide chandelier used in the waltz scene to a 100-by-30-foot painting of a gingerbread house that serves as a backdrop when the cookies dance.

The church shops for some props, and commissions the making of others.

“We go wherever to find the right touch,” Nine said. “We feel like this is … the most important story ever told on a stage, so it deserves to be told in the highest fashion we can.”

Despite all the theatrics, it’s the message that’s important, say church members who devote hundreds of hours to the production.

Ryan Perry, a 26-year-old commercial insurance broker, grows a beard and glues hair extensions to his head to portray Jesus. In preparation, he listens to the Bible on his car’s CD player and tries, like any actor, to put himself in the mindset of his character.

“You see pictures of Jesus on the cross,” Perry said. “But to actually be on it and to really look down at the people walking up and the other actors crying … it’s an odd perspective.”

Choir member Gary Tole, a 50-year-old retail sales director, said the production helps him appreciate the true meaning of Christmas. Last year, he crawled up into a stairwell to watch the crucifixion up close.

“And I wept for 20 minutes,” said Tole, a father of six children. “I know it’s all make-believe as far as that’s not Jesus on the cross, but it’s a re-enactment of the true sacrifice he made so I wouldn’t perish and go to hell.

“That’s really what Christmas is all about.”

On the Net:

Prestonwood Christmas pageant: http://www.dallaschristmasfestival.org

Bellevue Baptist Church: http://www.bellevue.org/

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