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Elaborate Shows of Faith

Area's Big Churches Make a Production of Christmas

By Caryle Murphy and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 23, 2004; Page A01

Joan Parks has fond childhood memories of being in the annual Christmas play at her Methodist church in College Park. A few children in towels and bathrobes re-created the Nativity scene. The choir sang carols. And aluminum foil served as the stuff of angel wings.

But church-sponsored Christmas shows have come a long way, as Parks well knows. This year, the Upper Marlboro resident helped direct "The Living Christmas Tree," a Broadway-style production at Riverdale Baptist Church that featured a 70-member choir standing in the shape of a two-story Christmas tree, a flying angel, a 46-piece orchestra and a 12-scene dramatic presentation. The actors had rehearsed for months.


Choir members form a living Christmas tree for the show at Riverdale Baptist Church in Upper Marlboro. (Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

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"It is awesome to see the extent that the churches are going to now to bring the Christmas story to the community," said Parks, 53, who works for a fundraising company. Through such programs, she added, "we can show people the real meaning of Christmas."

Though Christians may differ on how best to convey the holiday's real meaning, large churches across the Washington area are staging ever more imaginative and elaborate Christmas productions. Sometimes competing to put on the most ambitious show, they use impressive sound, light and video equipment, creative costumes, large choirs and even live animals on stage to set their programs apart.

Propelling these productions is a desire among large, mostly evangelical churches to spread the religious message of Christmas as widely as possible through an appealing entertainment experience at a time when people are primed to hear that message.

"They are well aware that most marginal Christians attempt to reconnect to God and spiritual things at the holiday time," said Scott Thumma, professor of sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary's Institute for Religion Research. The productions are "another way they can draw people in to sample what they're like."

The shows typically involve several hundred volunteers from the congregation, who do everything from printing programs to building sets to directing choirs. They also allow church members to display their dramatic and musical talent.

But even with all this unpaid labor, the presentations sometimes cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Perhaps the most expensive production this year was the one put on by Upper Marlboro's Evangel Cathedral, which featured three camels, four llamas, vintage cars, body-jolting thunder and a cast of 270. According to Associate Pastor Kevin Matthews, the 15 performances cost $524,000 and were attended by more than 32,000 people.

Such productions are increasingly common because of the growing number of large churches in the Washington area. Mostly evangelical Protestant or nondenominational, many of these churches are big enough to qualify as "megachurches," meaning they have a weekly worship attendance of 2,000 or more, according to John N. Vaughn, whose Church Growth Today monitors the megachurch phenomenon.

Of the more than 840 megachurches nationwide, about 36 are in the Washington area, giving the region "one of the highest concentrations of megachurches in the United States," Vaughn said.

Churches of that size have the talent pool, finances and huge worship spaces necessary for big stage productions, noted Thumma, who said he peeks at Web sites of various megachurches across the country to see what they do at Christmas.

What he sees, he said, is an "informal competition" to put on the best show. "Some of the megachurches attempt to outdo each other because they know that if one gets a notice in Time or Newsweek, that will increase their popularity," he said.

Not everyone from an evangelical background is a fan of the big presentations. Stephen Brachlow, professor of spirituality at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, likens them to "big showy musical revues in Las Vegas or New York." He said they are more expressive of "a kind of triumphalistic theology of the gospel and the church . . . than about the God who has come to us in the form of a little child . . . [and] addresses us out of a divine humility."


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