There were clowns instead of ushers to welcome worshipers and show them to their seats.

With a certain amount of horseplay, clowns came forward to receive the offering containers and pass them among the congregation.

When it came time for the sermon, a clown in a floppy hat stood up in the front pew and made a comic show of setting an alarm clock before the preacher began to preach.

Even the preacher herself wore red-and-white stripped clown socks under her snowy white surplice.

While other Christian churches last Sunday observed Pentecost -- the birthday of the Christian Church -- in more traditional ways, First Congressional United Church of Christ at 10th and G Streets NW marked the day with clowns, balloons and gentle horseplay.

Lin Ludy, who organized the service and preached the sermon, provided the reason. "Pentecost offers us a taste of joy," she said. "That is what Pentecost is all about."

Ludy, a lay member of the church, pointed out that "clowns bring the surprise of the Holy Spirit into life and especially into worship services. They express in mime the good news in images of love, happiness and humor . . . Clowns serve as symbols of hope and of new life, willing to be foolish and risk the ridicule of others. Clowns let us see what absurd clods we humans really are."

First Congregational's clowns were homegrown. They are members of a small group within the church known as the Creative Celebrations Community, which Ludy heads.

Within the past decade, the art of clowning has moved out of the circus and into church congregations, where it has been received as a special ministry and clothed in all kinds of theological garments.

In program notes in the Sunday bulletin at First Congregational it was pointed out that the white mask of the clown "is the mask of death and every time a clown puts on this mask the clown is dying to the old self. The colors on the face of a clown represent the new life that a clown receives . . . The clown is a living and visible sign of the resurrection."

Clowns in the worship service are not usual fare for the normally traditionalist, Puritan-ancestored Congregationalists, a denomination characterized by a contemporary theologian as "God's frozen people."

Most of the hundred or so worshipers present Sunday took the unusual events in stride, tapping their feet to the special bouncey music of the service and some even joining in the clowns' antics.