At Long Reach Church of God, every Sunday service is a celebration.
But the Easter celebration is in a class by itself.
"Every other Sunday builds up to it," said church pianist Aaron Carter.
With more than 1,500 members, Long Reach prides itself on music, drama and dance ministries. All year long, the lively arts are part of worship. Psalm 150 is an inspiration: "Praise Him with tambourine and dance. Praise Him with strings and pipe!"
"Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!" said Robert "Bishop Bob" Davis, who has led the congregation for nearly 30 years.
In that spirit, a Resurrection play has long been the centerpiece of Easter morning worship at Long Reach, with dancers, singers and actors from the congregation taking on the roles of Jesus and his contemporaries and performing the tragic and miraculous Easter story.
It is one way Christians across the area are observing Easter, along with cantatas, sunrise services and religious vigils.
At Long Reach Church of God, the cast and staging of the Resurrection play varies from year to year. Yet the performance is always an offering to heaven, Davis said.
"We may receive some of the overflow, but it is the Lord Jesus Christ we are directly worshipping," he said.
With large crosses, four choirs, lights, smoke, more than 40 actors, a sheep, a donkey and a goat, this year's production is expected to be extra special because Davis, who has been such an inspiration, plans to retire at the end of the year.
"This year we are trying to go all out," said Gregory Yancey, a Baltimore lawyer and church member who wrote and is directing this year's play, "Lord of Lords."
The congregation was gathered for a festive New Year's Eve service when Davis announced he would be stepping down, passing the leadership of the church to his widely admired son, Robert Davis Jr.
A former forensic chemist for Baltimore police, the elder Davis, his wife, Doris, and their three children have been an integral part of the church from the start. They helped form it in their living room in 1973, back when Columbia was new, and they and a few other couples envisioned a "new church for a new city."
As the congregation grew, members worshipped in a school and in a community center before deciding they needed a permanent home. After searching for a site, they entered into an agreement with Rouse Co. to build and operate an interfaith center at Long Reach. The plan was to share the venture with other congregations, but they ended up constructing the church alone.
From the outside, the Long Reach Church of God blends discreetly with other village buildings such as the Columbia Association Art Center. But its sanctuary, home to one of the largest congregations in Howard County, is bright and airy, with soaring stained-glass windows.
The congregation, part of the evangelical Church of God denomination, operates the Long Reach Church of God Christian Academy for kindergarten through fifth-grade and a bookstore. Nearly every night of the week it offers activities, including Bible study. The church also does missionary work in Haiti and Africa.
On a recent Saturday, the sanctuary was alive with rehearsals for the Resurrection play. Accompanied by Carter on the piano, dozens of children ran through their songs as adult actors filtered in to work on their lines. Drawing heavily upon the Gospel, Yancey wrote this year's play to include six scenes featuring Jesus's prophecies and miracles, his arrest and trial, his crucifixion and his ascent to heaven.
With Easter approaching, the pressure was on. One minute Yancey was searching for someone to look after the animals. The next, he was waylaying Kenny Walker, a member of the church's Celebration Nation Singers, to persuade him to do a solo performance of "There Is a Redeemer."
"It's the song that opens the play!" Yancey told Walker. He looked a little worried, but Yancey persisted.
"People will be in tears," he assured the singer.
Like the others here, Walker can't say no, knowing the importance of the Resurrection play.
"It's definitely a true celebration," Walker said. "And we get to see people we haven't seen for a long time and say, 'Look what you've been missing!' "
Yancey's stage directions for this year's performance are especially ambitious, calling for dancers to move through the sanctuary before leaping into the action and ushers, dressed in Biblical garb, to join in the crowd scenes shouting, "Crucify Him!"
While the play is a form of worship, the "overflow" as Davis might call it, is important, too. Yancey hopes the production will have the power to transport the congregation back to Jesus's day.
Cast members said the annual Resurrection play helps keep the story of Jesus alive in the way miracle plays have since the Middle Ages.
"A pastor can preach from the pulpit, but when you see it acted, it has a totally different impact," said Ben Wells, a businessman and youth minister who will be playing John the Baptist this year. He said he believes the Easter story will never get old.
"It has been told for 2,000 years, but every time it's a new experience," Wells said. "It will hit you differently this year than last year because you are at a different place in your life."
Regina Rattley, a new member of the church, marvels at the chance to perform in a story she has loved all her life.
"I don't feel like I'm acting. I feel like I'm becoming," said Rattley, who will play a new convert to Christianity and will be baptized in the play.
Gerald Washington , a Columbia resident who works in the insurance industry, has always chosen smaller roles, but this year he will be playing Jesus.
"Can you imagine how I feel?" he said through a nervous smile.
Yet as the rehearsal unfolded, he moved through the scenes with increasing confidence and a quiet passion, conversing with two women in sign language, healing a crippled man and bringing a dead girl back to life.
"Anything I can do for Christ I'll do," he said afterward. "Telling his story brings it home."