Saturday, December 26, 1998
Churches have a way with the manger that's
more spectacular than ever
By Laurie Fox
The Dallas Morning News
DALLAS -- As the lights dimmed over the stage, Jessica Stribble
gripped her microphone, ready to launch into a song for her church's
But instead of "Silent Night," she and a group of
dancers and back-up singers belted out Reba McEntire's "Why
Haven't I Heard From You?" with all the attitude and swank
of a music video. Fog and laser lights blanketed the stage, illuminating
a giant computer screen and oversized cellular phone.
Welcome to Christmas pageants in the technology corridor, where
members of The Heights Baptist Church in Richardson, Texas presented
"www.HolidaystheHeights.com -- Clearly Communicating Christmas."
The production is a nod to the hustle and bustle of a computerized
society and examines how the true meaning of Christmas can get
lost. But presenting this theme requires a state-of-the-art light
show and a specialized projector from Texas Instruments.
"This is like an artist creating a painting," said
Donnie Stribble, music minister at The Heights and Jessica's father.
"We bill this as a production and we don't apologize for
its grandeur. We want to make everyone's holiday a little more
meaningful, and, to do that, we have to capture people's attention."
With that in mind, more churches across the area and nationwide
are moving toward more complex and creative Christmas pageants
by using bigger sets, computer-generated lighting and other effects.
Lyndel Vaught, an associate professor of church music at Southwestern
Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, said the days of "bathrobes
and flip-flop sandals" in pageants are all but gone.
"We became more visual people, and that's expanded into
more ornate productions and pageants during the holidays,"
he said. "The sophisticated musicals are becoming the next
wave. Now it's become entertainment in a Christian setting."
Vaught, who teaches a class on dramatic church productions,
said the most dramatic pageants can range from $50,000 to a quarter
of a million dollars.
The two most grand, and self-supporting, pageants are the Dallas
Christmas Festival at Prestonwood Baptist Church in North Dallas
and The Greater Fort Worth Christmas Pageant, performed by the
North Richland Hills Baptist Church.
The Prestonwood production -- which features flying angels,
live camels, donkeys and sheep and a 13,000-square-foot stage
-- usually costs about $250,000 but is financed through ticket
sales and donations.
Setting up the Fort Worth pageant, which just finished its
25th annual run, takes thousands of volunteer hours to erect the
elaborate sets and hook up the intricate lighting. A 40-member
production team begins meeting each January to plan the $105,000
Doug Smart, a professor of radio and television at Southern
Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill., said pageants are becoming
more entertainment-oriented every year as churches struggle to
compete with secular holiday events.
"To try and stay competitive with Christmas television
specials and The Nutcracker, these churches are offering more
entertainment with their productions," he said. "There's
an expectation level in the audience because people see these
"Everyone wants a new or more dazzling way to tell a story
that's essentially the same every year."
In response, more churches are adding their own elements to
the pageants and finding more creative narratives.
The Heights production focuses on a typical family so busy
that they've lost touch with one another in a world that is, ironically,
ruled by communication.
Other churches are adding Christmas carols and even Santa Claus
in the first act before returning to the biblical focus at the
Stribble said that by offering a little glitz and a different
take on the story, the church brings in people who wouldn't come
on an average Sunday.
"There's always a hook in the show, a point where we present
the story of Christ," he said. "We just have to present
it in a way that they can relate to."
Paul Paschall, the minister of music at North Richland Hills
Baptist Church, said he's always looking for new vehicles to attract
an audience that often comes to church only during the holidays.
"We recognize that the average person on the street might
not always know the Christian, biblical reason for Christmas,"
he said. "We seek to present it through elaborate costuming
Paschall said the church's newest special effects this year
involve video re-imaging. The production is updated each year
with the latest technology, he said, but the church is careful
to keep the focus on the message.
Vaught said that while many churches are updating and creating
more elaborate pageants, they must be mindful that the production
doesn't overshadow the worship.
"You just don't want people to leave your show saying,
'Wasn't that great lighting?' and not say, 'Wasn't that a great
God?' " he said. "We're heading toward a crossroads
with pageants because some churches feel they've lost the basic
perspective. It takes a very mature church to turn that corner."
The 750-member Preston Road Church of Christ also presented
a technology-themed program, called "www.ChristmasOnline.com."
But this production had no special effects and featured mostly
"I love going to see the big pageants, but I expect it
out of the bigger churches," said Jim Bales, the church's
music director. "Some of the smaller churches are afraid
to do a performance if it's not big. Our church members don't
always expect that level of production this time of year.
"We go to the pageants at the other churches. It's like
someone else's house who has a swimming pool: It's nice, but you
don't have to keep it up or pay for it."
At Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas, members carefully
considered what to do to celebrate their first Christmas in their
new building. They opted for a smaller-scale performance despite
the $2 million worth of lighting and sound that their building
"I'm all for the big pageants, but we'd rather take all
of that creativity, money and manpower and spread it out over
52 weeks of the year," said senior pastor Ed Young. "With
all the other performances in the area, we'd rather not reinvent
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