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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 holiday pageant.

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 event.

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 Broadway-style events.

"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 end.

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 and scenery."

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 children.

"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 offers.

"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 the wheel."

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(c) 1998, The Dallas Morning News.

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