Today's worshipers expect big budget performances.
BY DALE BUSS
Friday, August 15, 2003 12:01 a.m. EDT
It's August, which means, believe it or not, that First Baptist Church of Orlando is gearing up its yuletide worship extravaganza, "The Singing Christmas Trees." The staff and members of this populous church construct two five-story "trees" with hidden risers that hold a total of 350 singers, while an additional 200 people act and play instruments for the $250,000 production, which draws about 40,000 people during its annual eight-day run in December. That tally includes the handful of trombonists who fly in from England just to play.
Of course, "Trees" is going to have to be pretty spectacular to beat First Baptist's Easter-week production, "Portraits of Grace." That three-day affair features live "re-creations" of famous works of art and usually draws about 15,000 people. It culminates in worship services on Easter Sunday, when a 200-strong choir backs a dazzling presentation of soaring worship music featuring studio-level singers, graceful dancers, Hollywood-quality video clips and a march in which dozens of congregation members trace the aisles holding aloft colorful banners.
In the breathtaking finale, an actor portrays Christ at the Second Coming. Fifty feet above the stage, the huge Christ figure comes to life, aided by cloaked mechanical contraptions that allow his arms to support the sleeves of a 12-foot-long robe and optical illusions that add to the apparent enormousness, including a specially tilted stage and the use of small children in the roles of angels at his feet.
This is all a giant leap from the simple, guitar-strumming choruses that started the music revolution in evangelical Christianity more than a generation ago. The goal firmly remains using music to worship Christ. Yet church leaders say that today a high-quality performance ethic is necessary to draw "seekers" and, in many cases, to retain membership against a cultural backdrop that has been overtaken by fast-paced music videos, otherworldly movie special effects and other slick media concoctions. First Baptist has the special challenge of living up to the state-of-the-art entertainment a few miles down Interstate 4 at Disney World--and many of its Sunday performers do, in fact, take the stage at Disney attractions for a living.
"There's a standard of excellence that is set in this town, and we believe that the church should strive for our very best as well," says the Rev. Jeff Lawrence, worship and music pastor at First Baptist, which typically hosts about 2,500 worshipers at three services on a Sunday morning. "Our motto is that we believe God gave the arts to the church--and it's time that we begin to use the arts more effectively to exalt our God so that people will be touched and their lives affected."
Such a performance ethic also is in full swing at most other evangelical churches, especially large ones such as Kensington Community Church, which actually operates a live-arts academy on its 40-acre campus in Troy, Mich. In Munster, Ind., Family Christian Center has spent millions of dollars on video and sound systems and other production equipment to support Sunday-morning worship as well as periodic big-budget Christian musicals.
And at Willow Creek Community Church, the Barrington, Ill., "megachurch" that kicked off much of this trend nearly 30 years ago, top-notch music and drama at its main service is complemented by a ministry that draws about 1,500 twentysomethings who are attracted in part by "music that is a bit edgier," says the Rev. Gene Appel, associate pastor.
"We're not trying to compete with other media," he says. "But we want the people of our church body to feel comfortable bringing their spiritually seeking friends here. There is so much hanging in the balance for someone who's invited a friend to a service, and the friend may be looking for some excuse to say, 'That was second-rate.'"
With the passing of evangelical leadership from aging baby boomers, there are harbingers of a more laid-back approach. "Boomers tend to look at a church experience in terms of what kind of value they get out of it," says David Kinnaman, vice president of Barna Research Group, a Christian market-research organization in Ventura, Calif. Generations X and Y and even teenagers also have high expectations of their worship experience, he says, but "their expectations really center more around the authenticity of relationships and experience."
But right now, Mr. Lawrence is gearing up for the Christmas show. And he's doing so unapologetically. "It's not about us," he says. "It's for Him."
Mr. Buss is a journalist and author in Rochester Hills, Mich.