- The Washington Times - Monday, December 22, 2003

PLANO, Texas - In the biblical account of the Christmas story, a heavenly host of angels appeared to shepherds tending their flock near the stable where baby Jesus lay in a manger.In Prestonwood Baptist Church’s retelling, brightly lighted angels with fluttering, 12-foot-long organza gowns, shiny headbands and red wigs fly over a sanctuary filled with about 6,500 spectators.

The angels hang six stories high — suspended from harnesses attached to 150-foot-long tracks on the sanctuary’s ceiling. Fifteen operators with wired headsets control the angels’ movement toward the stage, where shepherds with real sheep herald the Messiah’s arrival.

“After Jesus was born, the Bible says that the angels were singing praises and giving glory to the Lord,” said Amanda Lee, one of five angels in the annual Dallas Christmas Festival at the 22,000-member church. “And that’s just what I think about when I’m flying out there. I’m just thinking about that night, how incredible it must have been.”

At Christmas, Easter and even the Fourth of July, giant, Broadway-style productions like the one at Prestonwood have become the norm for the nation’s Protestant “megachurches.”

“It’s the music and the pageantry that put the melody in the heart in the greatest story ever told,” said the Rev. Jack Graham, Prestonwood’s senior pastor and president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

To critics, however, the productions are emblematic of what is wrong with supersized churches: too much spectacle, too little substance.

“The distinction between the church and pop culture is so skewed,” said Adam Eitel, a 22-year-old Baylor University senior who plans to go into Presbyterian ministry. “It seems as though people no longer come to church to worship. We view it as another means of entertainment.”

With average weekly attendance of at least 2,000, the nearly 800 megachurches in the United States share distinct characteristics, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut. They include charismatic, authoritative senior ministers; active, seven-day-a-week congregational communities; and multitudes of social and outreach ministries.

To some, Christmas pageants are simply another way these religious communities spread their faith — though there is no argument that the scale is bigger than at other churches.

From “The Living Christmas Tree” at the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., to “The Glory of Christmas” at the Rev. Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., megachurches’ holiday extravaganzas cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and involve hundreds of cast members and volunteers.

“When a normal 300- to 400-person church has a Christmas pageant, the Sunday school class parades through and sings songs and does a re-enactment of the birth of Jesus,” said Scott Thumma, a Hartford Seminary researcher who studies megachurches. “And everyone says, ‘This is a wonderful thing.’

“Well, a megachurch can’t do it at that scale. They do it at a scale that is 10 to 50 to 100 times larger. It very much becomes this grand performance,” he said. “This is just a megachurch doing megaministry.”

At the 28,000-member Bellevue Baptist Church in Cordova, Tenn., just outside Memphis, 165 vocalists sing from 11 tiers built into a 46-foot Christmas tree.

Joined on stage by a “Sanctuary Orchestra” and a “Victory Marching Band,” the singers stand amid 1,800 feet of garland, 1,050 ornaments, 69 wreaths and more than 7,500 computer-controlled lights.

It’s an eye-popping sight that even the unchurched can appreciate.

“It’s to glorify God and help people find a relationship with God in the person of Jesus Christ,” said the Rev. Larry Thompson, Bellevue’s minister of communications.

A few Sundays before Christmas, the Prestonwood parking lot is as full as the shopping mall down the street.

Poinsettias and decorated trees abound as families in their holiday best sip Starbucks coffee sold at the church, wait in the buffet line at the church’s Main Street Cafe and browse through one of two Christian bookstores. The Dallas Cowboys’ game plays on the big screen in the main dining hall.

It’s about an hour before the Sunday matinee performance of the Christmas festival. Tickets sell for $17 to $24 at the church box office. Most of the 13 performances this year sold out; the last one was Dec. 14.

Prestonwood won’t divulge its production costs or revenues, but the performances drew more than 70,000 people. At the minimum price, that amounts to $1.2 million.

Church officials say the sheer magnitude of the pageant demands charging for it.

Plus, they say, the price is about one-third of what someone would pay to see a major theatrical production in Dallas.

“A lot of times, if you don’t charge for something, people don’t think it’s any great value to go see it,” production manager Cyndi Nine said. “I will tell you, we have many, many members who buy tickets and give them to friends.”

From dancing gingerbread men and a Santa rocket to a toy machine that makes life-size Raggedy Anns, lighthearted moments mark Act I of the three-hour production.

Act II features a medley of Christmas songs by the 500-member Prestonwood choir, giving way to Act III and the Gospels’ story of Jesus’ life, complete with a high-tech light show heralding the resurrected Savior’s ascension to heaven.

Walter Dean, a 58-year-old Methodist, paid $24 for a floor seat. He nudges the guy beside him when three 2,000-pound camels trek up a stage ramp specially designed to handle their weight.

“I bet that’s the first time you’ve seen camels in a church, isn’t it?” he whispers.

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