Churches reach community, keep focus on Jesus during Christmas
By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
FRANKLIN — Keeping Christ at the center of Christmas is a challenge that seems to get tougher each year.
Fortunately, many churches around the country, including a large number of churches in Tennessee, are doing their part to guard against the secularization of the season.
Whether it’s hosting one of the traditional Christmas productions — such as live nativity scenes, children’s musicals, candlelight services and Christmas cantatas — or perhaps branching out in a new direction, the objective is the same: Ensuring that the birth of Christ remains the focus of the holidays.
David Evans, evangelism specialist at the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, believes Christmas-themed productions are crucial forms of outreach and evangelism for believers who want to help fight “the war on Christmas.”
“The retelling of the birth of Christ is vital to any community as a reminder of what the season is all about,” Evans said. “Many people are focused on the material. And, if the church is not here to toe the line, then who will?”
Evans said believers should serve as crossing guards at Christmas, pointing people toward Jesus.
“Whatever we can do to emphasize Jesus is so important,” said Evans. “And do not forget that these emphases are not for the churches’ entertainment but for the community’s salvation.”
Despite attempts to remove religious ties from the holiday season, Christmas-themed presentations remain a part of the fabric of many churches.
Here’s a look at what three Tennessee churches are doing to celebrate the birth of Jesus:
Church: Southeast Baptist Church
Event: “Bethlehem Marketplace”
Each December, the members of Southeast Baptist transform the church campus into the city of Bethlehem and invite guests to spend some time at the “Bethlehem Marketplace.”
The interactive drama — which was held this year on Dec. 7 and 8 — is one of the longest-running Christmas productions in the state, having been presented for almost 40 years.
“Over the years, our set has changed and the way that we’ve presented the event has changed,” said Joe Vinson, pastor of Southeast Baptist, “but the heart of it has remained the same since the very beginning: It’s always been about celebrating and glorifying the birth of Jesus.”
Roughly 6,000 guests per year visit the Bethlehem Marketplace, which has free admission.
“We often hear people say, ‘It’s not Christmas until we come to Bethlehem,” said Vinson. “We look at this as our gift to the community.”
Those who attend the production are greeted by a shepherd, who tells the guests about the star in the sky and the visit from the angel. Once inside the “gates” of the city, guests can take a self-guided tour of Bethlehem, where they encounter various vendors who are “selling” cheese, bread, perfume and other items. (Samples of the food are given away, for free, to attendees).
“We try to make it as interactive as possible,” Vinson said.
The scene at the bustling marketplace includes Roman soldiers roaming the street, young girls stomping grapes to make wine, and basket weavers plying their trade. Live animals, including sheep, goats and camels, complete the scene.
As the tour continues, guests can stop by the stable where Mary and Joseph are caring for their new-born King. As they depart the city, guests visit the cross.
“We used to have a Christmas tree (at the final stop) and we’d give every one an ornament as they left,” said Vinson. “But about 10 years ago, we really assessed what we were doing, and we made a change. We now have a cross and each of our visitors is given a cross to take home with them that has the plan of salvation attached. We want people to know that the story that started in the manager continued to the cross.”
“We have counselors available at the back to talk to people about salvation,” Vinson said. “Each year — since making the change (to the cross) — we’ve had people make professions of faith.”
Vinson noted that the production continues to improve in quality with each installment.
“It has really changed through the years,” he said. “I wasn’t here when it started, but from what I’ve been told, the first few years, the setting was basically just pieces of cardboard stuck up against the wall.”
In its first year of hosting Marketplace, the church was hoping to have about 150 guests. Instead, roughly 750 visitors came.
“I think the church members were a little overwhelmed,” Vinson said with a laugh.
Southeast Baptist Church averages about 150 on Sunday mornings, Vinson said, and virtually all of the regular attenders are involved in the production in some capacity.
“We like to joke that it’s all hands on deck,” he said. “And, seriously, it takes a majority of the church being involved for this to work.”
Vinson said the church goes to great lengths to make the production as appealing as possible. But, in the end, it’s the message that matters most.
“As much as we talk about the camels and the Roman soldiers, our main focus is on Jesus,” he said.
Church: Brush Creek Baptist Church
Location: Brush Creek
Event: “Life of Christ Christmas Drive-Thru”
Brush Creek Baptist Church has one of the most unique Christmas productions in the state.
For the past two decades or so, the church has hosted “The Life of Christ Christmas Drive-Thru” — which takes the concept of a live nativity scene to a completely different level.
Rather that just peeking in on the birth of Christ, guests can see a dramatization of each stage of Jesus’ life. And they can do so without ever leaving their cars.
“The way it is set up is for people to drive past the different scenes,” said Chris Chambers, pastor of Brush Creek Baptist Church. “It’s the whole gospel.”
Brush Creek Baptist Church has about 80 active members, Chambers estimated, and almost all of them are involved in the production.
“It’s a wide variety of people,” said Chambers. “We have children through senior adults taking part. It’s a church-wide effort.”
Chambers said seeing the church come together to host the event is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the annual tradition. “The cooperative effort is amazing,” he said. “And your church grows in that because of the fellowship and the spirit of working together. So, when you’ve got a cooperative church, it sure helps.”
The church usually hosts the Drive-Thru for two nights, although the production was held only one night this year because of weather issues.
Roughly 150 cars come through the Drive-Thru each year during its two nights of production. Josh Smith and Beverly Bennett are two of the main organizers.
The opening scene is the shepherds on the hill, followed by the manager scene. Guests then drive by the wise men, a scene depicting Jesus in the temple, and the Jerusalem marketplace.
Other scenes include The Lord’s Supper, Jesus being questioned by Pilate, Jesus being scourged, the crucifixion, the empty tomb and the final stop, the ascension.
Two new scenes were added this year — Jesus healing the lame man as he is lowered through the roof and Jesus walking on water.
“We try to change it, and improve it, each year,” said Chambers. “This year, we added a transformer and we had Christmas music playing for the cars as they pulled through.”
Chambers noted that the event is essentially a year-round production.
“As soon as it ends, we start talking about the next one,” he said.
Church: First Baptist Church
Location: Fall Branch
Event: “Journey through Bethlehem”
Roughly 2,000 guests visit First Baptist Church, Fall Branch, each December to take a “Journey through Bethlehem.”
The interactive, self-guided drama — which takes guests into the city on the night of Jesus’ birth — was developed by FBC’s music minster Jennifer Arnold. The church hosted a live nativity for many years before Arnold felt called to expand it.
Attending the event has become a tradition for many in the Fall Branch area and beyond. But it’s the first-timers that Shawn Cutshall, pastor of FBC Fall Branch, loves to see.
“A lot of people that come through will tell us that coming to Bethlehem has become a tradition and that it kicks off their season — and it’s really neat to hear those stories,” said Cutshall.
“But for me, as a pastor, I get more excited about the new people that come through. Don’t get me wrong, I love the fact that we have repeat guests. We want that. But the main goal is to get the gospel out. So, for me personally, I’m more excited to hear about the people who had never been through it before, and who’d never been through the gospel tent.”
The FBC production was recently featured on the show, Daytime Tri-Cities. During an interview for the segment, Arnold described the production as “the full Bethlehem experience.”
“We take our church property and we turn it into the town of Bethlehem,” she said. “We start with the city gates, and we go through the census, and we have our own market place — where our visitors will get to take things home with them as a memory. Then we move on around to the inn, where Mary and Joseph would have visited, and then on around to the shepherds and the angels, and then to the nativity at the end.”
Arnold estimated that roughly 200 people took “the journey” the first year that the church hosted the event. Since then, the production has grown dramatically, with between 1,500 and 2,000 visitors coming each year. The event, which was held this year Dec. 7-9, has free admission.
Visitors who attend the event are brought to the “city gates” by bus or van.
“The bus ride is actually an important part of what we do, because we kind of tell people what to expect and we give them some (fake) money to pay their taxes in Bethlehem and things like that,” said Cutshall. “The buses then drop the visitors off, and from there, it’s all self-guided. Some people stay for a while, take their time, and other people go through pretty quickly. The pace is really up to each individual.”
In years past, many of the “shops” and other stops in Bethlehem were constructed with pop-up tents. But the church learned that probably wasn’t the best idea.
“There was one year when the wind just literally tore the tents up,” said Cutshall. “I don’t know how many tents we lost. So, we realized we needed something more sturdy. The shops are now made of wood and anchored to the ground.”
Cutshall said about 75 percent of the active members are involved in the production. “The prep time is pretty crazy, I won’t lie,” he said. “We basically start planning in January, and work on it — in some way — throughout the year. It’s amazing how it continually changes and improves.”
The message behind the drama has remained constant through the years, demonstrating how the night of Jesus’ birth “turned into an extraordinary night,” said Arnold.