Easter services take center stage

Message: Many churches use a multimedia approach and the arts as part of, or instead of, their Easter services.

April 20, 2003|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

When it comes to proclaiming the Easter message, a simple sermon might not cut it anymore.

Consider a group of Lutherans in Carroll County who will experience the life, death and resurrection of Jesus through sacred music and ancient art -- in a PowerPoint computer presentation on a giant screen.

Or the Arbutus Methodist congregation for the deaf that expresses Easter through dance and a drumbeat as members sign the words to a popular gospel single.

Or a Towson Pentecostal church whose service features contemporary music, lighting effects and video graphics.

And a growing number of churches that produce ever more elaborate Easter dramas as part of, or in place of, their worship services.

The pastors at these creative and entrepreneurial congregations in Maryland are turning to multimedia approaches and the arts to evangelize their flocks. The Easter narrative is one of their favorite subjects.

"It's got prose. It's got plot. It's got character. It's got suspense," said Nelvin Vos, executive director of the Society for Arts, Religion and Contemporary Culture in Maxatawny, Pa. "It is inherently dramatic."

Rather than see mass media as an enemy, these churches view it as a tool.

"In a secular sense, it's due to Hollywood, due to cable, due to the Internet, due to DVDs and the rental movie industry," said Don Mark, minister of music at Rock City Church, where the Easter service will include a 30-minute spectacle of music, dance, video graphics and lighting effects.

"We are just so saturated by the arts and professional production that the day of churches presenting the gospel as `Sit down and we'll preach at you for 45 minutes and send you home' doesn't do justice to the power of the message," Mark said.

Some ministers believe that God's word doesn't need any help.

"The reality of what happened at Easter is not a lost message that needs to be jazzed up or helped to be dynamic," said the Rev. Pat Goodman, who will deliver the sermon at Grace Community Fellowship in Timonium. "I think God's message is real and alive. We're not going to out-creativity ourselves."

The multimedia ministers say they are continuing a Christian tradition. "We use popular media and popular culture because we feel spirituality is revealed in our culture today, just as it has been through the centuries," said the Rev. Harry Brunett, rector of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Glenwood.

In addition to three traditional services, his parish offers a weekly service for "spiritual seekers" at a school in Columbia that makes heavy use of film clips, pop music and other multimedia techniques.

"There is as much a revelation of who God is in peoples' lives today as there has been in 20 centuries of the Christian church and many centuries before that," he said.

Over those centuries, the life of Jesus has been told in stained glass, paintings and sculpture. Through the technology of Microsoft's PowerPoint -- typically used by business travelers for visual presentations -- the Rev. David Krebs can offer images of some of these works to his Westminster congregation.

"The technology was available. We had the projector and we had the computer. I just started thinking, `Why not utilize this in our regular worship services as well?' " said Krebs, associate pastor of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church.

"Each generation has to find the best way it can to tell the [Easter] story and tell it in as dramatically powerful way as possible. And PowerPoint seems to do that for me," he said.

In Arbutus, the congregation of Fulton-Siemers Memorial/Christ Church of the Deaf United Methodist Church will tell the story through dance. As they go through their movements, the dancers will sign the words to a popular gospel tune, "The Best is Yet to Come."

The movements convey a message of new life: "Jesus rises from the dead, and the best is yet to come for us because we will also rise from the dead," said the Rev. Peggy Johnson, the pastor.

"Obviously, if you're deaf, you have to be more dependent on other senses, sight being primary. The church itself focuses everything on sight. Everything has got to be a visual."

Many pastors believe that the Easter story, with its cast of characters, engrossing plot and dramatic conflict, is best told theatrically. Although Christmas pageants with cute children have been a staple of church life for years, these Easter productions most often involve adults. Nor are they ancillary to the worship service. They serve as its core.

Many churches write their own scripts. The costumes are sewn professionally, and the lighting and sound are state-of-the-art. "We have a theatrical lighting system that would rival any theater on Broadway," said Mark of the Rock City Church.

No detail is too small. Many productions use live animals. And a fake beard was out of the question for Tony Raduano, who plays Jesus in the Easter Cantata at Trinity Assembly of God in Lutherville.

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