An arsonist interrupted nearly 20 years of Christmas tradition in 2015 by burning down many of the props that Journey Seventh-day Adventist Church used to stage “Journey to Bethlehem,” its annual production about the story of Christ’s nativity.
Two years later, the church has hired a new pastor and is beginning a new tradition with a scaled-down, four-weekend series called “Witnesses to the Manger.”
“What we’re doing is kind of a reset, and we’ll see where this all goes, but it’s going to be taking the strengths of the tradition here ... and we’re going to be looking at the wonder of the season through dramatic presentations,” said Pastor Rick New, who joined the church in September.
“Manger” is a series of four shows at the church, each with a dramatized vignette focusing on a specific characters from the Christmas story. The series will be shown over the next four Saturdays, all at 11:07 a.m. in the Lexington church. The series will take the place of normal church services.
The productions will show audiences the viewpoint of a shepherd, then the innkeeper, then Mary and Joseph right before Christmas Eve. The final, post-Christmas show will be centered on the lesser-known character of Simeon, whom the Bible says recognized Jesus as the son of God when he was only an infant.
Each production also will feature the singing of Christmas carols, professionally-made short films (not produced by the church) and opportunities for families to dress in Biblical outfits for photo ops with the manger.
New said living up to the legacy of “Bethlehem” will be tricky, but he’s confident visitors should still enjoy the downsized production.
“Obviously, we have a great tradition here in the area, in terms of ‘Journey to Bethlehem,’ “ New said. “It’s a pretty tough act to follow ... (but) sometimes less is more, right?”
“Bethlehem” attracted thousands of visitors per year from as far away as Portland and Seattle to see the church’s elaborate re-creation of the city of Jesus’ birth using hundreds of actors. The presentations even for a time featured a live camel. The arsonist who destroyed much of the production set never was caught.
“Manger” will feature eight actors total, all who are directly associated with the church. The actor playing Joseph, associate intern pastor Evan Davies, said he feels connected with his character because he’s a newlywed (his wife is playing Mary).
Although Davies, 23, joked that he was “volun-told” to act in the production, he said he was excited to bring Joseph to life on stage alongside his wife.
“I’m not too nervous about being up in front of people, but I guess there’s a little nerves,” he said. “I hope the message can touch as many people as possible.”
New said the themes of “Manger” center around how Jesus suffered just like any other people while living among humans, and that he came to provide humans with a brighter future.
“(Jesus) came into a world that didn’t receive him ... as a simple, common baby who grew up in humble circumstances to fully associate with humanity,” he said. “In the brokenness that we see today, it’s good to see that when we suffer, we’re not alone. God came into this world to fully associate with human suffering and give us hope.”
New added that the church is hosting a separate program on Dec. 22, entitled “The Longest Night,” that is specifically intended for those who struggle during the holiday season.
“Not everyone looks at the Christmas season as a joyful time of year,” he said. “People have griefs and losses, and we’re going to have a special service to be an opportunity for people to come in and heal those losses and celebrate hope. We’re capturing both sides of the season.”
Dan Hughes, who directed “Bethlehem” for 19 years before the set was destroyed, is now helping with “Manger.” He said it is important for the church to continue to use Christmas productions as a way of spreading God’s message.
“God has just impressed upon us that we need to share his existence and his story, and I don’t think there’s a better time of year than Christmas to share that,” he said. “If we can’t tell it one way, we’ll find another way to do it.”
New said he has “absolutely no idea” how many people will attend “Manger.” The church sent out a mass mailing of 15,000 invitations in hopes that the production will draw big audiences.
“We’re just trying to reach out to our community and give them an opportunity to come. The more the merrier.”