March 2, 2020

Small Church - Big Outreach!

Every December the Adventist church in Meridian, Idaho, becomes the focus of its community.

Sandra Blackmer

As far as size goes, an average weekly church attendance of 57 wouldn’t place the Meridian Seventh-day Adventist Church in Idaho in the top tier. This, however, doesn’t stop them from thinking big when it comes to community outreach.

Meridian members are actively involved in various outreach activities, such as organizing God’s Closets, in which they supply children’s clothing to low-income families; running depression-recovery and Diabetes Undone clinics; organizing prison ministries and out-of-country mission trips; and repairing used appliances and cars and donating them to people in need. A herculean task that they’ve tackled each December for 10 years, though, is their living Nativity event called Journey to Bethlehem (J2B).

What’s J2B?

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Churches hosting live Nativity programs at Christmastime is nothing new. Countless churches do it. But what sets J2B apart from the crowd is the extensive preparation, the elaborate costumes church members designed, attention to detail, and the large and lavish production they pull together annually. This past December J2B drew record crowds that totaled slightly fewer than 2,000 visitors in three nights, many of them repeats from previous years. Even though many people from neighboring Adventist churches as well as from other denominations (including Baptist and Latter-day Saints) take on several of the character roles and help with the live music and logistics such as parking, this still seems quite a feat for a small church in a city of 107,000 residents.

Visitors experience J2B in groups led by a “guide” during the three hours that J2B is open each evening, leaving little time for volunteers to catch their breath. Organizers, however, say it’s worth it.

“As you see the people coming through the doors each night and listen to the comments, it’s such a blessing,” says Beverly Logan, who has served as J2B director for three years. “I’m always amazed at the comments about the overall spirit of the event. That’s our goal—to share the love of Jesus with the community—and this is possible only through the working of the Holy Spirit.”

Preparation

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An occasional groan echoes among Meridian church members when each October rolls around and it’s announced that it’s time to begin setting up for J2B—and with good reason. On the church’s five-acre lot more than 20 “booths” are assembled to hold biblical period shops, homes, a tax collector’s office, a temple room, and other small buildings that depict the city of Bethlehem some 2,000 years ago. Additional props include a gate to the city, areas for beggars and lepers, a raised structure from which an angel announces the Messiah’s birth to the shepherds, and the stable where Jesus was born, among others. Meridian members labor for weeks setting up for the production—often in inclement weather.

“About a dozen or so people came out and helped with assembling the village this year—and I’m so grateful to each one of them,” says Jerry Rowan, who headed the J2B setup. “Many cold days are spent assembling and decorating. But the comments we receive as the groups come into the social hall at the end of the journey are heart touching and make us feel that the time was well spent.”

The Experience

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As guests and families turn up for J2B, they’re given a group number and listen to live Christmas music in the church sanctuary—performed by such musicians as the Gem State Adventist Academy Bell Ringers and Chorale, the Koinonia Children’s Choir, and a musical group comprising refugees from Rwanda and Uganda called the Oasis Victory Youth Choir—until their group number is called. About 25 visitors at a time are led to a Sabbath School room where introducers set the scene for their journey back in time to biblical Bethlehem, and present them with a few shekels (shiny pennies) to pay the tax collector in the city. A guide, introduced as their cousin Rebekah or Josiah from the family of David who will guide them along the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem, then takes over. After ensuring everyone has their tax money so no one gets thrown into “jail,” he or she leads the group outside—past beggars pleading for money and lepers crying “Unclean! Unclean!”—to the city gate, protected by Roman guards.

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After bribing their way past the gate, the rest of the 30-minute journey takes them by shopkeepers enthusiastically selling their wares, rabbis reading from the Torah and playing a shofar, tax collectors greedily grasping for their money, a blacksmith, a carpenter, goats and their keepers, Clyde the camel, and Roman centurions wandering throughout the village. They then tarry in a “field” of shepherds, where a glowing angel unexpectantly appears and announces the Messiah’s birth. From there they follow a star to the innkeeper’s stable, where they find Baby Jesus with Mary and Joseph. The volunteers who play each role stay in character throughout the journey.

“We’ve always received lots of positive comments about the acting of the guides and the guards, which is to be expected as they are the most involved with the family groups,” Logan says. “But this year we received really positive comments about every area of J2B. Even the 105 loaves of bread and the 100 gallons of hot chocolate we provided for the ‘travelers’ at the end of their journey got several thumbs up. People really did notice every detail.”

“About 200 people from all age groups—even the very young who played beggars and lepers and shepherds—worked together to make this happen,” Logan adds.

A Family Tradition

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Several of the J2B guests described it as an annual family tradition.

“Our kids have to come every year or it’s not Christmas,” one person said.

The animated portrayal of the characters appears to be an especially appreciated aspect of the program, helping to create an atmosphere not only of fun but also of reverence.

“I loved the shepherds’ great excitement and joy as they ran to the stable!” a visitor said. “Also the angel’s worship and praise to God. It was all very moving.”

Others were grateful for the journey’s being based on the Bible, as well as for the “spirit” they “could feel during the tour.” One person conceded she cried when she saw Jesus.

“The goal of J2B is to help people focus on Jesus,” Logan says, “so when they said that what they loved most about the program was ‘just being able to stand at the stable and take in that Emmanuel, Jesus, has come’ and that ‘I come every year to see Jesus,’ I just thank the Lord.”

Logan describes partnering with the Lord as a humbling experience, because you witness the power of the Holy Spirit at work, even when the task seems daunting.

“Just when you’re ready to think there’s no way this is going to work, God comes through every time—even for a small church like ours.”


Sandra Blackmer is an assistant editor of Adventist Review.

Sandra Blackmer
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