About the time three camels, two llamas and a barnyard of other live animals cross the stage amid the teeming crowd of a re-created ancient Roman street scene, one expects anything to happen during the remaining 90 minutes of Evangel Church's Christmas musical.
And it does.
Lightning flashes, and thunder roars during an earthquake. Roman soldiers beat their prisoners until realistic-looking blood flows. A ballerina extends her arms almost touching the ascending Messiah as a Grammy-nominated singer belts out a Gospel tune.
Welcome to the mega-Christmas pageant, which like the mega-church, is seemingly a growth product of the '90s.
"We're taking the Gospel and putting it in a drama format, giving people a different way to look at what Jesus Christ is all about," said Rosaline Myers, an Evangel Church member and spokeswoman.
The evangelical church of 2,500 families in Upper Marlboro, near Adventure World amusement park, may have the largest church-based Christmas production in Maryland. However, several large Baltimore-area Christmas productions, involving thousands of audience members and performers, will be performed during the next couple of weeks:
* Tonight, Trinity Assembly of God Church in Lutherville wraps up the sixth and final performance of its annual Christmas cantata, which includes a 180-voice choir and a 38-piece orchestra.
* Arlington Baptist Church in Woodlawn is offering its 33-foot-tall singing Christmas tree with 70 singers and 30 actors in five performances through Dec. 17. The singers are arranged on a tree-shaped wooden structure fashioned with lights and pine branches.
* Perry Hall Baptist Church presents its first singing Christmas tree with 80 choir members and a 26-piece orchestra. It runs through Dec. 19.
More than 25,000 people are expected to see the three Baltimore church musicals; Evangel Church expects at least that many over 16 performances.
The oldest of these performances are the 9-year-old singing Christmas tree at Arlington Baptist and Trinity Assembly of God's annual cantata, which began more than 15 years ago. Both programs change annually, helping to keep large returning audiences, organizers say.
With the wide variety of quality entertainment available today, some church leaders say they've turned to the mega-pageants because time-worn approaches to holiday programming don't appeal to many people.
But the amount of money and number of people required to mount musical extravaganzas most often are found in mega-churches with suitably large facilities, memberships and budgets.
Costs can soar, with some churches employing professional choreographers, musicians and guest soloists, elaborate sets, authentic costumes and high-tech special effects. For instance,
Evangel Church has featured Vickie Winans of the gospel-singing Winans family for the past two years of the 3-year-old Christmas pageant.
Dorothy Moon, director of Perry Hall Baptist's musical and wife of the church's paster, the Rev. Kenneth Moon, said she directed 15 such musicals -- with budgets running to $100,000 -- when her husband was a pastor in Florida before coming to Perry Hall nearly three years ago. The costs for Perry Hall's pageant will total almost $9,000, most of which will be covered by ticket sales, she said.
More than money, the important factors are time and work, the directors say.
Most actors and singers in the musicals begin weekly rehearsals in August or September, increasing to semi-weekly by Thanksgiving.
Many church members spend months building sets and fretting over costumes, lighting and special effects.
"This is not easy work," said Mrs. Moon, who has "been going day and night for about two months now."
But the musical directors say the work and time involved pay off when some audience members respond to a minister's plea at the end of each performance by joining the church or making commitments to change their lives.
Jannie Meares, director of Evangel's production, says more than 1,000 people joined the church last year during annual Christmas, Easter and midsummer pageants.
Most of the musicals devote the first half to scenes of outdoor winter fun and Christmas carols and the second half to Bible-based dramas.
* Perry Hall Baptist Church offers its 23-foot-tall "singing Christmas tree" featuring 80 choir members and a 26-piece orchestra in four performances at the church at 3919 Schroeder Ave. The "tree," built by craftsmen who belong to the church, has lights programmed to change color and intensity with the beat of the music. A few tickets remain for the final of four performances at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 19. No admission is charged.
* Trinity Assembly of God Church, 2122 W. Joppa Road, Lutherville, presents its Christmas cantata today at 7 p.m. Tickets -- $8 for adults, $6 for senior citizens -- are available for the final performance. They go on sale one hour before the show.
* Arlington Baptist Church is offering its 33-foot-tall "singing Christmas tree" with 70 singers and 30 actors to an expected 5,000 people this year at 3030 N. Rolling Road. Remaining performances are tomorrow, Wednesday, Friday and Dec. 17, at 7 p.m. weekdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. No admission is charged. Seats are on a first-come, first-served basis.
* Evangel Church, 13901 Central Ave., Upper Marlboro, is performing "Christmas Celebration 1995" at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, through Dec. 17. Tickets are $18 in advance, $20 at the door. Information, (301) 249-9400.