SAVANNAH, Ga. -- During the Christmas season, thousands of people take a pilgrimage to a 52-acre site on the grounds of the Savannah Christian Church to experience the birth of Jesus in a make-believe Holy Land.
They take a boat ride across a lake into Bethlehem, where they mingle with townspeople who greet them with water, fruit and cheeses. Roman soldiers on white horses lead them along a lighted path, where they encounter three wise men with a live camel.
They look on as the archangel Gabriel appears at Mary's home and tells her that she is carrying a child. They watch an evil King Herod, who plots to kill the newborn. Finally, they arrive at the manger, standing close enough to touch the crying baby Jesus.
The dazzling journey provides spectacular entertainment for visitors for just $5. But there is a bigger payoff for the church that puts on the production. At the end of the 90-minute trek, Pastor Cam Huxford stands on a stack of hay in front of the group and extends an invitation for them to attend services at his church.
In an age of megachurches that thrive on huge congregations, sometimes numbering 20,000 or more, elaborate Christmas productions that can cost $1 million are a valuable marketing tool. Gone are the days of angel costumes made of white sheets and tinfoil halos. With the proliferation of megachurches, holiday pageants have gone Hollywood.
The Cirque du Soleil-style production at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Ill., features live "angels" swinging from the ceiling, a professional violist and a mist-filled stage. The Imagine Christmas program is expected to draw 95,000 people this year and is broadcast on a local television station on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
The $1.3 million Christmas pageant at the First Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale, featuring pyrotechnic displays that light up the stage, is choreographed by Broadway professionals.
The programs are an attempt, church leaders said, to give back to the community while spreading a spiritual message.
"In today's world, the church must compete with movies and restaurants for audiences. Everybody wants to be entertained," said Susan DeLay, who handles public relations for Willow Creek. "People who might not go to church might come to see a Christmas pageant, and if we can share Christ through this, then yeah!"
Some experts say such extravaganzas are mostly about drawing people in to fill the thousands of stadium seats in those huge sanctuaries on Sunday mornings. In doing so, they rely on a new advertising technique, "experiential marketing," which essentially takes the focus off a product, which is not unique, and places it on the experience, which can be one of a kind.
"It has nothing to do with the Christmas message. ... It's selling a sensation, an experience," said James Twitchell, a professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida. "What competitive churches understand is that you are not going to sell your service on the basis of doctrine because it's all the same. When people go to church they ... want to know if there's a good show."
In 2005, the most recent year for which figures are available, 1,210 Protestant churches in the United States had a weekly attendance of more than2,000, nearly double the number in 2000, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Most of them are clustered in fast-growing states such as California, Texas, Florida and Georgia, and they bring in an average of $6 million a year, according to a survey by the institute.
While the megachurch phenomenon began thriving in the 1970s, pageants and religious theatrics became popular in the United States in the early 20th century, according to religion historian Jeanne Halgren Kilde. During the 1920s, evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson's Angelus Temple in Los Angeles presented plays in a 5,300-seat, auditorium-style temple as a means of spreading her "Foursquare Gospel." Other evangelicals began picking up on the concept.
"Now we've become such a visual culture that we expect things to happen this way. Megachurches have set the standard," Kilde said.
Some churches have been criticized for spending money on Christmas events that could be used for charities and other community services. Church officials counter by pointing out that they have large budgets for community outreach and social services.
Dahleen Glanton writes for the Chicago Tribune.