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Next to Beach Assembly of God in Ocean Isle, North Carolina, sits a grassy, relatively non-descript 12-acre empty lot. But once a year, for two to three months, the lot is laboriously transformed by the church into a 15,000-square-foot interactive and immersive Christmas production that leaves visitors feeling like they have been transported back to the time of Christ!
Since 2007, the Bethlehem Live production has been filling people’s hearts with awe and wonder while many also find tears filling their eyes and flowing down their cheeks. Carmen Chase, 43, is the church’s creative arts pastor. She has been directing the event since 2014.
“We spend up to two months building a city that takes people on an immersive experience through Jesus’ life, from His birth to His death and resurrection,” Chase explains. “We have a cast and crew of 160 people participating each night, with 120 of them in costume.” The program, which regularly has all 6,000 available tickets claimed well in advance, begins with an indoor 30-minute comedic, audience-participation gameshow followed by the outdoor Bethlehem Live production.
What makes the free, 45-minute, walk-through experience unique is that the audience is ushered into the sites of significant happenings in Christ’s life — in a setting designed to make them feel as if they were really there.
Two widowed innkeepers and a niece, who requires the use of a crutch, appear on a platform in every scene, maintaining a conversation with each other about what they’re observing and what it all might mean. Their conversations help set the two-millennia-old scenes, with the realism aided by live animals and costumed cast members interacting with each other and people in the crowd.
The audience experiences scenes such as the magi entourage in Jerusalem, the Jerusalem marketplace, King Herod’s court, the Nativity stable, Jesus’ crucifixion, and His resurrection.
“But one of the most impactful experiences is when Jesus appears and walks into the audience, greeting people, touching them on the shoulders, and starts healing people (cast members) in the crowd.”
This interaction with Jesus, was so impacting and garnered so much positive response the first week of the production (Nov. 24-26), that the following weekend, Chase extended the time Jesus was able to interact with the audience.
“Over and over again, people told me that even though they knew it was an actor playing the part of Jesus, it was as if He was really there,” Chase says. “I believe the immersive staging and the actor helped bring the reality of Christ home to people.”
Karen Nickel, who visited the production for the first time this year, agrees. “I was so spiritually moved. I felt as if I was there in that time,” she said in a post on the production’s Facebook page. “I cried when I seen (sic) Jesus coming through the crowd healing the people . . .”
Chase also has a deeply personal reason for people to witness what it was (and is) like to witness Jesus healing people. Her father, an AG minister for 37 years, passed away in January due to cancer. “In one of our final moments together, he said, ‘Make sure people know that God is a healer, even if God doesn’t heal me.’”
Although the production is open to all ages, prior to the crucifixion scene, where the actor is in a lacerated body suit and lifted up on a cross, children are offered an alternative activity time — a time with Jesus.
As adults continue with the program, the Jesus actor hosts children in a side area where they have a Q&A time with Jesus and can have pictures taken with him. As the actor departs to rejoin the program, children hear a story, are given a craft to do, and each one is presented an age-appropriate gift.
“One little boy raised his hand and asked Jesus, ‘How is my sister doing in heaven?’” Chase recalls. “The actor handled that question so well. He told him, ‘She is great. Heaven is a beautiful place.’ That moment meant the world to that little boy.”
The program scenes continue on through Christ’s resurrection, but it doesn’t end there. Instead, Senior Pastor John Chase concludes the time by sharing Scripture and personal stories about how Jesus has impacted his life. He then prays over the audience before dismissing them to either ask a cast member to pray with them or just to meet and talk with them.
What some may find surprising is that Beach AG is not a mega-church — it’s attendance averages a healthy 280. However, a production of this magnitude with church members being the cast means a strong percentage of the church is directly involved in seeing the production come to life.
Chase says that Beach AG is also blessed that the Brunswick Christian Recovery Center for men call the church its home, as the men are hugely instrumental in making the program a success — from helping to set things up to playing the parts of townspeople and Roman soldiers.
“We want the men going through the recovery program to understand that they are still a valuable piece of the family of God, regardless of their background,” Chase says. “In fact, both of the actors now playing the role of Jesus came through the recovery program.”
The cast and crew do three 45-minute performances back-to-back on consecutive three-day weekends. Chase, who also performs a song in the program, says Bethlehem Live has had a significant impact upon people’s lives as well as the church itself. Today, many of the church’s core leaders and members originally started attending Beach AG because of the production.
The accolades for Bethlehem Live are countless, but perhaps it was a portion of the post left by guest Jeannie Bailey that best communicates the purpose and impact of Bethlehem Live. She wrote: “. . . I felt completely filled with the spirit of God throughout the entire event . . .”