Forest Hill Christian Church in Oklahoma City is a solid, midsize church making a major Christmastime impact on its community. Forest Hill runs about 500 in weekly attendance, but more than 7,000 attend its “Journey to Bethlehem” one weekend each Christmas season. “Journey” leads people on a path toward a figurative Bethlehem where they ultimately encounter the Christ child. Attendees don’t just watch a Christmas story, they live the Christmas story. The church is in its ninth year of leading the program. Senior minister Jerl Joslin, who has served at Forest Hill for 18 years, tells the “Journey to Bethlehem” story here.
Photo Caption: Jerl Joslin welcomes guests to the gymnasium at Forest Hill Christian Church after they have completed their “Journey to Bethlehem.”
How was the “Journey to Bethlehem” concept born?
We had Ben Merold speak for a revival, and I asked him for ideas. He noticed we had some woods and he suggested a “Journey to Bethlehem.” He invited us to come see how his church did it and said, “Whatever we have is yours.”
So the first year we did this we got the ideas from Harvester Christian Church. One of the men from our church, Marvin Curtis, went with me to Harvester to check it out. We got their scripts and their posters, and we called them many times with questions. They allowed us to come in as we were preparing for the first year. That was a huge help.
And I assume you’d love to do that for others.
Absolutely. Like Ben said, a lot churches ask about it but few do it, because it is very labor intensive.
What is the purpose of the program?
The main purpose is to give Oklahoma City an opportunity to see Christmas as Christmas is supposed to be—to put Christ back into Christmas. We want to tell them the story of Jesus Christ as best we can, in a unique way.
How do you introduce people to the “Journey” when they arrive?
They come to our building and we have a program with some singing or comedy and a short video to prepare the people for what is about to happen. There are two things we tell them when they come: number one, we’re not going to preach a sermon—the journey is the sermon—and, number two, we’re not going to take an offering.
What happens on the journey itself?
A guide couple comes and meets people in groups of 20 and says, “We would like you to be our family.” So they get on a tram (we have four trams) and take them to some adjacent land where we made two paths through the woods. As this “family” tries to get to Bethlehem, they encounter people along the path. There are shepherds on the path and we have soldiers who ask for their papers because all these people are headed [to their hometown] for the census. We have people walking llamas, and there are camels with the wise men. There are different scenes, including Mary and Joseph, where the family stops by and recognizes them.
There are churches that have incredible Christmas programs, but what this does is make the guests part of the play.
I assume they make it to Bethlehem.
They come to a tent and in the tent is the city of Bethlehem. There are 20 or 30 booths where music is playing and children are dancing. It’s really loud. It’s like you left Oklahoma City and you step back to the first century. When you leave the tent you go to two barns. There is no place to sleep in the first barn—you’re rejected. At the second barn you find baby Jesus.
How do people react when they get to that second barn?
The most common response is people fall to their knees. We use a real baby and we have donkeys to make it look like a real stable. A narrator shares with the people the point of the journey—why Jesus Christ was born. Just to see their faces and hear their stories after they see the baby Jesus is incredible.
Do you interact with the people at that point?
From there the people go back to our gymnasium, and I stand at the door and welcome them. I’m the only one not in costume. The gym is decorated like a winter wonderland. We have homemade cookies and hot chocolate and coffee and candy canes for the kids. It’s just a nice warm environment.
How much does it cost the church to do this?
Each year it’s between $15,000 and $20,000. It’s our gift to the community. We don’t charge for anything. We don’t even have anything you can buy. Our purpose is to provide so that everyone who drives up gets the same treatment. The comment we get the most is, “Surely there’s a charge for this.”
What does your audience look like?
Our number one demographic is children—most of them are 13 and younger. We also have lots of adults also, of course. Several churches bring their youth group or Sunday school classes. Our main concern is the unchurched, but if some people from other churches want to bring friends, that would mean just as much to us.
How many people in your congregation get involved in “Journey to Bethlehem”?
We have around 375 to 400 people involved. The vast majority of our people are involved in some way. The beauty for us is we can give the actual story of Christmas and everyone in our congregation can be involved. People started sewing costumes several months ago. We have people who make cookies, hand out brochures, people with speaking parts, and people who just stand there as extras.
When does the congregation start working on it?
Parts of this starts in August, but the main work starts the last of October and goes right through the “Journey to Bethlehem.” It takes several weeks to do it.
Is it a big sacrifice for the church to do “Journey to Bethlehem”?
Absolutely. Time, money, facilities. There’s a lot of sacrifice involved. We talk about that some to the people, but seeing the results, people are very supportive.
Do you have people who join Forest Hill just to be a part of this?
Most people just see and hear the ministry of the church and come to be a part of a church that would do something like this.
Have you seen people come to Christ as a result of it?
We have many people in our congregation we can track back to “Journey.” What’s neat is we give them an opportunity to respond to us. We have heard many reports of people who came back to the Lord or who have become interested in learning about Jesus Christ [because of “Journey”]. That is very, very exciting.
Have you ever had any “animal emergencies?”
We did have a camel get away! We also had a llama and a donkey that had babies there. Most of these kids from the city haven’t seen a camel or llama that they can touch. Our goal is for them to see something they couldn’t see anywhere else.
If a church were thinking about doing something like this, what would be the biggest consideration?
The two biggest challenges are the finances and the number of volunteers it requires. Our first year we spent a lot of time getting the woods ready. It took a lot of manpower and womanpower. That week working together, however, was a highlight in the church. That kind of work has a positive effect on a church.
What kind of advertising do you do?
That’s where we put most of our money—once we had our costumes. We mail out 50,000 pieces of direct mail. Each year we ask people to fill out comment cards, and on those we ask for their address if they would like a reminder card. We promise not to send them any other mail. We have gathered several thousand names for that reminder list. This year we used the line, “It’s the 3-D Christmas without glasses.” We want people to encounter this.
Is direct mail the way most people hear about it?
We ask on the comment card, “How did you hear about us?” The number one way is, “Someone invited me.” Direct mail is number two.
Have you had media coverage?
That’s huge. We work hard to get on TV and radio. They have us on the morning program or do a live radio interview. If we pay for spots they will give us a certain number of public service spots. For us to get that kind of TV coverage is real big.
Brad Dupray is senior vice president, ministry development, with Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.