Bethlehem in Midlothian

MIDLOTHIAN, TX — Cries of, “Get your bread here!” and, “Slaughtered pigs sold here!” rang out over the bazaar. The marketplace was abuzz with activity and people. Vendors hawking their goods approached any likely passerby. A young boy wandered by leading a pet goat on a rope. Welcome to Bethlehem by way of Midlothian!

Jason Exley, pastor of Life Church in Midlothian, and his congregation have constructed a slice of history in their Real Life Christmas production. “We want to make them feel like they are in the middle of all of this commotion in Bethlehem,” Jason said.

This will be the fourth year for Real Life Christmas. It all began in the parking lot of Longbranch Elementary School. The church met there before moving into their current building and received permission to use the parking lot over the weekend.

“We started on Friday when the kids got out of school, because we couldn’t be on the premises until the kids

left,” Jason explained. “We started building sets until we lost daylight and ran the first Real Life Christmas that Saturday and Sunday, the first weekend in December three years ago.”

The church decided to name their production Real Life Christmas because, “We bring it to life,” Jason explained. “Our church is Life Church, and we try to use the word life as much as we can. One of the things we are passionate about is engaging our community outside the walls of the church. We try to touch people where they live, so we wanted to bring the Christmas story to life.”

In order to do that, the church does a great deal of work. “We try to bring the story to life with all the sets that are built with live actors in costume, with animals, sheep, cows, goats, chickens and camels,” Jason shared. “We do whatever we can to make you feel as if you are right there in Bethlehem and then carry the story all the way through the  life of Christ and to tell the story of why Jesus came.”

Real Life Christmas gives the families in the church an opportunity to volunteer together, and that includes Jason’s family of three boys — Ethan, a third-grader, Landon in kindergarten and Preston, 20 months old. “In a lot of our scenes, we have mom, dad, kids all in costume and all working together,” Jason said. “It’s a neat thing to see the whole family unit come out to serve. A lot of times, a mom will be involved in the church, the dad may work as an usher and the kids just kind of are there. We really want moms and dads to pass on a desire to serve to their kids. Real Life Christmas is one of those opportunities our families have to volunteer together.”

The first couple of years, the church produced a CD describing the different scenes that patrons could play in their cars as they drove through the circuit. Last year, the church wanted to be more interactive and have their guests be up close and personal with the action. So in that vein, they sought to make visitors

to Real Life Christmas as comfortable as possible, while keeping the setting unique and authentic. However, before visitors make it to Real Life Christmas, they are treated to hot chocolate and cookies, pictures with Santa Claus (if they want it) and beautiful Christmas carols played by the church band. Blankets are provided and, bundled up cozily, guests are led outside for a hayride through the Christmas scenes.

The scenes are set up throughout the property of Life Church. “On the hayrides, we have a storyteller or narrator, dressed as one of the wise men, who narrates the story as you go through. People love that!” Jason shared. “We dropped crushed asphalt and made this huge path on the field next to the church. The circuit the hayride takes is physically one big U, and that’s where all the scenes are built. We are able to use the hillside to put the crosses and have the empty tomb at the bottom of the hill.”

Six different scenes tell the story of the life of Christ. The scenes begin with the angel telling Mary she is going to have a baby. The second scene demonstrates how there was no room at the inn. The third is the stable scene where Jesus is born in the manger and the wise men and shepherds keep the family company. The last few scenes move away from the Christmas story and finish out the life of Christ, beginning with Jesus’ trial in Pilate’s court. Jason described the remaining sets. “There is a scene of Jesus on the cross, and you drive by the three crosses that are seen off in the distance. We haven’t had a brave enough actor to be Jesus hanging on the cross in December, yet. Maybe this year we’ll surprise everybody,” he smiled. “The narrator tells the story — He came and was born to die. We talk about what happened on that Good Friday when Jesus died, about how the earth shook and the veil was ripped.”

The final scene is the empty tomb. Here, the organizers employ touches that are more theatrical. Jason continued, “We have a smoke machine pushing smoke out of the tomb and a big, bright light. Mary and Martha come running out of the tomb yelling to all of our guests on the trailer, ‘He’s not there! He’s not there!’ And they keep running off into the distance. Standing in the bright light is an angel, as the narrator on the hayride talks about the resurrection of Jesus. That is where Real Life Christmas ends.”

Keeping close to tradition to have the production early in December, this year it will be the second Friday, Saturday and Sunday of this month. The production of Real Life Christmas serves another purpose this year. “We decided to roll our sleeves up, work together and give
a message of hope to our community,” Jason stated. “In this economic recession, I know people are looking for hope, and I want them to know they can find hope in all the churches here in Midlothian.”

Written by Betty Tryon.