By Brett Hetherington*
The Christmas season is a time of year that tends to lend itself to an easy opportunity for churches to welcome new faces into their buildings for special services, choir concerts, parties, and other events. Pleasant Hills United Methodist Church (North Coast District) in Middleburg Heights has dedicated this season to invite the community to join them in meeting Jesus through an interactive event known as ChurchLights.
“The mission of ChurchLights is to celebrate Jesus in a new and innovative way. Fifteen years ago, we started with just four trees and a few strands of incandescent lights. It is through the generosity of those who have come over the past 15 years that it has become what you see here tonight,” shared Bryan Haslett, ChurchLights program director. He has been involved since 2011 and carries a strong passion for this ministry.
“When the previous person who was in charge left, I was not willing to let it die so I decided to try to figure out how it works. We’ve tried to turn it into a real event – made it into a storyline and invite people to stay and actually get to know them a little better rather than just have them run through to see the lights and leave.”
Every year between Thanksgiving and New Year’s the church hosts a repeating outdoor light show that people can enjoy from their cars every night of the week. On the four Sunday evenings of Advent (those Sundays between Thanksgiving and Christmas) the church offers a free evening program indoors that includes two nearly hour-long segments featuring lights, music, puppets, an on-stage radio broadcast, live music and more. During the time the program is taking place in the church sanctuary, the rest of the building is buzzing with people playing games, making crafts, eating snacks, taking pictures in the photo booth, and more – all staffed by church members who volunteer their time to meet and get to know ChurchLight visitors.
“There are over 40 volunteers who put this on,” said the Rev. Karen Wolcott, who is in her second year as pastor of Pleasant Hills UMC. “I feel that it is not just a light show, it is an outreach to the community. The hearts are in the people who volunteer. And for those just wanting to come and see the lights they get a feel for the Christ Child who is coming along with the holiday experience. Through the radio broadcast, the telling of the story within the Christmas lights, as well as the special Christmas ornament that is given out with one of the names of Jesus, it is not just an event it is an experience.”
Experience is an apt descriptor, as it can be an immense undertaking for some of those involved behind the scenes.
“We have two main programmers that work on all the lights. It takes a long time to do it. One minute of a song can take one hour or more of programming,” offered Molly Simmons, one of the many volunteers who spend weeks setting up the displays each fall. “It’s a lot of fun to put together, celebrating together, bringing our community together here to celebrate. We have a lot of fun doing it.”
Such a magnificent undertaking comes with a cost, but the church has been able to offer ChurchLights each year solely through the support of the community. “This is an outreach funded almost entirely through the generosity of those who come to ChurchLights and those who donate. Whatever is collected through food purchases, craft purchases, baked goods purchases – it all goes back into ChurchLights,” said Wolcott, who shared that canned goods and donations are also collected each evening to benefit local food pantries.
“This faith-filled experience began with Pleasant Hills but with the partnership they share with Ridgewood UMC in Parma, many hands have come together for this outreach in the past two years. There is a lot of community outreach with Pleasant Hills, but this is a particularly unique outreach.”
ChurchLights is a ministry of Pleasant Hills UMC but for the past two years volunteers from Ridgewood UMC in Parma, where Wolcott is in her ninth year as pastor, have offered their support and assistance.
Special arrangements are made during the weeks of ChurchLights so that different community groups that meet at Pleasant Hills can experience the lights and messages together. Repeat visitors learn that ChurchLights is slightly different each week. Over the past 15 years the growth and impact of this outreach has stretched beyond just the city limits of Middleburg Heights. You will find ChurchLights listed on no fewer than six websites directing readers to some of the most spectacular and impactful lighting displays across the state of Ohio! ChurchLights is featured on Cleveland.com, Only In Your State, Northeast Ohio Family Fun, Cleveland Traveler, The Cleveland Bucket List, and others.
But rising high on lists of the best light displays to visit in Ohio is not on anyone’s mind when it comes to the mission of ChurchLights. It remains as it always has, to celebrate Jesus in a new and innovative way.
“This is a faith-filled experience, not a religious experience. ChurchLights is a faith-filled experience,” said Wolcott.
Upcoming ChurchLights performances will take place on December 11 and 18 from 5:30 P.M. to 8:00 P.M., with a special celebration on December 29 from 6:00 P.M. to 8:00 P.M.
To learn more about ChurchLights visit the website here.
The Conference Communications team would like to share other stories that highlight ways that each of us is answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to our communities in creative ways. Please e-mail your ministry story to EOC Executive Director of Communications Rick Wolcott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.