Immersed in the Christmas story

Bethany Church hosts 10th annual "Journey to Bethlehem"

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The blacksmith on the set of Bethany Church's "Journey to Bethlehem" shapes metal using an anvil. The drive-through experience incorporates the sights, sounds and smells of the Christmas story. Photo: Bethany Church.

Editor’s note: Journey to Bethlehem drew 4,275 visitors in 2023. “We’re so happy to have the opportunity to share this with our community,” says Laurie Franz. 

One weekend each December, cars line the streets around Bethany Church in Fresno, California, as they wait to take in the congregation’s “Journey to Bethlehem” live drive-through experience.

With interactive elements like paying “taxes” to Roman soldiers, live animals, the smell of baking bread and an original soundtrack and narration, the experience immerses thousands of guests in first-century sights and sounds as they travel from bustling Jerusalem to cozy Bethlehem on the church’s 20-acre property.

“Every year, one of my favorite things is just standing back and being in awe of how God has brought all of this together,” says Laurie Franz, who had the initial idea for a drive through experience. “Just being able to see all the moving parts that have come together in spite of us.”

Journey to Bethlehem is entering its 10th year in 2023, with productions Dec. 15-17, and the congregation continues to add to the experience with the ultimate hope of pointing people to Jesus.

In the beginning

Journey to Bethlehem began in 2014, and 2,700 people attended.

“That first year, we had a $2,000 budget, and it was just short of being cardboard and duct tape on the houses,” Franz says. “We got a team together and everyone stepped up, and we started making it happen. God definitely gave a vision and people to do the work.”

Cars drive into the town of Bethlehem, with home scenes and actors cooking or baking bread. Photo: Bethany Church.

Attendance swelled to 3,600 in 2022, and the congregation has continued to add to the experience with improved structures, more marketplace booths and a face lift for Herod’s palace, Franz says, adding that it takes as many as 150 volunteers.

“I am not good with a hammer or saw and there are people that are,” she says. “It’s been really neat to see how God has used different giftings to come together and work their own part of the puzzle.”

According to bookkeeper Rhonda Gossett, budgeted costs have stayed the same.

“The church budget for Journey to Bethlehem has not significantly increased over the past 10 years due to the generosity of volunteers sharing their personal resources and donors contributing directly to the project,” Gossett says. “If someone sees a need, many times they just take care of it themselves.”

Bethany added new music with an original soundtrack and narration in 2019 thanks to the creative efforts of children’s pastor Crystal Nachtigall, her husband, Josh Nachtigall, and her father, Steve Wilkinson, who is a professional composer. (For more on the composition process, click here). The church added a Spanish version in 2020.

A feast for the senses

Upon entering Bethany’s 20-acre property, guests can either drive through in their vehicles or ride on a hay wagon. The hayrides were added as a more immersive way to view the set a few years ago, and this year, Bethany will offer a hayride for the deaf, with someone signing at the start, and a few cast members signing throughout.

A Roman solider on set collects “tax money” in the form of plastic coins from participants on a hayride. Photo: Bethany Church.

Greeters distribute plastic gold coins with which people pay the Roman soldiers and invite guests to access the 19-minute soundtrack via QR code, CD or USB drive. A printed narration is also available.

While driving through an open area, visitors listen to the narration of the Christmas story without distraction. As the narration ends, guests arrive on set at a large, Roman-style, Jerusalem gate, where Roman soldiers collect “tax money,” and the soundtrack transitions to instrumental carols.

A feast for the senses awaits as guests drive through the bustling streets of Jerusalem, a 100–200-yard stretch lined with first-century style marketplace booths and vendors.

Crystal Nachtigall, for example, runs the bird booth, selling doves for temple sacrifices and chickens that “lay the largest eggs in Judea,” she says.

Elsewhere, a blacksmith works around a large fire, and actors play first-century appropriate instruments, adding to the sounds of live animals.

Herod’s palace, a large set piece, is a turning point in the drive, Nachtigall says. There, Herod interacts with the Magi, and a scribe comes from a booth next door to discuss where the Messiah will be born.

Magi seek the Messiah on set near Herod’s palace. Photo: Bethany Church.

“One of our scribes can actually sing in Hebrew, so we’ll sometimes have children go over and try to learn, like he’s teaching them,” Nachtigall says.

Visitors then pass through a smaller gate into Bethlehem, with home scenes and actors cooking or baking bread.

“The set really changes because you have a lot less of that hustle bustle market and more of the village of Bethlehem at night,” Nachtigall says. “Everybody’s around fires. Children are playing house, but it looks very authentic.”

From Bethlehem, the course turns into an open field where visitors look with the shepherds at an angel-scape before arriving at the last stop—the manger scene, where donkeys, sheep and goats surround Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus.

The manger scene with Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus on set of “Journey to Bethlehem.” Photo: Bethany Church.

“Often the animals are sleeping,” Nachtigall says. “They all cuddle up in the corners in that area with Mary and Joseph. It’s pretty idyllic. That’s definitely the most photographed part of the entire tour.”

What Christmas is really about

The event draws thousands of people to Bethany each year, including some whose curiosity is piqued upon seeing the line of cars and join in to see what it’s about.

“It’s brought a lot of people in the community,” Franz says. “It’s introduced them not only to Jesus but also to our church. It put us on the map, which is a little added bonus.”

For Franz, Journey to Bethlehem provides an opportunity to introduce the message of Christmas.

“I work in the public schools, and a lot of (kids) have no idea of the Gospel message, what Christmas is really about,” Franz says. “That’s kind of the world that we’re in right now and it’s been such an opportunity to really point people to Jesus. That has been the driving force. That’s why we do what we do.”

Bethany Church’s 10th annual “Journey to Bethlehem” live drive-through experience is set for Dec. 15-17 at 9161 N. Maple Ave in Fresno, Calif. For more information, visit @j2bfresno on Facebook or Instagram. Listen to the English or Spanish narration on YouTube by clicking the respective links.

 

Behind the scenes of creating the original narration

Bethany Church has used a few iterations of recordings for its Journey to Bethlehem experience. In 2019, Crystal Nachtigall adapted much of the original content written by church member Sybil Kolbert and added dramatization, changing the way guests experience the narration and giving them seven uninterrupted minutes to listen to the Christmas story before arriving on set at the Jerusalem gate.

Visitors journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem via hayride. Photo: Bethany Church.

In addition to the more story-like narration, Nachtigall’s father, Steve Wilkinson, created an original soundtrack. Wilkinson is a professional composer and instrumentalist whose composition projects have included music for Disney and Universal theme parks and Sight and Sound Theatres.

“I’m very familiar with creating these epic backdrops for the action that’s happening on the stage,” Wilkinson says.

He, along with Nachtigall and her husband, Josh, created the soundtrack in one weekend at Wilkinson’s home studio in the Los Angeles area.

“My schedule was packed, but I really wanted to help with the composing on this,” Wilkinson says. “Crystal and Josh and I talked, and we decided, ‘Okay, we have one weekend to write this whole thing.”

Wilkinson has a vast library of digital musical samples—he describes it as access to a full orchestra at his fingertips—and sound effects like a struck anvil or bleating sheep.

“All of Saturday was mostly me sitting at the computer with all my sound samples trying to come up with these textures that worked well behind the narration,” Wilkinson says, adding that part of composing is guiding listeners through emotions from suspenseful to melancholy to triumphant.

“We were going for an effect,” he says. “’This section definitely needs to bring a tear, so we’ll play a certain chord progression that would lend itself to that.’ It’s very intentional.”

The Nachtigalls had already recorded all of the voice talent, including Josh and Crystal serving as narrators and six other actors for the angel Gabriel, Herod, a Magi, a shepherd, a grandmother and a child.

Voice actors record their portions of the narration with Bernie Esau (left) and Crystal Nachtigall (right). Jonathan Bray (middle left) records the voice of the angel Gabriel, and Joel Young (middle right), a shepherd. Photo: Bethany Church.

Wilkinson and the Nachtigalls then layered effects on the voices, for example, adding effects to the angel Gabriel to make his voice sound “other worldly,” Nachtigall says. Crystal’s mother, Becky, helped with the angel chorus, for which the four family members spoke in different voices and layered them to sound like a larger group.

After Wilkinson finished writing, he handed the project to Josh—who is a zoology teacher and musician—to master it.

Josh played guitar for and laid down the material for the instrumental pieces, completing the first of three that Sunday. Josh can be heard on the soundtrack playing guitar for O Come All Ye Faithful, O Holy Night and Silent Night.

“It’s seven minutes’ worth of content without the instrumental music pieces,” Crystal Nachtigall says. “That’s a lot of time. So it really was pretty miraculous how it came together that quickly without any real hiccups.”

“It was anointed,” Wilkinson says, adding he has seen the Journey to Bethlehem production at least six times, and he plans to attend again this year.

For Wilkinson, the most meaningful part was working together as a family.

“Our interpersonal relationships are all really strong,” Wilkinson says. “We were able to keep moving forward and at the end be really proud of something that we pulled off as a family unit.”

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