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‘Not your typical Christmas pageant’

Singer Matt Lundgren is silhouetted as singer Becky Johnson's image is projected behind him as Willow Creek Community Church participants

Singer Matt Lundgren is silhouetted as singer Becky Johnson's image is projected behind him as Willow Creek Community Church participants hold their final Christmas program rehearsal. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 19, 2011 5:09AM

For most people, Christmas comes but once a year. For Blaine Hogan, it comes 11 times — then once more in Spanish.

As the creative director for Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, the nation’s fifth-largest church, Hogan and his team are putting together Christmas services a dozen times this week.

The megachurch has a $73 million auditorium that holds 7,100 worshippers. That’s a lot, but it’s only a fraction of the number who’d like to attend the Christmas service. So the church is hosting Christmas services throughout this week to accommodate an expected 83,000 worshippers.

And Christmas services at Willow Creek are a bit more elaborate than at most churches. There are, for instance, the giant JumboTron TV screens, like the kind you find at some concerts — or the Olympics. Then, there are the interpretive dancers, a snow machine, a flying angel, a moving stage, Hollywood production values and a real-life newborn playing the baby Jesus.

“It’s not your typical Christmas pageant,” says Hogan, a trained Shakespearean actor who starred in the first season of the Fox network TV series “Prison Break.”

The 80-minute service takes six months of planning.

“I’ve had ideas in my head for it since the summer,” Hogan says.

The responsibility of presenting a Christmas service for so many people can be stressful, he says. He tries to keep in mind that his goal is to make “good Christian art that isn’t propaganda” and to make a story that almost everybody knows feel fresh.

Pastor Bill Hybels consults on the theme but gives his young staff plenty of freedom to follow their own ideas.

“I never start with a theological ax to grind — I’m starting with something that moves me,” says Hogan.

So this year Mary and Joseph are presented as an interracial high school couple, the shepherds are kids on BMX bikes, and the angel Gabriel appears in a pair of modern dances that wouldn’t seem out of place in “So You Think Can Dance.”

The stable is placed next to Metra tracks, near a strip mall. The characters move back and forth between the stage and short films. When the baby Jesus finally emerges from blinding lights upstage in Mary’s arms, it recalls the closing scene from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”

And then it snows — inside the church.

It’s Hogan’s second time in charge of Christmas at Willow Creek, and it’s a more ambitious service than the puppet show he put on last year.

Raised Catholic in Minnesota, Hogan followed his wife, Margaret, to Willow a decade ago and was drawn to its use of art in worship.

“I always thought art was a spiritual experience,” he says. “Good art really does tells the truth in dark places, and I feel the same way about faith.”

When it’s all over on Christmas Day, he plans to go home and collapse with his wife, who’s pregnant with their first child. “It’s an exciting time for us,” he says.

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