Florida Church’s Interactive Journey Brings Bible Stories to Life

 In All Church of God, CHOG, Southeast, The Way

By Kim Ousley

Ninety miles—that’s how far Joseph and Mary had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. How often do we think about what the travelers and people of the time went through leading up to our Savior’s birth? This journey was grueling, taxing them physically and emotionally. Leading up to Christmas 2020, Pastor Chad Tingley of South Lake Wales Church of God in Florida was looking for a unique way to celebrate the season. What ultimately resulted was an interactive, congregation-wide journey “South to Bethlehem.”

“We started the conversation back in the fall about the Advent season coming up,” said Tingley. “I wanted a fresh take on the story of Jesus’ birth.” Tingley and the creative team met once per week to discuss and narrow down suggestions. Emily Spencer, the church’s office manager, thought about her prior experience with a program called “The World Race” that she took part in by traveling to eleven countries in eleven months. She also remembers visiting a small strip of Europe and East Asia, Morocco, Jordan, Israel, in addition to other fascinating places.

“I wanted to put hands and feet on the traditional story,” said Spencer. “What were the cultural difficulties travelers [like Mary and Joseph] were faced with, as well as what they might have encountered along the way?” The first and most important thing Spencer did was to talk to God about it. “I prayed, ‘Lord, what do you have for your people here at South? Help me see what you want to do during this Advent season.’”

With confirmation from the Spirit to develop the program, Spencer says all of her knowledge and past experiences and creativity fell into place as one cohesive idea, and the “South to Bethlehem” journey was born. Perfect for the pandemic, this virtual Christmas celebration would be both an online and physical experience using social media as a guide, while engaging people interactively. Walking, exercising, swimming, and even dance were among the popular options, but those with less physical ability could select from hobbies, such as sewing, knitting, woodworking, painting, and the like.

Family Ministry Pastor Cal Sanelli engaging children in the church-wide Advent experience.

Videos were published throughout the church’s journey, November 20 through December 25, on the Facebook page. Those who participated were encouraged to post pictures and reflections of their activities on social media using #SouthToBethlehemChallenge. Included were pictures of maps and images of what area looks like today. A PDF guide helped each participant to follow along through scripture reading, journaling, and questions to consider. The guide also encouraged congregants to “physically go the distance to reach the Child in the manger.” Each participant would “travel” or accumulate 90 miles together in some form. According to the guide, “That’s 190,080 steps total or 7,603.2 steps a day for the next 25 days.”

Spencer said one lady in their church wasn’t able to do the traditional exercises but spent her time sewing for the allotted thirty minutes. It was grueling due to her arthritis, but she was proud of what she accomplished.

There was so much content available for a project like this that Emily Spencer had to narrow it down before sharing it with the church in a digestible format. With that in mind, there’s plenty of unused content to possibly create a similar program for Easter! Christmas 2020 came and went, but South Lake Wales Church of God now has a deeper understanding and appreciation for the journey to the manger.

Kim Ousley is a freelance writer from Anderson, Indiana.

Learn more about the response of Church of God Ministries to the coronavirus (COVID-19), including resources for you and your church, at www.jesusisthesubject.org/theway.

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