Tony-winning "Avenue Q" has seen its fair share of community theater since it broke out in 2003.
The dirty little puppet-led musical won the admiration of theatre geeks, grown adults who fondly attribute their ability to do basic math to "Sesame Street," and those with a love of all things sarcastic, off-kilter and above all, irreverent.
This month, you can catch the latest take on the production that gave the world such potty-mouthed hits as "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist" and "The Internet is For Porn" from the comfort of a pew.
Every October, the Rev. Billy Hester of Asbury Memorial United Methodist, with Minister of Music Raymond Ellis and a whole troupe of enthusiastic volunteers, team up for God on Broadway, a series of musicals performed right in front of the altar. Actors stroll down the center of the aisle, like brides or acolytes, to join other characters - from The Phantom of "Phantom of the Opera" to Elphaba of "Wicked" to Mary Poppins herself - before a thrilled congregation. In the midst of song and dance, Hester gives his sermon, taking inspiration from the themes of the drama that unfold before his diverse and rapt audience. This year, in addition to "Avenue Q," Asbury takes on "Oklahoma!," "Monty Python's Spamalot" and "Barnum."
"Ministers actually do God on Broadway all the time," Hester says. "Ministers frequently mention plays, novels, songs, television programs and movies in their sermons. I thought, 'Why just talk about it? Why not put flesh on it? Let people see it and experience it â€¦ not just hear about it.'"
This offbeat and accessible approach to learning is one that Hester, a former Broadway actor, began using as far back as grade school.
"Everyone would get up in class and tell about the book they read â€¦ and it was all pretty boring â€¦ and they didn't look like they enjoyed talking about it."
Hester made the classroom his stage, performing oral book reports as characters from the assigned reading.
"My classmates seemed to get a lot out of the reports and it was fun doing it. That's basically what we're doing here," he said.
Hester has always intertwined his passion for theater and ministry.
"I was fortunate to have a positive experience of church as a child, and had thought about ministry as a career," he shares. "But I also had a great passion for music â€¦ so I ended up choosing theater over ministry. The sudden death of my stepfather from a boating accident was instrumental in helping me make the shift from theater to ministry sooner than I had originally planned."
The tie between God and Broadway even led Hester to his wife, Cheri, who also performs at Asbury. The couple met in New York while performing.
"I had seen Cheri at my church," he said. "She was visiting a special support group for actors that met (there). I wanted to meet her, but I chickened out."
As Cheri was just visiting, Hester worried he blew his chance and had lost her in the sea of New York faces forever. As luck - or divine providence - would have it, "two weeks later, we were cast opposite each other in 'Pippin.' The chances of something like that happening are almost zilch. It was strange and wonderful!"
Since God on Broadway began in 2005, Asbury has taken on a diverse array of shows. As soon as October's last show wraps, the Worship Team begins planning for the next year.
"The Worship Team, choir members and general public make suggestions. Then Billy reads up about the show, if he doesn't know it, to see if it would fit with the theology of the church," Ellis says.
Ellis, who has been teaching chorus and drama to middle and high school students for 26 years, works closely with the choir, and welcomes amateurs and people of all theater and music backgrounds to try out, whether they are Asbury members or not.
"Most of the participants in the services come from the choir," he says. "If you are not a member of the Asbury Choir, we have a callback audition for non-members and the general public. It is not a real audition; basically if you come, you will be participating. It is a chance for Billy and me to hear where they might fit best in the services."
"Many of them have little or no theater background," Hester says. "But those are some of the people who seem to enjoy this experience the most."
While Hester interprets the messages within the performances, you won't see the cast singing Broadway hits rewritten for the service.
"That's not what we do," Hester firmly states. "First of all, it's illegal. Secondly, the main purpose is to use the actual song with the actual lyrics to enlighten our theology."
How can infamously controversial shows like "Avenue Q" and musicals with taboo themes fit into a worship service?
"If there is a song that we think is too racy or is not appropriate for the service, we will not use it," says Hester. "We, however, will not shy away from touchy subjects. In fact, one of the strengths of these services is that they help us look at subjects that we often have difficulty confronting. Unless we look at the ugly stuff, we can't experience transformation."
The "Hairspray" sermon from 2008, in which Hester discusses the realities of racism and liberation theology, is a great example of the way Asbury tackles the "ugly stuff."
"All of us should be working for the liberation of those who are oppressed," he preached, leading into a discussion of the liberation found in God's love.
The honesty and pure fun of song and sermon united has the community turning out for God on Broadway every October, and even adds some new folks to the year-round congregation.
"There is no denying that these services are a great tool to get people to come to church who may be skeptical of religion or who may have had a negative church experience in the past," Hester says.
"It is a great way for people to hear a message of hope and love and not have religion shoved in their faces," Ellis says. "Then they realize that religion is not always a bad thing.
"Asbury is a very different place, but different in a good way! God on Broadway is a completely different way to look at religion but still have the same message. That is Asbury! We achieve the same goal as other churches in the area, but we just go in a different direction to get there."