Celebrating a run longer than a lot of actual Broadway shows, Asbury Memorial United Methodist Church’s unorthodox “God on Broadway” worship service returns this month for its 13 iteration.
Pastor Billy Hester, who took over his duties in 1993, envisioned the worship series as a gateway into his sermons, using his professional theater background to entice not only a new generation of parishioners, but the residing group as well.
Each October, Hester and Minister of Music Ray Ellis plot out a series of four worship services centered around a Broadway play that is paired with a special sermon Hester derives from the morality of the musical’s plot.
While it may seem unusual in modern society for a church to host musicals as a worship service, the history of live theater and religion are well connected. In the Early Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church revived theater through liturgical dramas — after the organization itself had banned it some years before — to tell the stories of the Bible in a fashion that anyone could understand.
Hester’s modern adaptation of that concept is simply to pair the musical, unchanged, with a spiritual concept. Since 2005, the "God on Broadway" series has staged scenes from the full spectrum of musicals, including classics like “Fiddler on the Roof” and modern hits like “Wicked.”
“When I was preparing my sermons, I would talk about, say Tevye and Golde from ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ and that wonderful song 'Do You Love Me,'” Hester said. “Here they were talking about living together for so long, but they’ve never really expressed their true feelings. Instead of talking about, I said, why not just do it?”
Hester, a Savannah native, met his wife Cheri in New York City while working on a production of “Pippin.” Once they settled in Savannah, they began a community theater out of the reception hall at the church. Through a blend of his two passions, Hester saw a route to opening a new door for his church to grow.
“What I like about it, is it brings the message to everyday life and living,” Hester said. “With this stuff, too, like 'Avenue Q’s' 'Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist' — that can be a hard issue to talk about. But, if you have puppets doing it, it opens the door. You get to talk about things, that maybe a lot of clergy are shy talking about. Or, it gives you a helpful tool to get there.”
Over the last decade-plus, "God On Broadway" has become a hit. The church, which was dilapidated when Hester took over, underwent a massive renovation in 2009 after they were able to raise $2 million. Hester began with 25 members, and now about 250 attend a regular Sunday service. Through October, "God on Broadway" packs the 500-seat sanctuary to capacity each Sunday.
“That’s just it; if it’s done well and it makes sense, everybody loves it,” Hester said. “They love it. It’s been neat. A lot of people go to other churches and that’s fine. They just come over here to experience it. We joke with a lot of them. They’ve been coming for years and they say, ‘Just coming for my Asbury fix.’ That’s fine. It’s also been a way to reach people who normally wouldn’t go to church. We’ve had a lot of people join the church.”
This year’s series will see the usual mixture of classic and modern musical theater. “Mary Poppins,” which will feature children from the church, opens the October run. “My Fair Lady” and “Singin’ In the Rain,” dot the middle weeks, and the 2013 Broadway hit “Kinky Boots,” with music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper, will close out the series.
“We like the music,” Hester said of "Kinky Boots." “It’s going to be more challenging for the choir. It’s new music for them.”