Thursday, January 21, 2010

2010 Memphis Passion Play Cancelled

Last week we learned that the annual Memphis Passion Play, the elaborate dramatic production depicting the last days of Christ on earth, a Bellevue tradition since 1991, is going "on hiatus" for a year. Of course, that's just a polite way of saying the Memphis Passion Play has been cancelled for 2010.

This is the explanation Steve Gaines and Mark Blair gave on Sunday evening, January 17th, for why this decision was made. My purpose is not to criticize or defend the Memphis Passion Play. Rather, it's to illustrate the flawed logic and seeming hypocrisy displayed by the Bellevue leadership Sunday evening when they tried to explain why the MPP is being cancelled this year.

Let's address in more detail some of the things that were said. Steve Gaines began by saying, "One of the best things we do at Bellevue... is the Passion Play. It's one of the greatest evangelistic tools we have. Thousands of people have been converted. And we have no intention of doing away with the... Passion Play. We're gonna... continue it."

Having said that, why would you ever want to not utilize, for even one year, "one of the greatest evangelistic tools we have"? If reaching people with the gospel really is our first priority, why would we not want to use that "tool" for a period of two years (from 2009 until 2011)? If Bellevue Lo♥es Memphis so much, why would they even consider cancelling the Memphis Passion Play? That makes no sense to me.

He went on to explain that the Memphis Passion Play began after the church moved to its present location. Prior to then the Easter presentation was called Living Pictures and was a much simpler production. That is all true. He said before the first MPP "they took a year off... in the spring... to get ready... for the new thing that was coming... that's the Passion Play." As if the circumstances in 1990 were the same as they are today. More about that in a minute, but first a little history.

From the book By His Grace and For His Glory: Celebrating a Century with Bellevue Baptist Church we read that the drama program at BBC goes back almost 60 years. Formed as a result of the "vision" of Dr. R.G. Lee, Bellevue's was the first drama ministry in the SBC. The first production in 1952 was "a three-act character drama directed by Mrs. H. Mahon Crawford entitled The Passing of the Third Floor Back." That was followed a few months later by "a light comedy." (I kid you not.) Four months later "a 25-scene pageant" entitled As I Remember depicting the life of Dr. Lee was presented. I was somewhat surprised that the early years of the "drama ministry" at Bellevue sounded more like a community playhouse than a church ministry, but I digress.

Simon the Leper was performed for Easter in 1953, and Esther was presented sometime in 1958. In 1961 they did Ben Hur, complete with "Broadway sound effects for the chariot race." Okay, I've seen the film version of Ben Hur. While I'm really trying to envision that on a church platform, even with Broadway sound effects, it's just not coming to me.

Two performances of The Robe were presented in 1957 with an "encore" performance in 1959. Not content even that long ago to do anything on a small scale, the church rented the costumes for the production from a Hollywood costume company. The author tells us that one of the rented military costumes was worn by Richard Burton in the film of the same name. Er... are we supposed to be impressed or something?

The auditorium built on Bellevue Boulevard in 1952 was outfitted with a stage fully equipped for dramatic performances, but the size of that stage was dwarfed by the one in the new sanctuary built in Cordova in 1989. I believe this is an important consideration when we compare the justification given for taking off a year to "retool" Living Pictures into the Memphis Passion Play in 1990 to what they're doing (or not doing) this year.

Here are photos of the Singing Christmas Tree in the old auditorium (oh, look, there's the infamous chandelier!) and in the new. Same tree but there's a whole lot more stage around it to fill now.



Beginning in 1981 Bellevue's annual Easter program was called Living Pictures. Here is a scene from that production:

Now, imagine that scene in the middle of this stage:

It would tend to get lost, would it not? So... the church had just moved to Cordova, and it is unlikely there was time to do all the preparation and build the large sets used in the MPP by Easter 1990. Therefore, the church took a year off from producing an Easter drama to prepare something new and on a much grander scale, and so the Memphis Passion Play began in 1991. Just as the church is doing this year, there was an Easter music program in 1990. We didn't just skip Easter that year!

According to this 2008 OneNewsNow article, "This year's Passion Play debuts February 29 when music, drama and message will fill Bellevue's huge auditorium in six presentations to a total of some 30,000 guests." That would have been the 2008 performance which was scheduled over the weekend of March 2nd, three full weeks before Easter (March 23rd). In 2009 the MPP was scheduled over the weekend of April 5th, just one week before Easter (April 12th). Could this have made any difference in the attendance numbers? Did the weather conditions any year play a role? In 2008 a Monday evening performance of the SCT was cancelled due to inclement weather. I don't know the answers to these questions regarding the MPP. I'm just wondering if there were unique factors in 2009 which negatively affected the attendance numbers. Perhaps the NCAA Final Four tournament which was scheduled for April 4th and 6th? (Basketball, even when the Tigers aren't playing, is big in Memphis. It probably wasn't a factor at all, but it makes as much sense as blaming the release of a movie.)

Steve Gaines said, "We... have come to a point... Brother Mark... has been talking to us about it... and you need to understand something... as much as we all love it.... " (The body language was very interesting during this monologue.)

He haltingly continued, "So... and I love the Passion Play... and... and we... we're... but here's the deal. The facts are the facts. For the last ten years it [the MPP] has steadily been going down in attendance... steadily. I'm not talkin' about a little bit. I'm talkin' about a lot. It's gone from 40,000 people watching it that first... that... in back in 2000... 2001... last year we only had 18,000. The biggest drop was around the year 2003, we believe... it was either 2003, 2004... it's before I ever came here, but the year they had The Passion of the Christ it dropped... about 10,000 in attendance... that one year. Brother Mark feels... and after... after he showed us the data and we've looked at it and... we feel like we're not in any way going to... do away with it, but we need... and we don't have the time... to do it... between now and Easter... we need... the time... to redo it to make it better."

"That first... that... in back in 2000... 2001.... " What? Spit it out! What are you talking about? Was that the "peak" attendance year? It wasn't the first year. We've already established the MPP began in 1991, not 2000 or 2001... or 1990.

So they're blaming a large decline in attendance at the MPP one year on the debut of a movie, The Passion of the Christ. Really? I find it difficult to believe that would cause an immediate 25% drop in attendance which lasted for the next five years. Actually, I would think the movie would increase interest, not decrease it.

The facts are always the facts, but are those really the facts? We don't know all the facts because, like detailed membership and SS and worship attendance numbers, those are well-guarded statistics. For example, is anyone privy to the total cost of the MPP or the SCT? Have they ever made enough on ticket sales and the ubiquitous "love offering" collected at every performance to cover the cost, or has the church always had to make up the difference from "undesignated tithes and offerings"? Who knows? All I see here is a man tripping over his tongue trying his best not to accept any responsibility for the declining attendance at Bellevue, not only at annual productions but in general.

This graph shows the decline in overall attendance in SS and worship services. These numbers were in the 2009 annual report which I dare say most members did not see. (And not because they were denied. They simply didn't care.) It has not been a "steady" decline. If the church's own numbers are to be believed, there was a sudden and precipitous decline in overall attendance beginning in 2006. That, combined with the recent practice of charging everyone, member and non-member alike, to attend these performances, has probably contributed the most to the decline in attendance at the MPP and SCT. Not to mention it's just plain tacky. I've said it before, and I'll say it again... if you can't afford to present the gospel without charging admission, scale down the production. Period.

In 2007, Alex Edward Plasschaert, a Hollywood choreographer hired by Bellevue, died while in Memphis for rehearsals for the 2007 MPP. Plasschaert "traveled here from his California home several times a year to be a choreographer at Bellevue, where he helped stage such annual productions as the Singing Christmas Tree, the 'Celebrate America!' Independence Day show and the Easter season Passion Play." Aside from the obvious -- why does a church need to hire a Hollywood choreographer in the first place? -- the Commercial Appeal article contained this quote:

Barnwell said 30,000 people will see the production this year [2007]. The even more popular Singing Christmas Tree is seen by about 49,600 people a year.

So in 2006-2007 about two-thirds more people attended the SCT than attended the MPP.

In 2008, on the day of the first performance, according to the OneNewsNow article above, they were expecting some 30,000 people to attend the MPP. (I assume this was based on ticket sales.) If I'm correctly deciphering what Steve Gaines was trying to say, if the peak was 40,000 in 2000 or 2001, and if attendance dropped about 10,000 after The Passion of the Christ was released (in February 2004), then it sounds as if attendance was steady between 2004 and 2008 -- at about 30,000, not "steadily declining." Either the press releases were inaccurate, or Brother Steve misread the data. Surely there's no "embellishing" here!

According to the May 2008 volume of The Messenger (BBC's bimonthly magazine), there were 855 people saved at the 2008 MPP, and there were 1496 rededications.

In the May 2009 Messenger, we read that 18,973 people attended the 2009 MPP. There were 1041 "decisions" which likely included POFs and rededications. I couldn't find a breakdown of the numbers, but let's assume for argument's sake the percentages were approximately the same as the year before. That would translate into approximately 379 POFs during the 2009 MPP. Or about 63 POFs per performance. Remember that number. There were about 63 POFs per performance during the 2009 MPP. Definitely a lower "return" than in 2008, but still pretty impressive.

Now, contrast that with the Singing Christmas Tree which has become more and more secularized with silly characters (to the point of pain), bad writing, corny schtick, unfamiliar music, and a bunch of disjointed dance routines by the youth while Mary, Joseph, and Jesus have been relegated to much shorter appearances near the end -- kind of like they're just an afterthought now. I've heard it referred to recently as the Dancing Christmas Tree. Several of the traditional songs have been dropped including No Room, Shine Down, and It Is Finished.

As an aside, I was appalled to read about the competitions that took place every year for the "plum" spots in the tree -- the top and the intersection of the cross -- the latter which has now been eliminated from the tree entirely, and the former doesn't matter either since the elimination of No Room. Can you say "pride"? I'm sorry to say Bellevue has had some major "pride" issues for many years.

In 2008 the SCT was advertised as follows: "A chill is in the air. The department store windows are decked out with imaginative displays capturing the excitement of the season. In Rockefeller Center, the biggest Christmas tree you’ve ever seen is glowing with lights. There’s no place like New York City at Christmas, and the 2008 Singing Christmas Tree will once again bring a New York City-sized celebration right here to Bellevue. Join Kate, Luigi, and the cast for an unforgettable musical celebration." I can't put my finger on it, but something seems to be missing there. Could it be the thing that has historically resulted in fewer POFs during the SCT than during the MPP?

On Sunday morning, December 20th, Steve Gaines stated that during the seven performances (he thinks there were seven) of the 2009 SCT which some 32,000 people attended, there were a total of 1100 "decisions" with 444 of those being POFs. That's about 63 POFs per performance.

Does that number ring a bell? There were about 63 POFs per performance during the 2009 MPP, too! So it sounds to me like they got exactly the same "return" (i.e. POFs) per performance of the MPP during 2009 as they got for the SCT. Exactly the same. That's the bottom line, right? And considering over 12,000 fewer people attended the MPP than the SCT, it was really a greater return! As in most, if not all previous years, a larger percentage of people in attendance at each performance of the MPP made POFs than those attending the SCT. Considering the content of the MPP versus that of the SCT, that's no surprise to me at all. Yet we haven't heard any announcements about taking a year off to "redo" the SCT.

In fact, according to this advertisement for the 2009 MPP, it had just been "completely reworked with dynamic new music and inspiring scenes."

Wow. Having to return to the drawing board so soon?

Another quote from the OneNewsNow article:

Blair said the church sees their seasonal dramatic productions as bridge builders to the community. "We very much see this as a step in an evangelistic process," he explained. "For people who become a part of the church, the top response [in surveys] is that their first time to attend Bellevue was one of our major productions."

Bellevue members believe the time and effort invested in such programs are worth the effort. They don't want to measure the "success" of a production in numbers alone, but the fact is, the harvest is impressive and abundant. The productions are unashamedly evangelistic and include a clear invitation to follow Christ. Blair said last year's Passion Play
[2007] saw more than 1,100 people say they accepted Christ at the event, and almost 600 did so during the Christmas program.

Pretty impressive, I'd say! In 2007 there were almost twice as many POFs during the MPP as there were during the SCT. In 2009 there were, on average, the same number of POFs per performance during both productions.

I couldn't find attendance numbers for the SCT for the past few years (and didn't knock myself out trying), but if I recall, they've recently been in the 40,000/year range. When By His Grace and For His Glory was published in 2003, the average was said to have been 50,000/year, and Barnwell quoted right at 50,000 in 2007 (I assume based upon 2006 numbers). That's a drop from 50,000 to 40,000 to 32,000 in three years! In other words, those numbers have followed the same general rate of decline as overall church attendance, but if previously published numbers are to be believed, the MPP did not see a significant decline between 2004 and 2008, and there were just as many POFs per performance during the 2009 MPP as there were during the 2009 SCT.

In 2009 about two-thirds more people attended the SCT than attended the MPP. Exactly the same ratio as three years earlier. Therefore, the problem is not simply declining attendance at the MPP. Attendance has declined by about one-third over the past 3-4 years at both the SCT and the MPP and even more in SS and worship services.

So why take off a year to "retool" the MPP? Why now? Steve Gaines said, "You know, if you have a flat tire... it's kind of hard to change it if you keep the car going. Don't you have to pull the car over?" I'd say yes, unless the wheel is falling off the car. Then you pretty much have to stop in your tracks. There's been a drop of about 20,000 in attendance at the SCT but only about 11,000 at the MPP. Sounds to me like the flat tire is on the SCT.

"And so... we're losing momentum with it. It is not as effective as it's been."

Really? Looks to me like it's been more effective than the SCT has ever been. But, of course, that depends on one's definition of "effective."

"We feel like that it's time to retool it. And you have some... all that runway from July to uh... December to make changes with the Singing Christmas Tree. You don't have that with the Passion Play. You come right out of the Christmas Tree, and you've got three months... and there is no way anybody can change the whole set in three months."

You've had the "data" since April. If you're just now figuring out that changes need to be made, someone's been sleeping on the job.

So how is this year different from 1990? For one thing, we already have the sets. We didn't in 1990. If they're not going to start working on the new sets until July, what's stopping them from using the sets and costumes they've already got and letting the show go on as usual in March this year? We don't have to do six performances. Do three. Or two. Don't use the flying angels this year. (You know that's got to cost some money for what amounts to about 2 minutes of hang time.) Or live animals. There are ways to cut down on the expense without detracting from the "show."

The excuse, and I believe that's all it is, that you have all that "runway" from July to December to change the SCT and only the time between the SCT and Easter to make changes in the MPP is irrelevant. They've apparently known since April 2009 that they needed to make changes in the MPP. Why is this being presented as if Mark Blair just had some sort of epiphany?

"So, Brother Mark, tell us what your plans are, and I want you to know I... I support this man a hundred percent. I think he is God's gift to this church, and I believe with all my heart he is leading us the right way." {applause}

Mark Blair then explains his "dream" for the future. He seems sincere, and I believe he's only doing as he's been told -- fix it! I could be wrong, but I do not think Mark Blair initiated all this. The MPP was under his direction when it was "completely reworked" in 2009, so all I can think is, Mark had better get it right this time or he may become as expendable as Jamie Parker.

I propose there's one reason why they're cancelling the MPP this year, and that is indeed effectiveness. Cost effectiveness, that is. Money... or the lack thereof. It's the same reason they cancelled the "Family Fun Festival" on Halloween (which in its last incarnation needed to be cancelled as far as I'm concerned). Steve Gaines was overheard last fall telling someone they were cancelling that event because "the money pit is awfully shallow." (Here's some free advice. May I suggest not booking some overpaid CCM artist and blowing up thousands of dollars in a 20-minute fireworks show this summer? Thank you.) It's the same reason Steve Gaines has been harping on giving for the past two months. Thousands have left, and they took their money with them. The economy has tanked which hasn't helped, the people in the demographic they're now trying to attract are not generally the big givers, and the church appears to still be spending money like there's no tomorrow. The facts are the facts.

Until year before last members paid $10, and the church provided up to ten complimentary tickets to each member (more recently 8) for the SCT and the MPP to distribute to non-members and encouraged people to invite their friends, neighbors, and co-workers. They would let people without tickets line up an hour before each performance, and they were admitted before the program began to fill empty seats. I saw those lines at the SCT and will be the first to admit it was not the ideal setup, but at least it got people through the doors and into the seats.

If most of the complimentary tickets were handed out, probably no more than one or two people out of every 10 paid to get in. Then they changed the ticket structure to where everyone had to have a paid ticket to get in, and tickets cost $3, $6, or $12, depending on the location of the seat. That's an average of about $7 a ticket. Many of the people who used to receive complimentary tickets or who would line up at the door before the show and get in free can no longer do so. How many of those same people are going to be willing to go to the trouble and/or expense of buying tickets?

And what about advertising? How many thousands of dollars were spent on TV, radio, electronic billboard, and print media advertising for the SCT in 2009? It must have been a lot because I saw frequent commercials for it on TV during November and December. And still they managed to attract "only" 32,000 people this year. I don't ever remember seeing that volume of advertising for the MPP.

I would have so much more respect for the "leadership" if for once, just one time, they'd not go through all the mental gymnastics they seem to think are necessary to justify their decisions. Just say, "We're strapped for money this year and need to explore ways to reduce the cost of our programs." Or just, "We don't have enough volunteers this year, and everyone is pooped. We need to take this year off to recharge so we can come back strong next year." Whatever the real reason(s), just be honest. As someone once said, we didn't just fall off the cabbage truck.

Mark Blair mentioned Noah. Great Evan Almighty! Please tell me Bellevue doesn't have aspirations of competing with this!

Adult tickets cost $47!

I agree it's time to stop and "retool" something all right, but it's not necessarily the MPP. Here's a challenge to the leadership of Bellevue. Since money is apparently not the issue, why not take the funds that would have been spent producing the 2010 MPP plus what would have been collected on tickets plus what was projected to be collected in the six "love offerings" (last year's actual numbers will be fine) and write a check to the Haiti Relief Fund for that amount? It's just a thought.