Bruce Barry had designed much glitzier projects in higher-profile places: the E.T. ride at Universal Studios, stage sets for the Nickelodeon cable network, and the realistic animal ambiance of Rainforest Cafes. This much-in-demand designer of children's amusement rides did not need work when Dale Hudson called last fall.Hudson, children's pastor of First Baptist Church in Springdale, Arkansas, was looking for someone to design high-tech sets for the congregation's revamped elementary-age worship areas. He presented Barry with an idea that included a modernized version of Noah's Ark and Joseph's coat of many colors. Though Barry had never been to church, and though well-known Bible stories were utterly foreign to him, he agreed to help and approached the project with great enthusiasm.
"Dale was on a mission to bring kids into the church," recalls Barry, 39. "And I have a love for kids." He soon also had a great affection for many of the 4,500 people at the church. "I had never met such sincere and warm people," he says. "It was surreal."Through his encounter with First Baptist, Barry and his wife became Christians. Hudson baptized them both last November. They now attend a Baptist church in Tampa. "It has changed my life forever," Barry says of his conversion. Indeed, he already has invited more than 300 families to attend church. " Anybody I talk to, I want them to find the Lord."
Technology to the Max
The new worship areas, which opened in November, are located in two large rooms: Toon Town for first- through third-graders, and Planet 45 for fourth- and fifth-graders. The fully animated cartoon town has 26-foot-tall buildings. The services draw 500 kids a week, more than double the number before Hudson's hiring two years ago. Before moving to the renovated facilities, children met in the church's chapel—the same room used for funerals.
"Stained-glass windows aren't really appropriate for leading kids," says Hudson, 32. In addition to remodeling the environment, Hudson believed the overall approach to teaching needed an overhaul."Putting a talking head in front of kids for an hour doesn't work," says Hudson, who with his wife Pamela has two sons, Joshua, 9, and Caleb, 5. "This is a visual generation. We need to use technology to the max."
Now when kids enter the rooms, a music video is playing on a giant screen in front, and they can try their hand at a row of nonviolent video game screens along walls.Once the service starts, it's 90 minutes of mostly frenetic activity, akin to a live television variety show from the 1950s. In Toon Town, buzzers and bells sound, lights flash from the ceiling and from car headlights on the set, bubbles come out the top of a giant bucket and fill the room, confetti streamers squirt out onto the first few rows, and mist is sprayed onto the crowd.
"It's just like going on a ride at Disney World," says Barry, whose cartoonist father Dick Barry worked alongside Walt Disney. The animated set that he has designed is computer programmed for performances that last up to 15 minutes at a time. Next comes Christian music to a disco beat—"Pump It Up for Jesus" and "Jesus Is the Rock and He Rolls My Blues Away"—with MTV-style video images. That's followed by a modified game of volleyball and a humorous skit with child-size puppets. The pace winds down as Hudson teaches a lesson on respecting siblings. An interactive session with a memory verse follows, then a Hanna-Barbera video clip on Joseph and his brothers. Hudson ends with an evangelistic message.This nontraditional approach is not the coloring and story time that parents of these children remember from their Sunday-school classes. For a generation accustomed to video games, computer programs, and action movies, it seems only natural.
Ready for Harvest
The bottom line in Hudson's approach is making sure children—and their parents—become Christians and are discipled.
"You can reach the whole family by taking care of the kids," Hudson says. The church had 168 baptisms of elementary-age children last year."We try to give them God's Word on their age level," Hudson says. " if they're not bored to death, you don't have to force them to come to church."Parent volunteers kept the renovation cost to $270,000, with Barry making no profit. Citing statistics that 85 percent of Christians make a decision for Christ before age 14, Hudson believes it is well worth the price. "It makes sense to pour money into the greatest harvest field, which is kids."Meanwhile, Barry is busy planning his next project: Toon Town Train Station at Houston's Second Baptist Church. He hopes such set designs are a sign of the future because he believes a high-tech environment stimulates an overall interest in learning as well as in reading the Bible."It's not good enough to just have painted decorations on the wall anymore," Barry says. "I wish I had learned all this at a younger age."
First Baptist Springdale 's Web site has Webcasted sermons, a history of the church, and other resources.Want Bruce Barry to design your church youth room—or your kid's bedroom? Here's his promotional site.
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