By MATT PEIKEN
©WCPO/Scripps • December 11, 2014
CINCINNATI — Among the tens of thousands who make Crossroads the largest church in Cincinnati, there’s a consensus core belief: Anything is possible through God.
Still, the producers of “Awaited,” Crossroads’ monumental Christmas story, aren’t counting on faith alone to achieve their goals.
During the run of the show, at Crossroads’ flagship campus in Oakley, parking lot attendants are asked to wear goofy hats and genuine smiles. Inside, greeters carry trays and baskets of gourmet cookies, free by the one or the handful. Dozens of paper lanterns hang from the rafters, like white, glowing moons. Beneath them, at brushed-steel bars, machines serve all the hot cocoa you can swallow.
Molly Cunningham, an energetic Crossroads staffer whose distinctive title is Director of First Impressions, cites research when asked about the welcome she and her volunteers lay out: People visiting a church for the first time, she said, decide whether to return within the first seven minutes.
“There’s a thing about this community, that people are really receptive at this time of year to hearing the story of Jesus. So why not leverage that?” Cunningham said. “We want you to experience moving from darkness into light, which is what it’s like to be welcomed by God.”
Crossroads has a reputation — insiders wear it with pride, outsiders view it more with a mix of bafflement, envy, frustration and criticism — as an indiscriminate vacuum, devoting considerable financial and creative resources into pulling believers and could-be-believers through the door. More than 17,000 seats are filled for services every weekend, combined, at Crossroads’ five Cincinnati-area campuses. While Crossroads doesn’t have memberships, its 2014 annual report boasts followers last year donated more than $28 million to the church, and Crossroads spent more than $41 million (nearly half went to operating expenses).
“Awaited” is annually Crossroads’ most enormous and audacious evangelical undertaking. In virtually any measure for describing this show — its mission and ambition, its skill, scale and spectacle, its confidence and quality — “Awaited” is unlike and unrivaled by any other holiday show in Cincinnati.
It’s the story of Jesus’ birth drawn from a fundamentalist biblical reading, wrapped in contemporary dance, music and technical flair. Booming, ominous narration tells of a war for human souls, while video imagery inspired by action and sci-fi filmmaking plays on a backdrop the size of an iMax screen.
Say what you will about the story — one person’s truth is another’s fable — it would take a strong core of one’s own belief system to resist the show’s undertow.
For this, the seventh year of “Awaited,” Crossroads doubled the show’s run to meet audience demand. All 100,000 tickets are free, available over 29 performances through Dec. 23. Despite a crash to the online ticketing outlet the minute before they were available, people snapped up every seat in two hours. People tend to reserve far more tickets than they use, so ushers have always been able to find seats for those with standby tickets.
“It’s a lot of money and a lot of resources to do this, and if it’s not impacting the church the rest of the year, it’s not worth doing,” said Brian Tome, the 49-year-old charismatic, athletic pastor hired in 1995 to help give birth to Crossroads.
“Getting 100,000 people to come here is only great if there are 100,000 faith journeys that come out of here,” he said.
A Pastor Walks a Tightrope
The beginnings of what was then called Crossroads Community Church — conceived by young professionals with Procter & Gamble — are summarized in one of the many sunny, smartly designed pieces of literature the church produces: “In 1995, a group of 11 Cincinnatians felt a need. They wanted a great environment to meet with friends to explore questions about God without having to pretend they had it all together or wading through a bunch of religious lingo.”
That informality — sincere yet deliberate — is embodied in Tome, a married father of three grown children who is quick to get his “bro” on. He rides a BMW R1200GS Adventure when he has the time, keeps beer in a mini-fridge at Crossroads’ Oakley campus and is quick to greet other men by turning a traditional handshake up into a wrap-around-the-thumbs soul shake.
On both the night of the final rehearsal of “Awaited” and the opening night of the current run, Tome showed up for work in denim, lace-up work boots and an earth-toned, buttoned-down shirt untucked at the waist. During a debriefing of rehearsal over beers in a small lounge just off the theater, Tome took note of the flannel shirt worn by one of Crossroads’ creative associates and called him, in jocularity, a “lumber-sexual.”
Tome’s theology is an unpredictable mix of rigid orthodoxy leavened with a liberalism that allows him to say, as he did in a conversation after the show’s rehearsal, that “we might be wrong” about beliefs some Christians hold sacrosanct.
“I believe in absolute truths, but there aren’t a lot of hills I’m willing to die on,” Tome said. “And those absolute truths narrow over time. The virgin birth — that’s one of those absolute truths (I still hold). But who is exactly going to heaven and who isn’t? I don’t freaking know.”
This humility might appeal to the younger, educated, white-collar core of Crossroads’ audience, but hasn’t always played well with the church’s more conservative corners. Tome can turn visibly uncomfortable when asked his position on a given social issue, knowing whatever he says will likely alienate a corner of his congregation.
His position on marriage equality typifies his tightrope walk. While he doesn’t believe God intends for people of the same gender to marry one another, he doesn’t oppose governments legalizing marriage for same-sex couples.
“This church is not for people who are already ‘Amen, God,’” said Tome, whose eldest daughter is a pastor with Crossroads’ newest campus in Clifton. “A church should be alive and vibrant, and who doesn’t want to be part of alive and vibrant things?”
Twenty years ago, Tome was an associate pastor with a Presbyterian church in Pittsburgh when he answered a listing in the Willow Creek Exchange, a service connecting churches with prospective pastors, for someone to help launch a church in Cincinnati. Crossroads held its first service in a rented auditorium at People Middle School — now Clark Montessori — in Hyde Park. By insider accounts, 450 people showed up, and audiences grew from there.
Four years into operations, by then drawing about 1,500 to weekly services, church founders took over a former big-box home improvement outlet at Madison and Ridge Roads and converted it into what still stands as Crossroads’ flagship, open-floor campus. An expansion houses the three-level, 3,500-seat sanctuary with a thrust stage. Weekend services, normally held there, go on hiatus during the run of “Awaited.”
Attending Playhouse in the Park’s version of “A Christmas Story,” Tome was struck with the thought that Crossroads could fill a spiritual void in the narrative of the holiday.
“There’s something in the Cincinnati psyche that wants a sense of tradition this time of year,” he said. “I wondered if we could create a great Christmas experience that could connect people with God.”
A Show They Can Believe In
Pepper Sweeney was raised in a Catholic home, but wound up in Presbyterian and other Protestant churches during his 20 years as a screen and voice actor in Los Angeles. His credits include “The Mentalist,” “Monk,” “NCIS” and the role of Carrie Underwood’s father in her video for the song “Blown Away.”
Throughout his career, Sweeney has mulled the line between his creative and Christian lives, but didn’t find much opportunity for the two to merge.
“A lot of Christian shows, quite frankly, are second-rate,” he said. “They think if they simply say the name of God, it’s OK. But if you’re purposely trying to teach the word of God, it’d better be better than everything else.”
“It’s a very creative church, which speaks to me as a creative person. But there isn’t Christian art or secular art — it all comes from God,” he said while eating dinner before rehearsal with other cast and crew.
“This is a story I really believe in, and it’s so well done, you wouldn’t be embarrassed to invite anyone,” he said. “We’re all hoping for people coming to the show, and the church for the first time, to place a little spark in them to come back.”
For every seasoned performer such as Sweeney, there are those who had never performed anywhere before auditioning for “Awaited.” The first time Tiffany Fears saw the show, she turned to her mother and asked, “How do I do this?” She’s singing in the show’s choir for the fourth straight year.
“I’m a Jesus lover — kind of a Jesus head,” she said with a laugh. A moment later, Fears fought back tears as she talked about her attachment to “Awaited.”
“It takes you away from family basically up until Christmas, but it’s also very communal,” she said. “You spend a lot of time with these people, and there’s a bonding in the sacrifice. Things like this make the church seem smaller. After a while, you’re no longer singing — it’s all praise.”
Pete Sturm has missed only three services in the four years he’s been coming to Crossroads, a church he found after his wife threw him out of the house and changed the locks. Sturm still wears his wedding ring, which he calls “benign,” and he sought to join the cast of “Awaited” this year as a way of “getting out from under my rock and moving forward.”
“It’s just being involved in this place and acting out my faith in a roundabout way,” he said. “We’re not just actors, we’re connectors — connecting for divinity through your eyes.”
If you see someone at a Crossroads event with a couple of Canon cameras around his neck, chances are it’s Jim Gormley. Like many who go to this church, Gormley has taken it upon himself to find a role for himself — in this case, as a volunteer photographer.
Gormley has photographed every food drive, five missions to New Orleans and the Super Bowl of Preaching, a Crossroads event created to draw people into the church on Super Bowl Sunday.
Asked his inspiration for first picking up a camera, Gormley thought for a moment and said, “It’s like sometimes God taps you on the shoulder.”
“I was raised Catholic and taught the fear of Jesus. You get involved here and you start wondering if these people are really this damn happy,” Gormley said. “I thought they had to be hypocrites. But they were the same in the front as they were in the back. Turns out I was the hypocrite.”
Two hours before the performance started on opening night, 23-year-old dancer Christa Linz had the stage to herself, leaning, leaping and reaching only to the music playing in her mind. She said she has always considered dance “a language for me with God.”
“More so since becoming a believer,” she said. “It fits my own way of personal worship.”
‘Awaited’ Born Again
All the promise Tome saw in a Crossroads-produced Christmas show deflated through the first two attempts. By Tome’s own one-word review, the initial offering, titled “Imagine,” was “awful.”
“We were so interested in not being churchy that we forgot to put Jesus in it,” he said. “People emailed us, like, ‘I have no idea what I just saw.’ Now we can laugh it off, but at the time, it was painful.”
“You’re trying to honor God with this show and someone falls to her death on opening night. That was a shot of new doubt for everybody,” Tome recalled. “It had me questioning God.”
His public expression of how Shryock’s death rocked his sense of faith drove some people away from Crossroads, said Tome, who continued praying and sharing his feelings.
“I woke up one day and felt ready to get back with God,” he said. “I didn’t want death to have the final word on this.”
Paula Rakestraw, a producer with “Awaited” since its conception, choreographed the aerial piece that featured Shryock. She called the accident “devastating,” cutting her thoughts short to stave off tears as she talked about how she and her co-producers forged on to remount “Awaited” in 2009.
“I’ve done a lot of healing, and it’s really about healing together,” she said. “Having to push through the fear and the block of that, we were encouraged to create from a place of brokenness.”
Performance or Promotion?
A half-hour before the theater’s lights dimmed, Tome picked up a microphone to address the dozens of cast and crew still finishing communal dinners of fried chicken, mac-and-cheese and cole slaw.
“Along with the adrenaline rush of the night, I just want to remind everyone it’s fun to be used by God to tell the greatest story in the history of the world,” the pastor told the room. “I wanna pray for you right now, that God reveals himself to you in a unique way tonight and pray that the joy of the world will be our strength.”
“Awaited” opens with a bright, upbeat video promoting Crossroads as a home for purposeful Christians motivated to rise to this on-screen challenge: “Die empty” — meaning, give everything you have, materially and spiritually, while alive.
The video closes with the words “Join us in January.”
As it is, one could see the video as a lead-in for the show or view the entire evening as a wondrous, enveloping infomercial for Crossroads’ brand of worship.
The stage is nearly as wide as the length of a football field, with a small corps of guitarists, pianists and drummers on each flank while singers tower above them, like robed sentinels, in the theater’s second and third tiers.
The ballet featuring the characters of Mary and Joseph is choreographed to spotlight Joseph’s transition from anguish over Mary’s seeming infidelity to anticipatory love for the awaiting miracle. It’s the only moment of emotional tension in a story requiring either fundamentalist belief or suspension of disbelief.
At the beginning of the show, Tome describes angels as “God’s warriors” and “God’s Navy Seals” in the war for our hearts. Visual and sonic touchstones throughout the show are a build-up to a war that never plays out before our eyes. Suddenly, at the end, we’re told “God would win the souls of man with love, like a fresh blanket of snow,” and that “the only response to love like this is worship.”
There’s nothing for the audience to weigh or chew on — everything is presented as absolute, with all the panache of Broadway but the complexity of a children’s book. Tome emerges on stage and tells the audience “What’s great about that story is that it actually happened.”
At the beginning, Tome had draped long, heavy chains over his shoulders as metaphors for the sins he carries. Now, shedding them, he says Jesus was born to die so his followers could shake off those chains. The closing singalong, “Come All Ye Faithful,” can be read as both an invitation and a warning — that without Jesus, you’ll bear the burden of carrying those chains.
Church insiders are discussing how to satisfy the demand to see “Awaited.” Tome is reluctant to turn the show into an “arena rock concert” at a venue such as U.S. Bank Arena and he’s worried the show would lose its impact if televised.
Still, he said, he and his staff feel a spiritual ambition to grow “Awaited.”
“God’s given us a lot of favor with this show, and for us to sit on it and say ‘We got 100,000 people to see it, that’s good enough,’ well, it’s not,” Tome said. “We won’t be satisfied until everyone in Cincinnati has a fresh experience with God.”