It may not be immediately clear what God has to do with “Rent” or “Ragtime” or “Shrek,” and that’s OK.
The Rev. Kerri Parker, pastor of McFarland United Church of Christ, isn’t always sure at first, either, and she’s the one leading this summer’s “God on Broadway” series at the church.
On Aug. 3, she’s scheduled to give a sermon on “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a 2005 Broadway production.
“I’m wondering what’s going to percolate with that one,” Parker said. “I really have no idea right now.”
Sparking people’s imagination, not biblical purity, is really the point. “I think explicitly connecting pop culture with people’s faith is always a sound (idea),” she said.
For 12 weeks this summer, congregants at Parker’s church are breaking out the jazz hands and learning valuable life lessons by way of Harold Hill and the Von Trapps. Each Sunday’s worship theme is tied to a musical, with local musicians performing a song or two from the production and Parker exploring religious or inspirational connections that are sometimes obvious, sometimes not. On the Sunday I visited, the vocalist duties fell to Anne Gerke, a church member who sings at weddings and funerals. Her assignment was not an easy one, but she soared majestically on “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from “The Sound of Music.”
Accomplished pianist Paul Fritsch sprinkled other tunes from the musical throughout the service, eliciting wild applause and causing one usher to break into some Bob Fosse moves during the offertory.
“My guess is a lot of people will be singing ‘Do-Re-Mi’ sometime during the week, and that will bring them back to something said in church,” Fritsch said later.
During her sermon, Parker confessed to knowing the 1965 Julie Andrews movie by heart, having watched it annually growing up. She pointed out that the lyrics to “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” say to climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow.
“Don’t stop at one or two,” she told us. “We are called to keep climbing, to never give up on making the world a better place.”
I assumed “The Sound of Music” was her all-time favorite musical, but she told me afterward it’s “Les Miserables.” She already covered that one last summer, when she piloted the “God on Broadway” idea over five Sundays. It was such a hit, she extended the run.
“This is a very playful congregation, so there’s a lot of latitude when an idea is pitched,” she said. Other musicals slated for this summer include “The Music Man,” “Pippin” and “Into the Woods.”
Broadway isn’t always known for promoting family values, but Parker said she’s not worried about a few PG-13 references slipping through. “Rent,” an edgy musical set for July 13, follows a group of impoverished young artists struggling to survive in New York City in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic.
“Jesus hung out with some fairly outrageous people,” she said. “Faith wasn’t always so sedate.”
Parker’s effort stands out not just for its creativity but also for bucking the “summer slump,” that tendency for churches to downshift during the months when families vacation. The Sunday I attended, the church ran out of bulletins.
“We’re not finding any drop in attendance,” said church member Jim Hartman. “There’s this anticipation of what’s ahead.”
The summer series runs through Aug. 31, wrapping up with “The Phantom of the Opera.” Services are Sundays at 10 a.m. at 5710 Anthony St. in McFarland. For more information, visit mcfarlanducc.org or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.