Joel Ferrell is tackling what might seem like familiar territory at the Dallas Theater Center right now. The DTC artistic associate and actual son of a preacher is directing Lucas Hnath’s The Christians. But he says comparing his dad, a former Methodist pastor in Fort Worth, to Hnath’s world of the “mega-church” is like asking him what he thinks of theater in Branson, Missouri. They are like apples to oranges.
“I asked [my dad] what he thought about these big churches and he just said, ‘Why are you asking me this?’”
The Christians is the story of longtime Pastor Paul, who grew his church from a storefront, mom-and-pop type operation to a huge mega-church, the kind that can be found all over DFW and many other suburban areas. They are often nondenominational and feature coffee shops and playgrounds.
Ferrell’s own father, now 92, was involved in a very different kind of church for most of Ferrell’s life, and he grew up in that environment. It wasn’t until Ferrell was in his mid-20s that he began to study, with delight, the entertainment aspects of famous televangelists such as Jimmy Swaggert and Tammy Faye Baker.
“I was mesmerized, entertained, shocked by them,” he says.
The playwright is also very close to this world: Hnath's mother was a minister in an evangelical church. The Christians exploded after debuting in 2014 at the Humana Festival of New American Plays. It’s set inside of a church and the play features a full choir.
Ferrell says defining what makes a “mega-church” is tricky and can mean so much. He thinks of these churches as theme parks rather than well-intentioned, sacred spaces. In that regard, their branch of Christianity is is totally unlike his father’s.
Ferrell says his father was a progressive in a time of civil rights. A child of the Depression, Ferrell’s father became a pastor after World War II and led his congregation on issues of civil rights and justice.
“His epiphanies and awakenings came with this exploding world,” Ferrell says. “Things he saw as issues to stand up for were the result of the trauma and sorrows of the world around him. Faith was dogma to him, not doctrine.”
And doctrine can be controversial, he says. The production team spent a lot of time with area churches like Wilshire Baptist and Irving Bible Church. Ferrell says the pastors at those particular churches were surprisingly progressive and have experienced much of what Pastor Paul experiences in The Christians.
Paul, played by longtime DTC company member Chamblee Ferguson, experiences a crisis of faith when he begins to doubt the existence of hell. Ferrell says this isn’t uncommon, and his dad experienced it as well. But parishioners, he says, are often afraid of controversy. When new ideas are introduced it can scare people off. They aren’t coming to dig into controversial ideas.
Ferrell is very thoughtful about these ideas, and says Hnath’s brilliance comes from his ability to give everyone in the play a full voice.
“Church is a support network and everyone experiences faith differently.” In this vein, he says the play is not out to demonize the church. It’s more about believers versus other believers. The closeness that comes with that kind of support system and family atmosphere is what makes it painful for one member, particularly a leader, to challenge the group.
Ferrell set out to understand large Bible churches. He was struck by the pastor at Irving Bible Church, who is the father of a gay daughter.
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“That tension is beautiful to me,” Ferrell says. “Here you have a group of people who want to adapt to the world and understand that you can’t change if you’re rigid. It’s fascinating.”
This was often a headache for his father, a progressive pastor who also enjoyed being home to watch football after services and didn’t want to force rigid doctrine on his flock.
Ferrell says the community of faith that he was raised in was honest, real, open and welcoming. “That’s where I grow,” he says. “When you can create a place with notions of faith where people don’t have to question if they belong.”
The Christians runs through Feb. 19 at Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. Tickets are $45 to $105 at dallastheatercenter.org.