April 2013 – On a family road trip to the mountains, you get the kids away from their gadgets, making them have actual conversations with other family members. With the batteries to their devices safely tucked away in the glove box, their attention begins to focus on God’s creation outside the window.
Suddenly someone spots something peaking over the trees. A shimmering white face emerges out of the green foliage. A few miles later, Christ of the Ozarks is fully seen by all and you make the turn into the grounds of the Great Passion Play, the greatest story ever told.
Kent Butler, assistant executive director for the Great Passion Play, said, “The 67-foot-tall Christ of the Ozarks statue was built because of John 12:32 that says, ‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ The goal of the statue and everything that surrounds it is to lift Jesus up and bring glory to Him.”
As a testament to the mission, the statue sits on a green mountainside overlooking Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Since its dedication in 1967, millions have visited and many have cited the statue and surrounding ministries as tools God used to lead them to surrender their lives to Christ.
Trouble in the Ozarks
Great ministries can find themselves in dire straits at times, and the Great Passion Play is no exception. Butler said, “In 2012, we thought we were going to shut down. We needed help, asked for it, and it just didn’t come. In December, we announced we were closing our doors. We had no money to pay the bills and no way to get what we needed. On December 4, we sent out a press release announcing the end of our ministry.
“On December 20, Randall Christy of the Gospel Station Network used his 25 radio stations to help us out. With his help, we raised $25,000. It was funny because everyone [that is, the Mayan calendar crowd] thought the world was going to end in December. But our little corner of the world was being saved.”
As the new year rolled in with fireworks and parties, new life was breathed into the 45-year-old ministry. Butler said, “God did a miracle at the last moment possible. He let us know that it was Him and not us. It reminded us that everything we do here is for Him and to Him.” What seemed like a death sentence turned into a new lease on life.
Passion in the Ozarks
“We make the Scriptures come alive,” Butler said. Considering that the Great Passion Play, a live stage production about the last week of Jesus’ life, involves 170 people, dozens of birds, sheep, camels, horses and other animals, “coming alive” is an understatement. The stage itself is a larger-than-life, 550-foot, three-level behemoth the size of two football fields with seating for 4,000 people.
But it’s not the number of people in the crowds that impresses Butler. It is how differently God speaks to each one.
Butler said, “During every performance, we ask the audience to write prayer requests. Two years ago, a family came to see the play with their son and asked us to pray for him. He was raised in a Christian home, but was living in rebellion. During the 2012 summer, the son came back to the play on his own. Before, he was only here because his parents made him join them. This time he came because he genuinely wanted to be there.
“While he was here, we got to hear part of his story,” Butler said. “He said he now has an intimate and fruitful relationship with Jesus Christ. He credited the play with helping plant that seed of repentance in him. He thanked us for the work we do because it encouraged his parents. They were at the point of giving up and didn’t know what to do next. He said the play encouraged them that God is still a God of miracles, and that young man is living proof of that.”
Ministry in the Ozarks
The statue and the play may be the biggest things in the area, but they are nowhere close to being the only things. “We hate to call these attractions,” Butler said, “because they really are more than that. They are really more like arms of ministry.”
Those arms include a potter’s house where visitors watch as the potter masterfully crafts pieces of art before their eyes while telling how we are all clay and God is shaping and molding us.
Another live performance that takes place off-stage is David making shepherd slings. During a 30-minute presentation, viewers hear about the life of David and how he served as a precursor to Jesus Christ. The last 10 minutes of the presentation encourages visitors to try out a shepherd’s sling – with marshmallows instead of stones for weapons.
A Holy Land tour on the grounds offers historical perspective. Butler said, “The idea behind the New Holy Land Tour is that even in Arkansas, you can experience a little of what it would be like to go to the Holy Land. You can visit the East Jerusalem Gate or a traditional well, like where Jesus met the woman in John 4. You can see a cave like the one Jesus was born in and a tomb similar to what He was buried in.”
There is also a historically accurate tabernacle like Moses built in the wilderness. Butler said, “The guided tour takes about 30 minutes, and our guides give the historical and scriptural context of each reproduction. The guide also knows how each item, especially those in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, point forward to Jesus.”
To gain some appreciation for a book many American Christians take for granted, there is the Bible Museum. It holds over 7,000 Bibles, most of historical significance, including an original 1611 King James Bible, and another King James Bible known as “The Great He Bible,” one of only 250 in existence today.
Last, the Sacred Arts Center is comprised of more than 1,000 pieces of art in all different forms and styles, from paintings to carvings to pottery; from centuries-old works to contemporary pieces. Yet, with all the varied mediums, there is a common theme. Every piece of art is an act of worship by its creator for the Creator.
Since the 1960s, the Great Passion Play and its extended arms of ministry have aimed to do one thing: lift up Jesus. In its long and storied history, many things have changed, but that singular mission has remained intact. Every new exhibit, every site to see and every word uttered on stage is done with that goal in mind. And that’s why they say it is the greatest story ever told.
2013 Season May 3 - Oct. 26
Ticket information: www.greatpassionplay.org 800-882-7529.
The Great Passion Play and Parables of the Potter are available on DVD at the website.