oad to Bethlehem began with two rain-soaked nights in December 1995 and with a team of about 30 people and some 700 visitors on the old church campground in the Melbourne suburb of Nunawading. This December—in its 20th year—Road to Bethlehem (RTB) will involve more than 300 cast and crew, and they expect to re-tell the good news of the Christmas story to about 14,000 members of their community.
“The first year was very basic,” original RTB committee member Carolyn Dunne recalls. “With so much water gushing across the campground there were many discouraged team members but somehow we saw the potential. We could see and feel there was something about this idea—and the difference between the first and second year was incredible.”
Her father, Geoff Jones, had seen a mission news report of a drive-through Christmas experience presented by a church in the United States. Given the mild summer evenings he suggested the idea could be adapted for a walk-through program in Australia and he talked with the personal ministries team at Nunawading Adventist Church.
“The original committee of four of us had no idea what we were doing, no idea of how it would be received and no idea of what it could become,” Shelley Fairall explains. “But we saw the opportunity to share the story of Jesus with the community. Now I see that first year as a bit of a test—a reminder that we needed to trust God with this.”
Twenty years later they estimate that more than 100,000 people have experienced their story of the birth of Jesus. And there are now seven other locations across Australia and New Zealand that have been inspired by and borrowed from the original Nunawading program, including new locations in Tasmania and South Australia this year.
Each year the lead role has been reserved for a roster of babies less than three months old, coordinated and cared for by Ms Fairall. “I’m very passionate about us using a real baby. There is something that connects with people when they hear a baby cry; they connect the story with a real human being, a live connection between the Baby in the manger with the Man who died on the cross,” she says. “So we’re always putting out a call for babies at this time of year. There was one year when we were low on babies and Jenny Bennett went to a local shopping centre and spoke to mothers about whether they would be prepared to share their baby with the community in this way.”
Crystal Taylor first acted in RTB 12 years ago and has been casting coordinator for the past five years. “My favourite experience is seeing the faces of the kids as they go from scene to scene,” she says. “By the time they arrive at the manger, they are not just watching something, they are participating in it. And there are so many comments and conversations that are so rewarding.”
For the 20th year, Melbourne’s RTB will have a new opening scene, something Ms Taylor and her team have been working on over the past two years. “At the end of each year we reflect on what we have done and feedback we have received,” she says. “Often actors will give suggestions and, when a few people have the same idea, we feel that we are being led to try something different.”
“We have all felt that this whole program has been so God-led,” Ms Dunne adds. “In the early days there seemed to be so many miracles, so many ways God provided and encouraged us, so we have been very blessed in our years of working with this."
Not only has RTB had an impact in the community, Ms Taylor has seen it change those who have been involved. “This is my gift to my community each Christmas but it has also changed how the Adventist churches in [Melbourne’s] eastern suburbs relate to each other,” she says. “As a result of working together on this each year, we are now much more one church.”
“When I think back to our first year it’s hard to put it into perspective,” Ms Fairall reflects, “but we can see that God had such a bigger vision for it than we ever had. God is amazing and He can bless something if He wants it to continue and grow.”