They pantomime, juggle and make you smile, but the Clowns for Christ deliver a serious message.
"We raise a lot of eyebrows," said Vaughn Halford, organizer of the nine-member troupe that spends each Sunday clowning around in churches throughout eastern Idaho. "But we are celebrating Christ being with us."On a recent Sunday, the clowns performed "The Mark of the Clown," an hourlong worship and communion service, at the Community Presbyterian Church in St. Anthony and Rexburg.
Organized in 1988 by Halford, troupe members belong to Trinity United Methodist Church in Idaho Falls, where they meet weekly to sharpen their clowning skills and study religion.
Although new to Idaho, Christian clowning dates back to medieval times. Many early cathedrals in England were constructed with small doors that led directly into the sanctuary so that a mime or clown could enter and interrupt a service that had become too serious or weighed down by doctrine.
According to a troupe press release, the clown "would remind the congregation of the joy, peace and love Christ brings to a troubled world. The clown would then silently leave and the service would continue. These `holy interruptions' were a small part of the history of clown ministry."
Members of the Idaho Falls troupe have selected all white faces accented with bright colors, a Christian tradition that dates back hundreds of years, Halford said.
The white face makeup represents death. Colors added to the eyes, nose and cheeks symbolize the new life and the resurrection of Christ.
Except for background music and an occasional beep from a horn, the clowns make no sound during the service and it's their practice not to speak while they have their makeup on. That does create a few problems, said Kris Cypher, who along with her husband, Jim, has been clowning for two years.
"We do a lot of lip reading or have a piece of paper and pencil for writing messages," she said. "We also talk an awful lot before we get to the church."
Halford said the troupe members have to constantly work on exaggerated movements and facial expressions to get their message across. "If you are not speaking you have only your action talking for you," he said.
"The Mark of the Clown," which contains all the elements of a regular worship service, originated in 1969 with a Christian clowning troupe organized by Floyd Shaffer, a Detroit minister. Halford read Shaffer's book on Christian clowning in 1988 and was hooked.
"I knew it was for me," he said. "The more I read the more I wanted to get involved."
Within a week Halford had begun assembling his clown costume.
"My wife thought I was crazy," he said.
Before trying clowning in churches, Halford clowned for hospitalized children and entertained at birthday parties. He now is in the midst of writing the script for a second worship service for the troupe.
The unusual nature of the service conducted by the clown troupe sometimes causes difficulty for pastors.
"There are some qualms," said the Rev. Larry Bunnell, pastor of both the Rexburg and St. Anthony Community Presbyterian churches. "There is always concern for others who might not understand."
Before inviting the troupe, Bunnell consulted with his church's local governing boards, which he said voted unanimously in favor of the idea.
"The American Christian church has so much tradition and it is so varied that to use just one style of worship would be silly," Bunnell said.
Halford said not all ministers prepare their congregations for the unique services. At a church in Buhl the pastor did not explain what would happen to his congregation.
"We got some real unusual looks, and they weren't sure what was coming off," said Jim Cypher.