How would your congregation react if at one of your worship services fifteen clowns wearing rubber noses, makeup and outrageous costumes appeared by the altar or on the dais?

That sort of thing has been happening most every February at the First United Church of Christ for sixteen years, and the members seem to be loving it. About 130 people”including thirty children who sat right up front”packed the church on February 19 for its annual blessing of the clowns.

Fifteen Medinah Shriner clowns”among them a judge, two lawyers salesmen and tradesmen”arrived at church early and changed into their clown costumes and their clown personalities. With stage names like Bakin, Eggshell, Nuttin, and Z-Bo, the clowns participated in the service, performed six skits, told a lot of corny jokes and received the blessing of the congregation. Parts of that blessing went like this:

Pastor: Blessed are those who make a person smile or laugh.

People: A cheerful heart is good medicine!

Pastor: Blessed are those who bring laughter, smiles, and happy feelings to those who assemble at parades.

People: A cheerful heart is good medicine!

Pastor: Blessed be Your Son, Jesus Christ, who brought laughter to the children of His day as He joined in their games; that is one of the reasons they loved Him so much.

People: Thank you for Jesus.

Pastor: And now, Medinah Clowns, may you continue to bring miles of smiles and laughter of children and adults. God Bless You Abundantly.

At the cake and coffee reception after the service, Eileen Pennington, the congregation’s vice-president, reflected on why Clown Sunday has been so popular.

“God believes in laughter,” she declared. “We believe that God wants us to be a happy, joyful people.” Pastor Cliff DiMascio said that many people are dealing with cabin fever at this time of year. But with the kids up front, lots of color and much laughter, people learn that church can be a fun place.

“For the congregation,” observed Laura Cleveland, an elder, “it’s a good chance to be childlike, to have some levity and laughter. It lightens things up. Some people see it as irreverence, but I think Jesus would approve.”

It’s also an occasion for the congregation to attract visitors, to get them inside the doors and feel what the congregation is like. Cleveland, who is also co-chair of the evangelism committee, said, “It gives us exposure, and more people do come.”

The congregation also does the clown blessing, because they respect the work that the Shriner clowns do, especially with children in hospitals.

“We see God working through the clowns,” Pennington said, “how they care for people. They’re an example of how to be an instrument of God.”

DiMascio thinks that the clowns appreciate the blessing. After all, they have kept coming back for sixteen years. But more than that, it gives these Shriners a chance to be with their families in church while they are being clowns.

Rupert, a clown whose day job is in sales, said, “I enjoy being a part of tradition and an extension of fellowship.”

John, who joked that he does nothing during the day, said “We meet and greet people and spread joy.”

“Instead of keeping the church away from the world,” said DiMascio, “it is bringing the world into the church and blessing it… It’s our expression of having a Mardis Gras before we get serious during Lent.”

Clown Sunday began in 1989 or 1990, according to the long time members. The Rev. Roy Myer, who was a member at the time and a Shriner clown, came up with the idea.

DiMascio said that in the sixteen years he has been involved in Clown Sunday, the skits have gotten better. He said that the humor the clowns now present involves exaggerating the ordinary and pulling the wool over people’s eyes. At times their skits are even parables or life lessons.

What First United is trying to do with the blessing of the clowns was summarized in their call to worship.

Leader: Why do you come?

People: We come looking with the wonder of a child.

Leader: What do you seek?

People: We seek the magic, the play that causes us to laugh.

Leader: God created man and woman.

People: God created joy and sorrow and tears and peals of laughter.

All: We join in Your search for the whole range of feeling.