Using the Orchestra in the Intergenerational Church During a Pandemic

As a follow up to my last post Resuming Choir Rehearsals During a Pandemic- How we’ve done it, I wanted to share how we began our process of re-incorporating our orchestra into worship. Like most all churches, we found ourselves having to become digital only for our March 15th service. We went to livestream only, where I led from piano only until April 26th. On the 26th, I had our rhythm section and two other singers join us to enhance the sound knowing that we would begin in-person worship on May 17th. You should have seen the joy on our player’s faces that day; they just wanted to play and serve. We operated in this manner through all of May and most of June.

In the middle of June, I contacted our 38 orchestra members and asked them their comfort level with playing in worship services. All but two were comfortable returning. Because of the physical distancing requirements, I have only been able to accommodate 25 players in any service. We have lots of folks in our orchestra that are family members so I was able to group family members nearer to each other to fill out our orchestra. On June 28th, I welcomed our orchestra back to the platform and continued to use our praise team to lead our congregation. My goal was to create a familiar atmosphere for solid congregational singing and the orchestra with the praise team was the “safest” choice to accomplish this.

Some will disagree with me on this point, but I felt that getting the players back in the building to lead was more important than bringing back the choir instead. I have over 90 singers in my choir. With distancing requirements and our space limitations, I realized I’d have to create rotating teams that were, based on our room, inadequate to bring the full sound we were accustomed to. There was always the option to mic these singers well, but I was also worried about finding the right combinations of singers to carry an anthem well. Further, our choir has found a safer way to still serve in music ministry that allows them to be a part without being in the loft on Sunday mornings. Recently, our choir has begun meeting in our sanctuary spread out and we’ve recorded some anthems to use on Sundays. Because we’re only averaging 35-40 percent of our people for in-person worship, those watching livestream can’t tell the difference in the recordings we show. The choir meeting and recording for worship gives them a chance to still serve in music ministry until we get the opportunity to all be together again. In fact our choir and orchestra will begin meeting on Wednesdays starting in October to record together spread out.

Why the Orchestra is Vital to the Intergenerational Church

A few years ago, I wrote a blog about the growth of our orchestra here at Ivy Creek and how this single ministry perhaps is the best visual representation of the intergenerational church at its best. It is yet another one of the reasons I’m glad we’re using our orchestra every week for the time being. Read it here:

Developing an Orchestra in the Intergenerational Church—from 7-30+ players in five years.

If I were to count the number of evangelical churches across America that use orchestras every week, my number wouldn’t be very high based on resources, size, space, et al. My experience the orchestra is one of the most intergenerational groups in our whole church. In few other groups in our church will you find teens serving alongside many other generational cohorts on a regular basis.

At this moment, four generations in our church play in our orchestra. Ten of those players are under the age of 20; all my string players (7) are students. The students who play for us are excellent players and the sight-reading they get to do for me helps them in their school bands and orchestras. Without using all our generations, we wouldn’t be an orchestra…we’d be a band…we’d be smaller, less effective, and have less color/timbre. Teach them to serve for life. Invest in your students.

Resuming Choir Rehearsals During a Pandemic- How we’ve done it.

Being a firm believer that all ages should be engaged in serving the Lord in music ministry, finding ways during a pandemic has been challenging. Since March, our church like virtually all others, has had to adapt to the ever changing challenges of providing music leadership in the safest way possible. As I’ve talked with many of my fellow worship leaders, I’ve realized there is not a one-size fits all approach. Context, location of church, demographics of the church, number of people in the fellowship affected by the virus and so on, will influence decisions related to how best to utilize your musical teams. In my next blog post I’ll explain our process of reincorporating our orchestra into worship, but I wanted to share with you about our first choir rehearsal in six months on August 26th.

The church choir is about music for sure, but more importantly, it’s about setting aside our personal preferences and working in unity to serve and proclaim the message of the Gospel. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesian church urges [us] to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-3 ESV).  The first song I chose for us to sing in our rehearsal was “By Our Love,” a song of unity for the church. It was quite emotional for everyone in the room. This was the first time most of our people had sung outside their home or car in 6 months.

I’m a list guy; I love them. Anyone who knows me well knows that lists keep me focused. I see information better in a list than in written prose. When I email my college students at Truett McConnell reminders about what’s due and what we’ve worked on, I tell them a Whittaker list is coming! In fact most of my blog posts include a list of something. So, I started a list of things related to this first rehearsal so I would remember what happened and wanted to share my observations with you. Behold! a Whittaker list:

  1. 95 active singers on roll, 69 returned for first rehearsal. 73% rate of initial return.
  2. When I look at the 16 singers who didn’t come, I noticed health concerns (them or a family member who is immunocompromised) as the number one factor for not attending.
  3. Singers of all ages–YES, intergenerational!
  4. All wore masks when entering and exiting.
  5. Soprano/Bass had one entrance to the foyer and Tenor/Alto had another entrance. The middle of the foyer was blocked off by rope and hand sanitizing machines. The folders were laid out for retrieving. Each entering should wait on the 6ft markers on the floor to enter.
  6. Each person was given a temperature check before entering.
  7. 75 (actually 80) minute rehearsal. One 10 minute “quiet” break after 30 minutes of singing where I did some encouragement (devotion) and announcements to let the air clean.
  8. Use entire floor of sanctuary spread out 6-10 feet apart all around each singer unless next to family member.
  9. Told we would mask entire rehearsal, but sang one tune without masks (which we recorded to use next Sunday morning for worship). All but one sang this song unmasked. In fact I got the impression from the affirmation that the singers there would’ve been fine to remain unmasked through the entire rehearsal.
  10. I asked those who were most uncomfortable singing without a mask to go to the back of the room, since the back of the choir seems to be the “safest” place to sing right now.
  11. We had HVAC going strong. One benefit in our room is that we have a large surplus of AC tonnage because of our stained glassed windows that emit much heat. You can literally feel the air moving in the room when you’re in it.
  12. The distance all around, the HVAC, and the large room with very high ceilings, basically mimicked an outdoor singing space.
  13. When we did sing with masks (90 percent of time), the sound was greatly affected. Maybe 40% of the sound gets out of the masks. Little dynamic shading or articulation of text possible, which is already hard with a room as “live” as ours is. Not a fan of the masked singing, neither were my people.
  14. The live room and the masks muffling sound made it hard to hear each other, which also contributed to dragging tempi on lyrical tunes.
  15. Normal types of masks caused glasses to fog up when singing for long periods of time. The alternative for a very few was to just use the mask to cover the mouth, and some did that.
  16. I think no one would’ve come to our rehearsal had they been truly “scared” to get COVID. The risks of singing are very well-documented so the choice to come was in spite of that risk. Therefore, I tried to mitigate the true risks with HVAC and distancing; the use of masks is a added barrier of protection.
  17. General consensus was rehearsal was a WIN! I want to skip a week before we meet again, primarily to make sure no one gets COVID.
  18. At our next rehearsal (two weeks from this rehearsal) we will also record one or two songs for use in worship. Tentatively, I would like to start separating my group into 2-3 teams and use them on Sundays beginning second weekend in October if things continue to trend downward. Not sure about mask use for that service or how we’ll mic them properly with our orchestra, but I’ll cross that bridge soon.

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Here is a snapshot of (most of) us recording our song for worship. Four generations present, worshiping and encouraging each other–what a blessing!

Idol of Certainty

2 Corinthians 5:1- 7
For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven, if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed, that mortality may be swallowed up by life. Now He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who also has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. 

I recently read a post that the Holy Spirit used to convict me in a major way—the phrase was directed at believers who have doubtless been struggling these last few months and it said, “we’ve made an idol out of certainty.” As I’ve mulled over this concept I had to ask myself, is my need to understand and be in control of all that is happening around me replacing my need for faith? Friends, I’m afraid it has. By nature I’m a very organized person. I like a plan; I pride myself on communicating as often and as clearly as possible so everyone under my leadership understands the plan and is “together.” Over the last few months I’ve realized that my security has been in working within constructs of certainty. I’ve made an idol out of certainty.

Am I alone in this? I doubt it. In my 20 years of full-time ministry, I’ve NEVER had my understanding of how to serve in local church ministry turned upside down like this.  I long to connect with our people in person, I miss rehearsing our choir and orchestra, I miss making plans for events such as our biggest event of the year—Christmas at Ivy Creek. I just can’t fathom why these things, which minister to countless souls, should not happen. I’ve literally prayed so many times, “God what are you doing? What am I missing here?” In my frustration, I’ve been reminded that my faith is not completely yielded to the leadership of the Holy Spirit if I’m constantly praying that God return us to the normal we once had if all I want to do is erase these last few months like they didn’t happen. I wouldn’t have learned what I’m learning now! There is no way back to the certainty of before March of 2020. The Holy Spirit is saying to me, “I’m in control–I’m not surprised by what is happening around you–walk by faith and not by sight–don’t miss what I am teaching you in this.”

As I’ve mulled over my lack of faith, I’ve realized that my attitude has reflected my building frustration that I am not in control—this has come out negative and harsh to many around me. Everyday our new normal is disrupted with a change…it’s exhausting and frustrating. But, the Spirit reminds me again and again—walk by faith—trust me–remember what IS certain–I never change! Stop using your human constructs to understand what I’m doing; stop making an idol of certainty and relinquish control to me.

If you’re struggling as I am, here are a few ways the Lord has reminded me I can do the work of walking by faith and not by sight:

  1. Pray for those under my care. Put the needs of others above my need to be on control of the ministry to which God has called me. I will continue to check on our folks regularly as well since I cannot see them in person yet.
  2. Limit news and social media. Seriously, it’s eating me alive to see how the enemy is using social media to drive even believers to attack each other.
  3. Spend more time in the Word. Today’s sermon today was on James 1: 21-27 and we were reminded to be doers of the Word, which means we have to be so saturated in the Word that we reflect the words therein. The Holy Spirit, Christ in me, will change me/us from the inside out.

 

 

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