Choosing an All-Virtual Christmas at Ivy Creek

I’ve really enjoyed hearing and seeing many church’s Christmas music this season. Never before have our Christmas celebrations been so visible as this year. One thing I noticed immediately, every church fell into one of four camps when presenting their music this year:

  1. Some chose to do nothing at all, forgoing a special Christmas offering this year, but chose to do some special things during the normal weekend worship services.
  2. Some chose to continue with a live presentation (with modifications such as distancing for congregation and presenters) and livestream the presentation for those at home.
  3. Some chose to go a completely different direction than focusing on an indoor musical presentation (live nativities or other outdoor event).
  4. Some chose to do an all-virtual presentation (some chose to simply use videos from previous years, while others recorded new material-or some variation of the two).

Regardless of the camp chosen, I have been very impressed with the creativity I’ve seen and the effort to make Christmas special for each community of faith. Every church has had to make some tough decisions on what to do in their own particular context based on the restrictions of their community, effect of virus on their own congregation, and comfort level. There was NO wrong way to handle Christmas music this year because every context was different.

I chose option four at my church for two basic reasons:

1. Our room (both the platform and congregation space) would not allow us the opportunity to do live presentations without at least 10 different presentations, let alone the issue of how to fit 125 in the choir and orchestra distanced in a space barely able to hold this number elbow to elbow!

2. Doing a virtual recording, using our whole sanctuary space allowed us to spread out like we needed to, and not limit the number of participants in our event this year. My number one goal this Christmas was to make sure that all who wanted to sing and play had that opportunity.

I struggled in the latter part of the summer about what to do for Christmas primarily because I’m a big time planner. Our event, Christmas at Ivy Creek, is the largest single event we do in our music ministry each year. Our investment in this event and the spread of the gospel message was just too important to forgo. By August, I was concerned about our ability to do anything for Christmas. I had thrown out the idea of doing something outside because of the volatility of the weather and I threw out the idea of doing the event up to ten times. As the fall began and we started resuming bi-monthly choir rehearsals, I realized our best option would be to do something virtual–specifically pre-recording something, but it was the first week of October when I finally felt a peace about what to do. At that point, we only had seven rehearsals before we planned to record. I knew it would be too much to ask our folks to learn a whole hour of new music and be able to internalize it. So, I started looking back at previous year’s recordings and I decided we’d do a hybrid virtual concert: some videos of songs from the past and then five new songs (four choral and one orchestra feature). I figured we could learn five songs in that time frame to get ready to record.

Getting ready to record proved to be a frustrating challenge at first! Finding a way to mic an entire room (can you say balance issues!?) and video an entire room with our equipment would not have produced the best result. The balance of orchestra to choir during this season was a challenge. While almost all of our 34 players played, only 60 of our almost 95 singers were comfortable singing. After many conversations and some trial and error during rehearsals, we realized we needed to hire an audio engineer to record the audio for our new songs. This was the best money we could’ve spent to get a real-life room sound.

We decided to record our narrations off-site this year and drop them into our “cornucopia” presentation. Because we gave my video producer only 5 days to edit and create our video for our premiere, we decided to do the narrations in mid-November. This gave him the time to make sure the previous choir and orchestra videos were extracted from the past and the narrations edited before he tackled the new material.

The day of recording went as follows:

  1. Orchestra arrived first for temperature checks and tuning and then recorded their feature first from 9-9:30.
  2. Choir arrived and stayed in cars or outside (even though it was cold) and then entered to have temperature checks and begin recording at 9:30.
  3. The rest of the recording itself took about 2 hours to for the other four songs with the choir and the orchestra. We stopped between each song to clear the air.

These are the safety features we implemented. I’m sure they we are not as strict as others I’ve heard of, but now that we’re over 18 days from the recording, I can say there was no COVID transmitted during our recording!

  1. Mask wearing when not singing or playing. Worn upon arrival and when leaving
  2. HVAC systems on constant flow to move the air
  3. Physical distancing between persons (I cannot say we kept 6 feet the whole time, but we grouped family members close to each other as much as possible and we did have several family members present).
  4. Breaks between each song to clear the air.

Our experience recording went so well for us that I’m planning to bring back the audio engineer and do another round of recording for our choir and orchestra at least once more closer to Easter. We are NOT using the choir in person during our regular weekend worship services. We are using pre-recorded anthems to use for the foreseeable future. I am using orchestra and praise team every week. I miss having the choir, but allowing them the platform to sing and record has meant the world to them. They STILL get to be worship leaders, just in a different way. The goal of this blog, and this article as well, is to remind us that all persons from every generation and ability level should have a place to serve. Creativity is a must to make this happen, but it can happen. I applaud the work so many of my colleagues are doing to keep people active in worship ministry throughout this unprecedented season. I’d love to hear more ideas of how all generations are still being utilized in worship ministry.

If you’d like to see our final product, here’s a link to Christmas at Ivy Creek 2020. Below that are a few pictures from the recording day:

Church Music Students Need Local Church Worship Leaders to Model Effective Communication and Conflict Resolution

This semester I’m teaching Introduction to Church Music Ministry at Truett McConnell University. My students are church music majors and this class is a required overview of what to expect in local church ministry. One of the assignments I have the students completing are interviews with worship pastors and/or music leaders already serving in local church ministry. In preparation for these interviews, I had the students bring in 8-10 questions they wanted to ask these leaders so we could share ideas and suggestions on which questions might be the most useful for them to ask. The questions they brought in were really great questions. But, what stood out to me was that every student had one or more questions related to resolving conflict and how to have good working relationships with their pastor and staff.

If my students are any indication of other church music students getting ready to head into local church music ministry, then I think we better equip them with conflict management and relationship skills in the best ways we can. But honestly, these students need to start seeing these skills demonstrated as they are growing up in their own local churches. My point is: our church music graduates entering the local church need to be ready to handle the relational side of ministry on par with the development of their musical skills and their worship leaders growing up need to model it for them early on.

Everyone reading probably agrees with what I’ve said. Yet, our time of investment with young people called to the ministry is largely spent on crafting musical skills and platform presence, not the relational side of ministry. This is a mistake!

I’ve asked several pastors over the years the biggest reasons why worship pastors are terminated and very few of them revolve around lack of musical skill. Among the results are the following:

  1. Lazy and unorganized
  2. Cannot communicate effectively
  3. Cannot get along with volunteers, staff, etc.

Since not every local church worship pastor/leader has the opportunity to teach in an academic setting, we local church worship leaders MUST invest in those emerging worship leaders in our congregations who feel called to vocational ministry. As a musical leader, you will naturally pour yourself into helping with them understand the musical and technical aspects of worship ministry, but don’t stop there. Spend time talking with your budding leaders about how to develop good working relationships with your pastor, other staff members, and volunteers. Show them how resolving conflict is done in a Christ-like manner. Below are some ideas.

Conflict resolution is important; solid communication is important. These things are taught, yes, but they are more likely caught as your emerging worship leaders are in your music ministry. Model excellence in effective communication and conflict resolution while investing in them one on one to help shape our younger worship leaders into pastoral musicians.

a few ideas (not exhaustive) to consider when confronting someone with the goal of resolving conflicts:

  1. Effective Communication is the key to resolution
  2. Search for the central issue to the conflict. This is key to understanding and resolving
  3. Search for win/wins. Compromise if needed
  4. Conflict resolution happens better face to face and not electronically
  5. Seek to understand before being understood
  6. Don’t meet alone to discuss issues if possible
  7. Don’t interrupt the other when meeting with someone
  8. Ask yourself- Am I truly the reason for the conflict? Am I difficult to work with or selfish? Unyielding or uncaring?
  9. Be gracious/try to love/apologize where YOU might be wrong
  10. Don’t reason with irrationality-sometimes the conflict can’t be resolved
  11. Don’t take everything personally
  12. Ask for outside counsel before you meet
  13. Choose your battles carefully
  14. And always PRAY for a soft heart, wisdom, and encouraging speech

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.

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