As 2020 draws to a close, the world seems to await the renewal and hope of a new beginning.
People frankly are tired of hearing about COVID-19 and are in great need of a symbolic turning of the page, said Michael Lukaszewski, founder and CEO of Church Fuel, in a recent webinar about planning for Christmas during a pandemic.
Churches can foster a renewal of hope, Lukaszewski said, by communicating a specific, positive Christmas message, beginning as early as October. And it means keeping the focus of Christmas the same as it’s always been, Alabama worship leaders agree.
“Christmas is an important season in the life of the church,” said Brett Fuller, worship pastor at First Baptist Church, Pelham. “We are moving toward the Christmas season with a great sense of anticipation and excitement.”
Throughout the pandemic, Fuller said First, Pelham, focused on their mission statement, “Making Disciples for a Global Impact,” and will continue the emphasis during the Christmas season.
“Everything we will do during December will be focused on discipleship, evangelism and emphasizing the hope of Christ,” he said.
At First Baptist Church, Montgomery, the annual Living Christmas Tree production could look different this year, according to minister of music Ed Cleveland.
The church is going ahead with the presentation but will follow current state guidelines for gathering in December, both for the choir and orchestra and for attendees. That will probably mean using the choir loft, platform and side ramps instead of the signature tree apparatus if safety protocol prohibits use of the close-contact tree design, Cleveland said.
Keith Hibbs, director of the office of worship leadership and church music for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, said some churches are hesitant to bring back choirs, so worship leaders need to develop alternative plans.
An online candlelight service, a Lord’s Supper celebration or a church-designed presentation with soloists, small groups and drama are good alternatives to big choir productions, Hibbs said.
Respect for choir members is key, Cleveland said.
“Be kind to your choir members and encourage them to participate as they feel led,” Cleveland recommended. “If a choir member doesn’t feel good about participating, then we, as music ministers, should respect that.”
With some congregants also afraid to return for in-person worship, church consultant Stephen Brewster suggested giving members the freedom to connect virtually. Holding out hope for members to come back, he said, can cause churches to miss the opportunity to engage people inside the building and out.
Brewster also suggested offering two distinct broadcast and live Christmas experiences and perhaps creating personal moments using a smartphone and tripod for close-up conversation-style elements to draw in at-home worshippers.
That’s the approach Fuller is taking at First, Pelham. The church’s “A Night of Hope” will combine an in-person choir and musicians with a virtual choir in live and broadcast events. Two socially distanced Christmas Eve services will also offer in-person and livestreaming options.
As worshippers cope with isolation fatigue, replacing traditional Christmas themes like “coming home” with an emphasis on the nostalgic moments of Christmas might be better this year, Brewster recommended.
Music publishers are adapting this year as well. LifeWay Worship offers “A Weary World Rejoices: Jazz Worship for Christmas,” a five-song project that was designed for the unique circumstances of this Christmas season.
Scheduled for release in October, the project can be performed in under 30 minutes by smaller teams of musicians: three singers, a small rhythm section and the congregation.
“The prevailing jazz overtones [of the title song] are synonymous with the Christmas season and provide an infusion of refreshing joy and hope as we close out such a challenging year,” said Craig Adams, LifeWay Worship director of creative development and publishing.
Outdoor spaces will be utilized perhaps more than ever this Christmas, too.
‘Walk Through Christmas’
Providence Baptist Church, Opelika, will use the church’s outdoor walking track to stage seven scenes of Christmas in their production, “Walk Through Christmas.” Guests will experience scenes with live actors, Scripture presentations and a song at each station, ending with a live nativity scene.
“We are hoping that [the production] will be a way to present the Christmas message safely to our church and community,” said Tom Smith, music minister at Providence.
Brewster encouraged churches to share how they have cared for their community this year and to connect with church members and even other pastors through phone calls and outreach activities. He suggested “Christmas in a box,” where holiday items like a wreath, CDs of sermons or the choir or soloists singing Christmas music, ornaments or advent calendars are packaged for delivery — anything that would help to foster the Christmas spirit.
“The Hope of Christmas is needed,” Fuller said. “The good news of Christmas is a balm during this time.
“Make plans with great intention to meet your congregation at their point of need. Offer what you can and utilize technology as much as possible. Be creative in how you can best engage your people during the season.”
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