Pandemic protocols spark creative Christmas worship

First Baptist Church in Waxahachie presented "Christmas City Lights," a musical that incorporated technology in creative ways to make the experience safe both for participants and the audience. (Photo courtesy of First Baptist Waxahachie)

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The COVID-19 pandemic safety protocols may have prevented traditional Christmas pageants, but technology makes possible different kinds of meaningful musical expressions, said Chett Haynes, associate pastor of administration and worship at First Baptist Church in Waxahachie.

Chett Haynes, associate pastor of administration and worship at First Baptist Church in Waxahachie, and Cameron Hawkins, the church’s creative director, developed “Christmas City Lights” as a COVID-safe immersive experience. (Photo courtesy of First Baptist Waxahachie)

“If we had a live performance with singers projecting their voices, the droplets could spread up to 25 feet in front of them, and we could end up with a super-spreader event,” Haynes said. “It’s just impossible to use the choir loft safely.”

So, during the summer, Haynes met with creative director Cameron Hawkins to discuss how the church could offer a safe but celebrative Christmas experience for the congregation and the community.

“We decided to capitalize on the technology we have available,” Haynes said. “It was really his (Hawkins’) brainchild.”

Together, Haynes and Hawkins developed “Christmas City Lights”—an immersive experience for families, presented the first three Saturdays in December.

“This is Cameron’s concept,” Haynes said. “It’s great to have a creative genius on staff.”

A stroll down Starlight Lane

Guests at First Baptist Church in Waxahachie were invited to stroll down Starlight Lane, featuring projected images of individuals in Victorian costumes. (Photo courtesy of First Baptist Waxahachie)

When guests arrived, they walked down “Starlight Lane,” a Victorian-style village where they were greeted at the door of each house by church members in costume—or rather, by their holograms.

When visitors looked up, they saw starlight projected on the ceiling of the church’s atrium.

“We wanted people to understand the idea that God sent light to a dark and needy world,” Haynes said.

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Once worshippers entered the sanctuary, they experienced a hybrid choral presentation featuring live performance by a small choral ensemble and projected video recordings of the full choir and the orchestra.

The choir practiced each Thursday evening—spaced out at safe distances from each other throughout the sanctuary—for several weeks in preparation.

“Honestly, it was miserable having to rehearse the way we did it, not being able to hear the person next to you. But our people were so great about it,” Haynes said.

Individual recording sessions with small groups of singers began in October.

“The recordings with the choir and orchestra involved more than 450 tracks, recording just a few voices at a time,” Haynes said.

Once the audio tracks were mixed, video recording and editing took additional time.

“It was a lot of work, but it’s been very rewarding,” he said.

Making ‘COVID lemonade’

Visitors to “Christmas City Lights” experienced a hybrid choral presentation featuring live performance by a small choral ensemble and projected video recordings of the full choir and the orchestra. (Photo Courtesy of First Baptist Waxahachie)

The church offered two performances—at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.—on three consecutive Saturdays and limited the size of the audience by asking people to secure free tickets online in advance.

For six months after the COVID-19 pandemic hit Texas, First Baptist in Waxahachie scheduled no on-campus activities, offering online-only worship experiences. Before in-person worship resumed, the church removed most of the chairs from the sanctuary, so each person would be six feet from the nearest worshipper.

“We wanted to make sure it was totally safe for everybody involved,” Haynes said.

Even with drastically reduced seating capacity, the “Christmas City Lights” format of six performances involving rotating groups of live singers actually allowed more to attend than the typical two performances of a pageant on one weekend, he noted.

Haynes acknowledged he misses having the choir loft filled to capacity, but he said the church is committed to “focus on the positive” and see opportunities in the midst of the pandemic.

“We never would have done something like this in a million years before COVID,” he said.

Without a doubt, COVID-19 made 2020 a “lemon” year in many respects.

“But I believe this is COVID lemonade at its best,” Haynes said.

Other Texas Baptist churches also found creative ways to use technology to share Christmas music this year:

  • Trinity Baptist Church in Orange recorded a series of individual Christian testimonies by members, along with multiple musical selections by a six-member ensemble. The church posted the video to YouTube, printed 9,000 postcards with a QR code linked to the video, and then mailed them to people in the community.
  • The music ministry at South Garland Baptist Church in Garland produced a dozen brief videos it called “The 12 Days of Christmas,” which the church posted on Facebook and encouraged members to share. Each video included narration of Christmas readings by church members, followed by a musical selection. The videos included solo choral and instrumental selections, a handbell choir, a small ensemble, piano and organ duets, and a family trio.

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