By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
FRANKLIN — Christmas music presentations won’t be the same in most Tennessee Baptist churches this year or may not occur at all, thanks to COVID-19.
Most Tennessee Baptist choirs begin in October or early November to prepare their Christmas music. For many of these churches, it involves the traditional choir plus senior adult, children’s and youth choirs and, oftentimes, orchestra and handbell ringers.
“This will be a Christmas like no other for worship and music ministries across Tennessee,” observed Scott Shepherd, worship and music specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board.
“COVID-19 has impacted every facet of church life and music ministries are no exception,” he noted. “A season usually marked by tradition this year demands innovation and creativity.”
Shepherd, a former music and worship pastor at First Baptist Church, Paris, observed that for many congregations, 2020 will be the first year in the church’s existence without a Christmas music presentation or cantata. “For others, these musical programs will look quite different than in previous years,” he said.
“The need to communicate the good news of the Christmas story is unchanged, but the methodology is quite different for many worship ministries this Christmas,” Shepherd added.
There are so many challenges that worship and music leaders have to deal with that they never thought about prior to the pandemic, the TBMB worship leader said.
For instance, social distancing is an issue. For churches with large choirs, it is almost impossible to social distance. “Many choir lofts don’t have adequate space for socially distanced choirs,” he said.
In addition, Shepherd observed that singing spreads aerosols and droplets (carriers of COVID-19) farther and at a faster rate than normal speech. Because of that, many people feel that the suggested six-feet for social distancing is inadequate for choirs, Shepherd continued.
Chris Headley, worship/music leader at First Baptist Church, Dandridge, agreed. Some experts in the field of music suggest spreading out as much as 10-12 feet, he noted. Even with a large platform that FBC has, that’s almost impossible to do, Headley said, so the choir has not performed live. Instead, he has used praise teams and developed a way for the choir to sing virtually.
The same scenario plays out for churches that use instruments in praise bands or orchestras. Worship leaders have to consider questions such as: “How do we space out our instruments? Does a flute spread COVID-19 differently than a trumpet? Can I arrange my guitar player and drummer closer together? How about my violinist?”
And, then there is the question of masks. “Have you ever tried singing in a mask?” Shepherd asked.
There is also the matter of rehearsals. As COVID numbers have spiked across the state in recent months, many churches are postponing week night events such as Wednesday evening services, committee meetings and even choir rehearsals. “When churches don’t gather on Wednesday and Sunday nights, when can choirs rehearse Christmas programs?” Shepherd asked.
In addition, most Tennessee Baptist churches have not yet regained pre-COVID worship attendance, he observed. Some churches’ attendance is hovering in the 30 percent range of normal, he said. “A 70 percent reduction in a choir, orchestra or worship team attendance is devastating,” Shepherd added.
Churches have adapted
Yet, some churches in the convention have adapted and will have Christmas music, Shepherd said.
He cited Central Baptist Church, Bearden, in Knoxville. The church filmed “a 40-ish minute Christmas special” in October which will be streamed on Christmas Eve via YouTube, Facebook and centralbearden.org, he said, adding that it will also air on a local network affiliate in Knoxville on Christmas morning.
“The film features a wide variety of seasonal music with singers, worship team and band, brass, strings, dance, handbells, pipe organ and personal stories from multiple venues around the church campus. An original, arranged medley of Christmas carols features members of the choir, filmed appropriately distanced in the church’s sanctuary,” he said.
Shepherd noted that some churches are “going the virtual choir route, where choir members record themselves individually singing from home. Then the videos are edited together into a “virtual choir” that can be shared in worship via a screen as well as on social media platforms, he added.
One of those churches is First Baptist in Dandridge. The church actually began a virtual choir shortly after the pandemic began so he could keep members involved, Headley said. Choir members record their portion at home and send it to Headley. He then edits the video and uses it on a screen behind either a soloist or small team of singers. It provides both virtual and live voices and keeps the choir involved, Headley said.
Shepherd observed that churches with worship bands and small vocal teams have been impacted less by COVID. “Socially distancing a worship band and a small worship team is logistically easier than doing so for a large choir and orchestra,” he said.
Henry Simpson worship/music minister at First Baptist Church, Huntingdon, noted that he normally would have prepared a large-scale cantata this Christmas, but COVID changed his plans. Instead, the church held a small Christmas musical on Dec. 13 using a praise team.
Northside Baptist Church in Murfreesboro is another church that normally would have done a presentation with full choir and orchestra, said Terry Jolley, worship/music minister.
“This year we have a vocal octet with strings and rhythm section,” he noted. In addition, “we have divided our orchestra up into small ensembles to play Christmas carols as our church family enters and leaves each service.”
At First Baptist Church, Camden, David Boyd, worship/music minister, chose to divide his choir into small ensembles each Sunday, “using a song we would have used in a musical presentation.” He added that the small ensembles have incorporated nearly 90 percent of the choir while allowing for social distancing and have used three or four other people who have not sung in the choir before.
Churches, regardless of size or numbers in the choir, have adapted.
Rusty Eason, worship/music minister at Mount Gilead Baptist Church, Bethel Springs, noted that his choir did not have time “to adequately prepare” a musical so they presented two songs from last year’s musical on Dec. 13.
Jacob Kitchens, worship/music pastor at First Baptist Church, Lawrenceburg, noted that on a recent Sunday, he only had 12 singers. “We are choosing to pull out one Christmas anthem per Sunday that lines up with the week of Advent. The best part? I’m already prepped for next Christmas,” he said.
“The message of the Jesus Christ (Immanuel, the Word who “became flesh, and made his dwelling among us”) is vital, especially during this year of darkness and distress,” Shepherd said. “I’m so proud of Tennessee Baptists for finding creative ways to share this message of hope through the music of Christmas.”