My Big Red Christmas Folder

by Curt Taipale

If you’re like me, every year about this time your bright red Christmas folder starts bulging with the latest information on the technical needs of this year’s upcoming mega-production. Some churches put on larger-than-life, spectacular events designed to attract a large unchurched public, while others prefer a quieter, more intimate celebration of our mutual joy. Whatever your preference, no one has ever been hurt by a little proper organization of the details that go into making the production all it was envisioned to be. So before we start putting up all the trimmings, I thought this might be a good time to look over how at least one church is dealing with the "Oh, by the way" requests before they happen.

A Hit on the Head

Planning for this year’s Christmas production started for us last January. It hasn’t always been that way. Mind you, it should have been. Fortunately for us and the attending public, being knocked on the head with a few bricks repeatedly over the years has helped season the planning decisions of this production team.

Our first meeting in January was one of congratulating each other for our respective jobs well done during the Christmas production just past, with vows of "that’ll never happen again" directed toward the few slip-ups that did occur. Then we quickly moved into a few blank stares wondering where we were headed for this year’s event. We did leave the table, however, excited about the outcome of the brainstorming we did, with each of us assigned to research and come back with suggestions for songs and scripts ­ either existing or original. In our case, the production team includes the department heads for audio, video, lighting, music arranging, choir director and drama director, plus our supervisors.

I should mention at this point that the production values and design guidelines within which we need to work are at the same time a benefit and a frustration. We often would come up with stunning ideas for themes or concepts that would be ruled out by our senior pastor because they didn’t fit all of the guidelines. Some of those guidelines are almost silly. For example, I was stunned to find out that at one recent Christmas service at least one unchurched couple was put off not at all by the content of the service, nor the style of worship, but by the fact the our senior pastor chose not to wear a suit and tie that year, dressing casually with a nice sweater instead. Who would have ever guessed!?! (Except maybe another pastor!)

Some of these guidelines take into account our demographics. St. Louis is certainly not a small town, but it is strongly populated by Catholics and a conservative "unchurched Harry" majority. That simply means that they love a "traditional" type of Christmas service including choir, famous Christmas hymns and popular songs sung the traditional way (not some newfangled arrangement) and so on. If you can package those elements and tie them together with a good, simple, brief storyline that creates a handful of special "moments," both the general public, your church congregation and their friends and neighbors will love the production ­ at least in St. Louis.

Ah, if it were only that simple! Add to all of those traditional values the realization that our particular congregation ­ heavily weighted toward the 25 to 45 year old age group ­ very much enjoys the fact that most of our regular worship services lean toward a contemporary worship music style. It can be a challenge to build a congruent Christmas service with music styles that run from J. Bach to R. Taff. (My word, what am I saying!?! Don’t all church music directors ask for that every service!?! Please excuse my momentary lapse of memory.)

Using What Works for Us

During our planning stages we have been careful to remember what works well for us, and more importantly what doesn’t. For one, we are blessed with the equipment and the technical staff to pull off reasonably complex, stunning productions. Well-coordinated lighting, staging, audio effects and video support can really drive home the point of the lyrics to a song and of an entire production. So we use this as a strong point, and spend a great deal of time, effort and creativity to integrate those elements into the event.

We also have some of the best musicians and singers in town. While they enjoy pulling off a diverse range of musical styles, they are probably most at home with the contemporary musical style that is the mainstay of our worship services. Again, we use this strength to our advantage in choosing the songs that will be performed.

Our drama team certainly isn’t as seasoned as some, but with a good script they can still bring a tear to our congregation or make them roar with laughter. All I’m saying is that we wouldn’t have the capacity to pull off a major dramatic event at this time, nor is our stage built to accommodate such a production, but we can use short, powerful dramatic sketches to our advantage, sometimes using them to create tension and release.

Okay, I might sound a little pompous and prideful. But wait. Yes we have a few things together, but that overnight success has taken us fifteen years to achieve. Secondly, we don’t have it all together. There are several areas in which we are weak. We work on those areas behind the scenes and in smaller service settings. We’re not about to throw them out in front of the entire community until they are developed to the point that they are presentable.

Choosing songs has never been much of an issue. We select songs according to the theme of the message every week, so choosing songs for a special production is work we’re used to. And with a list of past music pastors like Kent Henry, Tom Brooks and Bill Ancira, we’ve never really been at a loss for original material. But that still doesn’t make things easy. Choosing songs for the Christmas or Easter productions are even more difficult because of those guidelines that keep getting in our way. Gee, without those guidelines we could easily put together a glorious, powerful Christmas production that would please everyone in the production team. No one would probably ever come back, but the productionteam would love it! (Ever felt that way?)

Here’s another dilemma we face each year. Our senior pastor also prefers that we not do drama sketches or major productions that have been performed elsewhere. Yet up to this point we have not had a history of success with drama scripts written in-house. Oh, they’ve been okay, and there has been an occasional hit, but in the past we’ve simply been stronger in other areas.

So where does all the material come from? Well, from everywhere. For example, we chose a core theme for this year of "Why the World Needs a Savior Now." We found a published script that provides a thread that will serve to pull the entire evening together, and will help us create those moments that are so important to the night. And we have found a few tremendously powerful songs that fit perfectly and will really hit home with our audience. With those elements in place, filling in the holes will be easy. By the time you read this, we should have all the elements solidly in place, and some pieces will already have rehearsals scheduled.

Putting it all together is just a matter of remembering to point to the outcome you want. You glance at and deal with the problems that come up along the way, but you never point to them. We want our audience to enjoy their evening together. We want them to truly understand the real meaning of Christmas ­ the birth of Jesus, His gift of salvation, and the importance of family. We realize that many who attend will come to that realization for the very first time in their life, and we want to remain sensitive to their needs. We also want our audience to have an opportunity to reflect on a warm, encouraging, positive memory of a Christmas from their past.

The Production Schedule

As I mentioned, we learned from last year. This year we scheduled monthly Christmas production meetings from January through August. Now, we learned the value of those meetings long ago, but last fall a busy production team tried to gloss over the details of the Christmas production at one of our meetings. At the end of the meeting, I was frustrated and suggested that there were several points left unsettled, so we decided to have a "quick" meeting the next morning to resolve those issues. We were all stunned to see our "quick" meeting turn into a six hour major ordeal as each of us picked through every line of the cue sheet only to uncover a long list of details that hadn’t been thought through nor assigned to a person to carry it through. Oh, we would have found them eventually, but the dress rehearsal is not the time to uncover that kind of mess.

As we come closer to the event, our pace continues to pick up. We started biweekly Christmas production meetings last September. We’ll start weekly meetings on October 11th, and they will continue through to the performance date. Here’s an overview of some of the other items that are on our master Christmas Production Schedule, produced in calendar form. The initials after each entry tells which individual is responsible for that item.

August 19th
  • Production Assignments (MS)
  • Schedule Review (MS)

  • September 14th
  • Preliminary Song Selection Complete (BO, BP)

  • September 15th
  • Preliminary Set Design Ready (CG, MD, MS)
  • Preliminary Video Ideas Ready (MD)
  • Preliminary Lighting Design Ready (CG)

  • September 29th
  • Song Selection Approved (BO, BP)

  • September 30th>
  • Set Design Approved (CG, MD, MS)
  • Lighting Design Approved (CG)
  • Video Ideas Approved (MD)

  • October 1st
  • Budget Set (MS)

  • Bulletin Announcement for Tech Team (MS)
  • Audio Needs Identified (CT)

  • October 7th
  • Budget Requests Due (CT, CG, MD, BO, BP)

  • October 9th
  • Set Builders Chosen (CG, MS)

  • October 15th
  • Drama Cast Complete (BP)
  • Soloists Chosen (BO)
  • Musicians Contracted (BO)
  • Order Candles (AB)

  • October 23rd
  • Tech Crew & Decorating Crew Schedules (CG, MS)

  • November 1st
  • Preliminary Cue Sheet Done (MD)

  • November 10th
  • Preliminary Bulletin Info to Publications (BP)

  • November 25th
  • Move Christmas Decorations to Auditorium (CG)

  • December 4th
  • Final Bulletin Info to Publications (BP)

  • December 5th
  • Auditorium & Foyer Decorations Complete (CG)

  • December 21st
  • 5:15 pm Tech Call (MD)
  • 6:30 pm Dress Rehearsal

  • December 22nd
  • 1:00 pm Tentative Critique Meeting
  • 4:15 pm Tech Call (MD)
  • 5:15 pm Run Through (BP)
  • 7:00 pm Performance

  • December 23rd
  • 1:00 pm Tentative Critique Meeting

  • December 24th
  • 4:15 pm Tech Call (MD)
  • 5:15 pm Run Through (BP)
  • 7:00 pm Performance

  • December 26th
  • 10:00 am Audio/Video/Lighting Crews ­ Minor Stage Reset

  • December 28th
  • Major Stage Reset (Everyone)

  • December 31st
  • Production Team Day Off!!!

  • The listing might look fairly complete, but this schedule was generated in July, so a few "given" details have been left off. It looks like I’ve got it pretty easy, but if you look closer you might notice that a few minor items are missing ­ like when the staging will be built and set in place, when the technical rehearsals will be run, when the band and singers will rehearse, when the choir will rehearse on stage. Those and others will be added as soon as those decisions have been made, typically closer to the event. Also, to really drive the point home graphically, we use a computer generated calendar to track these entries rather than a simple list. Unfortunately, there are so many entries on this production calendar that we can’t successfully merge it with our regular production calendar, so we’ll all be carrying two calendars around with us for the next few months.

    One major revelation that merging those two calendars would clarify is that this same tech crew still has to maintain our regular Tuesday evening, Saturday evening, Sunday morning and Sunday evening services on the same stage throughout this production. Likewise, the worship team will be learning songs for both the Christmas production and the regular services. That’s nothing new to many of my readers, I know, but it’s kinda scary when you see it in print, isn’t it!?! (I’m a little worried, too. Either we’re not having our usual New Years’ Eve service this year, or someone forgot about it. Hmmm, maybe if we just don’t say anything ... )


    Most of what I’ve said here just chronicles how we do it. It works for us. If you see anything here that helps, then great ­ I hope you’ll try and implement it into your own projects. One of my major points is to plan, then plan some more, then review your plans and plan some more! Studies suggest that every fifteen minutes spent planning saves one hour at the actual task. Yes, I too have often hoped that if we could just plan enough the production would produce itself. It hasn’t worked yet.

    I’d like to mention that we didn’t always generate these calendars in the past. It’s a learned response. In fact, we used our first production schedule calendar for last year’s Christmas production. We didn’t start generating our monthly production calendars to track weekly events and production needs until about eight months ago. Now we look at each other in disbelief, wondering how we ever pulled it off without them. I think maybe we worked the Holy Spirit pretty hard.

    So, do you have a Christmas folder in plain sight on your desk!?! For those of you who don’t, why not? "But we’re just a small church, we don’t need to do all that." Oh really!?! On the chance that someone reading this hasn’t yet heard the phrase, remember this ­ those who fail to plan are simply planning to fail. If you’re not approaching this, one of the best opportunities for evangelism in the year, with diligence and careful planning, then, well... best of "luck" - you’re going to need it.

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