When I was the music director at a small church plant of around 300 (I’ve received literal hate-email over that comment – let me assure you, here in the Buckle of the Bible Belt, 300 people amounts to a small church plant LOL!) I always tried to have some sort of special “something” for a December Sunday morning. This basically amounted to my contemporary version of the old time Christmas canata that I grew up hearing in church.
My version turned the canata into a glorified praise set – a mix of my contemporary carols, original Christmas worship songs and Scripture readings. I even had a choir of about 25 people (we were typically a praise team church but I had a choir at Christmas and Easter.)
But you know how it is in a smaller church – you have to do everything yourself. In my case I wrote or arranged all the music, notated it, printed copies, made notebooks and rehearsal CDs, scheduled the choir (in the days before PlanningCenter I had to call each person!) rehearsed the choir and praise band.
And as all you bi-vocationers out there know, you can get pretty stressed trying to juggle your church work (you want it to be as good as it can be) yet still pay your bills by doing other jobs.
So I’d make it through our special Sunday, collapse after church into a long winter’s nap, awaken Monday morning and realize now I had to pull off something amazing for Christmas Eve – as easily, simply and quickly as possible. Here are some guidelines I followed:
1. Realize your resources are probably limited on Christmas Eve and act accordingly. Do the best you can with what you’ve got. Some of my best singers and players would either be out of town on Christmas Eve or simply be occupied by family gatherings. This will mean you’ll need to:
2. Lead Christmas Eve yourself or pull together a small praise team/ensemble. Since I’m not a vocalist I had to rely on lay worship leaders and other singers. And since my best singers were typically gone on Christmas Eve, one year I pulled together a small group from my Christmas choir who were in town. If you can lead the service yourself, choose your best available female/male vocalist for added harmony and let them sing a solo on a verse or lead a song for variety.
3. Use a stripped-down praise band or just piano and acoustic. One year our bass player was in town so it was me on piano and him on bass. He was a Berklee grad so this freed him up to play some pretty amazing and creative things he wouldn’t normally do with a full band. Sometimes I’d have a cellist and acoustic guitar. For an intimate Christmas Eve I actually prefer to go without drums.
4. Don’t stress out with all-new music. I made it easy for the small group from the choir – we repeated a favorite Christmas song they sang on the special Sunday morning – they didn’t have to learn anything new and sounded confident. The rest of the songs were congregational carols and didn’t require much rehearsal.
5. Change your environment. If possible, set up your room differently. The church met in a multi-purpose room with folding chairs. This allowed us to change things up by arranging the chairs “in the round” for Christmas Eve with the singers and instrumentalists in the center.
6. Rent a baby grand piano. For a few hundred bucks we had a baby grand delivered a few days before Christmas Eve. Since I normally led from a keyboard on stage the grand “in the round” added a bit of class and sonic variety to the service.
7. Get a little help from your friends. One year a professional opera singer friend of mine was in town and was willing to join us for Christmas Eve. She raised the roof on my “popera” version of “O Holy Night.”
8. Use a talented kid or teen. A children’s choir was too much for me to manage in a small church on Christmas Eve (although I used one when I worked at a megachurch with more resources) so instead I had a talented elementary school girl with an amazing voice sing a short, popular Christmas song. One year I had a talented high school boy sing.
10. Light candles during “Silent Night.” No Christmas Eve service is complete without lighting candles while singing “Silent Night.” Keep candles under each seat and invite your congregation to light them at the end of the service during the song (ushers will get the whole thing going, lighting candles at the end of rows.) Make sure you do one verse acapella. This tradition will be talked about and remembered by your congregation for years. Try having a young person (like the one I’ve recorded on my demo) sing the first verse of “Silent Night” as the congregation lights their candles.
11. Let music tie your service together. Listen to my Christmas Service Guides to get an idea of how this works – a capable keyboard player is crucial for worship flow in a stripped-down setting. If your keyboardist isn’t comfortable improvising under Scripture readings or prayer, have him or her simply play softly through the upcoming song – you’ll be in the right key and feel, and ready to sing when the reading/prayer is finished.
Yes, even small churches can have a memorable Christmas Eve. In fact, a simpler service better serves this special night, and can give an unsaved visitor space to pause and reflect.