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Cover Story
by EVAN CHRISTENSEN
Easter

 


Easter. Easter. If you’re like me—and I’m assuming you are because you’re reading an article in a publication about “church media”— it’s the first of two occasions annually when we really put in some creative overtime. It’s a time to step out of the weekly routine and try some- thing new, to challenge ourselves, and sometimes do things “bigger.”
This is at times turns out very cool and very anxiety-inducing. The anxiety, for me, stems from my fear of doing something trite, or derivative, or redundant. Ultimately, the po- tential for creating space—physically, tem- porally, emotionally, spiritually—makes the creative work in these contexts espe- cially exciting, unique, and meaningful.
Two years ago, my primary contribution for Easter was a short film segment reminiscent of the “Wise Up” scene in Magnolia by P. T. Anderson. We set our vignettes to the song “How He Loves,” which we re-arranged and recorded. We cast some actors, found some loca- tions, and figured out how to simultaneously playback music to in-ears for our talent and record their vocal performance on location. It was a challenging project, ultimately fairly well received, and probably a tad derivative, (meaning “unoriginal”) but at least it was derivative of something not typically seen in evangelical megachurches, to my knowledge. Last year I assumed I’d be making another film of some sort, and I also wanted to push myself to create something more original and pos- sibly more involved; to “step up my game.” It was decided that we would have a Maundy
Thursday gathering, an interactive Stations of the Cross experience on Good Friday, and Easter gatherings on Saturday and Sunday. From the start, the text of Psalm 88 was in my head for Good Friday, but because of the stations of the cross being the event for that day, we decided to end our Maundy Thursday gatherings with a responsive reading of that text, and then have everyone exit the darkened house in silence (like a traditional Tenebrae service).
I became fixated on Psalm 88 because it is one of very few psalms that does not resolve itself, but ends with words of despair, “darkness is my only friend.” As for exiting in silence, I remembered the weightiness, uniqueness, and mystery of the Tenebrae service my dad had led as a pastor when I was a little kid. I had never forgotten that experience and thought it might fit well with our plans. For Easter, we decided on Acts 10:34-43 as our text, and “This is the Day” as the theme for the week, referring to the passage in Psalm 118: “This is the day the Lord has made, we will rejoice and be glad in it,” not only in regard to Christ’s resurrection, but also his suffering and death.
As I said, there’s a certain unspoken pressure in larger churches to do things “bigger.” Bigger sets. More lights. Bigger music. Bigger and better for Easter. I believe there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, unless “bigger” becomes an idol that needs smashing. Ultimately, we want to use our venue, the church’s meeting place, as a sacred space to craft a significant, engrossing worship experience for a gathered community of people. So we decided to use a couple of modern tools to pull off a fairly simple and more traditional experience, one that we felt was intimate, involved, dark, hopeful and celebratory—all in the course of a week.
Our Maundy Thursday gathering centered on the Seder (Passover) meal. Each person received a box with the individual components of the meal, and participated communally throughout the evening, led by our lead pastor, Dale. We had a low-key, acoustic musical set from the center of the house, and the evening culminated in the reading of Psalm 88. I had stumbled across the voice talent we would later use while videotaping a theology class at another church weeks before Easter. This guy, named Troy, a minister with a background in rap music (and frankly, a lot more “urban” than the typical attendee at our church was accustomed to hearing) volunteered to read a Psalm in class. He had a gritty, raw, impassioned delivery that stuck in my memory and, thankfully, resurfaced when trying to come up with a suitable voice. I didn’t know the guy but asked him and he graciously agreed to come to our campus and record at our studio. Troy laid down an amazing read in little more than one take, and because he sounded so good and things had gone so quickly, we had him read the Acts 10 text as well. I did some minor edits to the voiceover recording, and cre- ated a simple text scroll on black in Adobe After Effects to match the audio. On Maundy Thursday, as the video rolled, the house lights were dimmed and a huge black drape was hoisted to the roof, obscuring the entire stage. Everyone exited in silence at the end of the video.
For Easter, we opened the gathering with a dark house and the curtain still raised, and a video rolled—again, text-only, but this time a two-color blue-and-white design. A female voiceover read a prologue summing up the events of the past week, and then continued on to the Acts 10 passage read by Troy. As opposed to the Maundy Thursday reading, the response for this reading was “He is risen.” Again, I animated a scroll using After Effects, using the new color scheme and a bolder font, and punctuating certain phrases with a vivid red color. But this time the video was time-code synced to the orchestra and lighting via Virtual VTR software (on my end), which enabled the video with musical underscore (nicely arranged by musical genius, Mason) to flow seamlessly into the chorus of the song, “Christ is Risen” by Matt Maher, performed live on stage by orchestra and choir.
At the transition moment from video to live stage performance, a remote trigger released the entire black drape and it dropped to the floor as a sweeping light cue illuminated the stage and audience. When it all came together, it gave me chills the four times we performed it, even though I was sitting in the video control room huddled over a bank of monitors.
At the end of the day, we wanted to use all these tools to craft a coherent narrative experience: that told a story, allowed for introspection and reflection, and drew people into a deep emotional response. I was proud that the way we presented our ideas was largely original, and that without putting on some really big and com- plex show, we were able to draw people into a deep and rewarding journey. It also reminded me how awesome a shared experience in a live venue can be. The challenges were mainly technical, and minor, reminding me that my own (self-) doubts are essentially unrealistic and plainly false. It reminded me that, even though my first impulse is typically to aim for the stars and create a “great film,” after all I’m part of a larger movement and that my individual goals are subservient to the goals we have for our worship arts department and the entire church community. Now it’s 2013, and it’s time to repeat the process.

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