Good Friday this year at First Baptist was filled with light and color and sound as the church choir performed their Easter concert, Here Comes the Son. Those who attended experienced the Gospel story through ten musical pieces and were invited to decide for themselves what they thought of this man called Jesus. Someone attending the concert for the first time might be amazed at how deftly so many details come together to tell the story, but it isn’t without a great deal of hard work and preparation that begins long before the lights come up for the first performance.
Dane Burg, First Baptist’s Pastor of Worship Arts, starts planning around December 26th. “You have to start with a seed of inspiration,” he says, “Whether that's through a song that becomes the centerpiece of the program or a video that summarizes what you want to communicate or just a conceptual idea. Something has to trigger the imagination.”
Once he has that inspiration, Dane meets with Susan Alexander, FBC’s choir director, to make music selections that expand on the centerpiece or theme for the concert. For Susan, this is one of the most challenging parts of the process. “A few really good songs are found after listening to many, many not so good songs. It's frustrating and time consuming.” Once chosen, designing a timeline for learning those songs takes work as well: “We need to learn about 10 songs per concert within a predetermined timeframe. Each song must be analyzed to determine which ones will be harder to learn than others. This is the deciding factor in how much time each song needs to perfect; which in turn, determines the rehearsal schedule. We want to have enough time to master the songs without peaking too soon and losing momentum.” The choir starts practicing in early February in order to master those pieces by Easter.
Apart from learning the songs, there are multiple tiny details that must be coordinated to make the concert a success. A script is written that ties the various pieces together to tell a story. Visuals are designed to complement the narration and music. Then there’s music orchestration, contracting the musicians, publication, and stage set-up.
This is a small glimpse of work done over several months to produce one concert; in reality, however, FBC’s musical presentations have been developing over the course of many years.
Susan remembers when Pastor Steve Newman first asked her to lead choir in 1998. “When I told him that I had pursued a music degree primarily to use in the ministry of conducting choirs, he asked me if I would consider taking on the FBC choir just through Christmas since the current director had left. My first impulse was to say no, as it had been a while since I had led a choir and I felt quite rusty; but he concluded the invitation with ‘will you pray about it?’ (is that fair?) So I did. I put aside my discomfort, and God turned it into an excitement for an opportunity to exercise my gifts for a short 4 months that has turned into 15 years.”
Back then, the choir consisted of 16 members eager to learn all they could about music; today that number has grown to 65. Add to that the orchestra, whom Dane began to bring in when he became worship pastor: “It started with a few brass players. Since I play periodically with the Stockton Symphony, I knew most of the players. I would contract them as the needs developed. By following a few simple rules, such as pay them union wages, be ready, start on time, finish on time, these concerts have been highly sought after in the local musician realm.”
First Baptist invites those in the community to attend these concerts for free, despite the long hours of preparation and monetary costs. So what is their purpose?
“To tell God's story well,” says Dane, “to every single person that walks through those doors … We can never underestimate the opportunity that we have every time God allows us to put one of these concerts together.”
Susan agrees. “To honor our Lord and in doing so bring others to worship Him … It's so meaningful to present Jesus' great sacrifice through the powerful medium of music. Some people may hear it for the first time; some have heard it before but suddenly they understand; and some hear it again and are reminded of the great price it cost to redeem them. It's such a privilege to be involved in the Holy Spirit's work of bringing people to the Truth.”
And as so many people from different backgrounds, each an integral part of the Body of Christ, strive together towards these ultimate goals, something amazing happens. “Singing is only the end result ... We want to serve the church, each other, and foremost, our Lord with a heart that is pure and obedient to His purpose. We want to be real.”