Tech View: Planning for Christmas at the Arena
Tech View: Planning for Christmas at the Arena
Manchester Christian Church stages its Christmas at the Arena spectacular each year at the Southern New Hampshire University Arena. Benjamin Davis recounts the planning and preparation involved
One of two things is always true: Easter is coming, or Christmas is coming. We are always on the lookout for songs, service elements or creative ideas that would be impactful at our largest services of the year. We typically do events at the arena for both Christmas and Easter, which provides us with some unique opportunities.
We usually begin Christmas planning in earnest around September. Planning is broken out into several different areas, with weekly meetings to measure progress and coordinate strategy. Our Creative Arts department consists of both our worship and production teams. Worship takes care of the service order, song list and arrangements, while production designs creative elements around what they decide. For our large arena services, we work with a company called Events United to supply and run most of the AVL, so there is a lot of coordinating with them on service order and design concepts. It’s always fun to see how creative ideas can be brought to life. As we get closer to an event, I’m regularly at their shop talking through service changes and design.
To plan everything, we use Planning Center Online. We put a lot of work into making sure that each service element contains as much detail as possible. Who is leading the song, what will be on each screen, what will be online – these are all examples of things the team needs to know that can change for each element. We also bring the Events United team into our plan so that they can get updates as often as the rest of us.
Additionally, there are always two major service elements that get specific attention. First, the opener for each service is crucial. We want to start with something really big and really special. Planning this element can take as much, or even more, time than the rest of the service combined and requires the collaboration of all the aforementioned groups. This is often the single biggest production piece of the entire service.
Second, we want to make sure we have a memorable take-away from later in the service; that one moment or element that comes to mind when you think back to that service. For example, in 2018 we used balloons. Everyone got a balloon and everyone held it inflated throughout the service. On stage, the senior pastor popped a red balloon to reveal a white one inside it. There ended up being plenty to remember from the service, from popping balloons to using mobile phone flashlights to illuminate them. It’s a visual, it’s something everyone can engage in and it’s a great story for people to tell others.
Each year we effectively start from scratch. Nothing is assumed to be carried over from the previous year, but some things get the green light pretty quick. The PA has been the same the past few years, the stage has been the same the past few years, the band positions have been the same and we have a choir each time. But those are consistencies, not constants – we are looking at changing up at least one of those for Easter this year. Ultimately, we’re always evaluating what went well, what design looked good and what creative element worked or failed in the room (or online).
For Christmas 2018, we looked back at what our video looked like in previous years and decided that we needed more texture behind the pastor. As our online campus continues to rapidly grow, the quality of our video is becoming more important. So, we took the LED wall we usually use for a lyric banner and made it a design element, low on stage so it would be caught by the cameras.
How do we decide what works and what doesn’t? We watch and listen. What are people talking about when they leave or in the days and weeks after? Did people react to specific elements the way we expected them to? Did the volunteer teams have everything they needed to make the event a success? Everything from planning, to setting up, to the service itself, to teardown and load-out gets analysed. It’s also rare that if something technical didn’t work we would dismiss it entirely. In those situations the question becomes, what needs to happen to make this work?
It’s really special to be able to have services in an arena and many of our volunteers jump at the chance to serve. The more challenging areas are load-in and load-out. Load-in happens during the day when people are working and no one wants to do load-out as we’re exhausted, it’s late and we all want to be at home with our families. So, those are the big asks that we make of our team.