By Eric Byrd
In March 2020 I was a lot of things. I was employed full time selling advertising space on a successful radio station. My jazz trio, The Eric Byrd Trio, was in the midst of playing concerts at venues all over the Maryland, DC, and Virginia region. I was being pursued by a prominent private school in a town next to where I live. They wanted and needed someone to come into their arts department and be their department chair. Music has always been my life, so that position was becoming more and attractive to me. And if that’s not enough, the gospel choir I directed at a college – now university – was going strong. Monday night rehearsals with those kids were a great way to start a busy week.
At this time, I was also the part time contemporary music leader at Frederick Church of the Brethren. Frederick has been a church for well over 100 years – literally – and they were big on participation, low on innovation. When I took over in October of 2019 it was a stagnant church by my estimation. What they were doing on Sundays was nice. It wasn’t innovative, exciting, passionate or particularly rambunctious, but it was your typical North American, check-the-box church service. I really didn’t want the position, but I was attracted to the new pastor they hired. He was then and is now a strong public speaker, experienced as a leader. He’d only been at Frederick for about 3 years and I thought if I could get the music up to industry standard, he could preach sitting on top of that.
Then The World Stopped
I’ve never been Irish. I’ve been African American my entire life. But when I say everything changed starting St. Patrick’s Day of 2020, March 17th, that is the understatement of the last year. I don’t remember much about high school, but I clearly remember reading Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” and the ominous phrase ‘beware the ides of March’. If I had known that would be the last weekend of normalcy and sanity, perhaps I would have preemptively bought stock in Zoom.
Seemingly overnight The Virus infected bodies and every aspect of life. No longer would anything be the same. Specifically, for me I lost my sales job. My Trio was forced into hibernation having no venues to perform. The private school rescinded their offer as they debated closing the doors entirely. The gospel choir of over 50 is now barely 7, as singing became the absolute worst activity to engage in during the pandemic.
Pause A Moment With Me
What do you do when your best laid plans fall by the wayside? What do you do when what you thought you’d be doing with your life seems impossible? What happens when it seems like all hope and life as you knew it is now gone?
I’ve often wondered what it was like on Saturday. Sure, we call Friday “Good” Friday and, some two thousand years later, we know Easter Sunday is coming. But what was it like on Saturday? When Christ was really dead? Even his staunchest supporters must have had a sliver of doubt; they were human beings, after all. I know it’s convenient to think they were ultra-steadfast, without doubt, completely loyal and couldn’t wait for Him to conquer the grave. But it’s almost expected that, even though they had seen miracles on a regular basis and knew everything He said, there would still be a scintilla of doubt.
Rethinking How We Did Things
When the pandemic hit those first couple of days a year ago, Frederick Church of the Brethren was virtually unknown in the virtual world. No online presence at all. The church didn’t even have an Instagram page and that’s free to sign up for. It would be easy to count all the things we weren’t, instead of counting the things we were doing in terms of innovation and technology. Lead Pastor Kevin King called me and said, “We are going to have to find creative ways to get God’s Word to the people.”
Let’s pause there for a moment because this is key: leaders see obstacles as opportunity. They don’t fixate on what they can no longer do but they find ways to get things done in spite of everything. Your team will adopt the attitude of your leader. Show me a basketball team with a fiery, scrappy coach and you’ll have a team that plays great defensive ball. A global pandemic requires a paradigm shift, undergirded by the fact that the church was never the building. His Church is housed in His people.
Frederick Church of the Brethren never missed a single Sunday of worship. And if that’s not clear let me further articulate it: we had church every single Sunday.
The Journey To Online
The church already owned a video camera. It is a ‘decent’ camera. Once in-person worship was canceled there we were. The lead pastor and the praise team, the traditional service musician, a sound tech and a camera person recorded a worship service in the middle of the week. We sang hymns for the traditional crowd and we sang Elevation Worship for the contemporary folks. Our pastor recorded his sermon and edited the content, so we could have two different worship experiences. We wanted to honor what the people were used to. Additionally, we also found a free website which allowed us to upload our services and we created links for our community to view them. We did that for the month of March 2020.
On April 12, 2020, we asked our church family to record elements of the worship service we could put together for Easter. One family sat on a rock and did special music. Our children’s ministry staff prayed in their garden. I led the music from the church house. Our pastor preached the resurrection story from his backyard. We spent Easter away from family and loved ones and it was hard. It was emotional. But I was determined to be thankful as my wife and kids sat around the tv to watch services online. I was thankful to have church as a family.
More Challenges Arose
April was also the last month I had a bassist and drummer as they left the ministry out of concern for their health. Soon after, I lost the vocalist and guitarist too for the same reasons. Instead of ‘woe is me’, I found a resource of worship music tracks I could sing live to. Our church pays a small fee each month and I get my choice of the latest contemporary worship songs to sing. For April and May, praise and worship were just me and my tablet. Sometimes I could bribe my 14-year-old son to play guitar. The tracks were always accurate, never failed and Jesus was praised.
I have to also mention that, due to a very bad church experience previously, my wife had a lot of church hurt and was not participating at Frederick. Getting back into ministry was the last thing she wanted to do. I would do praise and worship there and she and my kids would attend a completely different church. But God always has a plan to unify The Body; we were never meant to live this life alone or apart from one another. Since I lost my entire band, I asked my music vocal major wife if she’d sing just this one week. Since that week in late May/early June, she has not missed a Sunday on the platform, standing next to me, hand in the air, singing praises to The One.
In Person Once Again
June 2020 got our pastor thinking about doing church outside, so we did. We set up on the steps of our building and did Sunday worship services, and it was wonderful to see people. We emailed folks the bulletin and received copyright permission to email song lyrics. We had a ‘decent’ portable sound system and we were good to go. The acoustic guitarist and vocalist came back since we were outside. Life was good so we decided to return indoors since it was allowed at 25% capacity.
That capacity size for us is about 175 so we made sure we never sat more than 150 people. For the rest of the summer, we did a blended style service for about 100 people. The same singers sang ye olde hymns in 3-part harmony – I sang bass – and then turned it up for the contemporary songs. I kept using music tracks to fill the lack of bass and drums. Because our pastor is sensitive to our older congregants that would not leave their homes, we also recorded the exact same service in our basement. Each and every Tuesday night our praise team recorded 4 songs and our pastor preached The Word as if he was speaking to a revival crowd of 8,000. He led us by doing, relying on his faith, which inspired us to stay prayed up.
The Next Phase
Mid-summer a church admin announced her retirement. Pastor Kevin asked me what I used to do at my old church, the church that had caused so much pain to me and my family. I told him my prior job duties. That conversation spurred church leadership into creating a position for someone to “beef” up our online presence. They didn’t have to find money; they simply re-purposed it. By the time September rolled around, I was being offered a full-time job as Director of Worship and Media. The job entailed doing marketing and promotion during the week and handling the music worship on Sundays. I accepted the position, my first day being October 4, 2020.
Soon after, I remembered I had a relationship with a live stream company I used at my last church. I reached out and within a week, we were live streaming to our Facebook page, the cost very minimal. I revived our social media presence to drive folks to our services. And yes, we now have an IG page. Our advent season began with us stopping our weekly church service taping, live streaming our Sundays, going back to a traditional and contemporary offering and all of the volunteers needed to pull that off with masks and social distancing. We did three Christmas eve services and live streamed all three.
January of 2021 brought more innovation as we had an old laptop in the basement hanging around. We upgraded our worship software – by far the most expensive thing we felt we had to purchase in a year, and even that was less than $1,000 – loaded it onto our laptop and set it up on a table next to our live stream camera.
In a pandemic, before a vaccine was available, I held a ministry vision meeting and 20+ attended, desiring a way to serve in our A/V ministry. After training and shadowing our praise team rehearsals, we now offer lower thirds of information on our live stream feed for our folks at home while continuing to click through worship media in-house during our worship services. Yes, you read that correctly. We have two different media teams we did not have a year ago. We grew. During a pandemic. In masks, 6 feet apart.
What It Looks Like Today
As I type this one year later, our praise team vocalist pool has grown to include some talented youth on a somewhat regular basis. For Easter we’ve rented a bandshell in the middle of our city’s public park and will do 3 worship services there, outside, to make sure folks know they don’t have to be inside our walls to hear the resurrection story. I’m currently using an online resource to train 2 new sound techs on our mixing board. We have grown our volunteers in A/V to field two separate teams. This summer, I’d like to do a songwriting summit with our current praise team and start doing some music worship services. Don’t tell me God can’t grow you even in the worst of times.
It might be Saturday in your life. Yesterday everything changed and today you’re finding trouble believing it’s going to get better. You know what He’s called you to do and you believe it, yet there is still a slight measure of doubt. You’re not exactly sure what’s next. Allow Frederick Church of the Brethren to be a case study of what can happen without a lot of money, resources or even people. You can flourish. You can thrive. Figure out a path forward, do a little research, ask a lot of questions and start grinding.
After all, Sunday is on the way.