Church Communications resources and tips from Justin Dean

The Planning

A month or so after Easter, the creative team at Willow Creek sat down to brainstorm for Christmas. It was a huge meeting with all the creative teams. Everyone was throwing around ideas.

The recurring theme that kept coming up was that Christmas was just the beginning. The? story of Jesus’ miracles and teaching wouldn’t have happened without His birth. What if they approached Christmas as the beginning of something, instead of focusing on the events leading up to the birth? That was their big idea.

Then a smaller team of creatives ? folks responsible for creating service content ? got together and decided what story they would tell. They wanted to tell the story of a reporter, 30 years after Jesus? birth, wrestling with the miracles and stories of Jesus. And they wanted to tell it in modern terms.

Once they decided what story they wanted to tell, they decided how they wanted to tell it. Blaine settled on a short film. Not only that, he wanted to score the film live with an orchestra. He wanted to take a feature film and make it feel live. What a big project!

Early on, Blaine realized one of the biggest challenges to overcome in something like this was getting quality actors. Since the big creative element centered around the emotion of the characters, he knew he wanted professional actors. He wanted it to feel real.

So Blaine began browsing through his Rolodex and working through his contacts from when he was an actor in Chicago. He approached some of the best actors in Chicago and offered them the job. He knew the quality of acting had to meet the quality of the story. So it was worth their investment to make the feature film good.

This project was the biggest in scale they?ve ever undertaken. A 26-minute film is already a huge undertaking. But the logistics of scoring the film live was massive. They?d never tried anything like this. It was a huge risk. They needed a flawless production schedule and the locations had to be perfect.

And this wasn?t some G-rated movie meant to entertain a specific audience. They knew the audience would be Christians, Atheists, first-timers, old-timers, and everyone in between. How do you communicate clearly to such a broad audience? It was impossible to please everybody.

But they tackled the 6-month project. It was a long process, and it changed quite a bit from the original concept. Everyone had to be flexible because it was a tension-filled process. They had to figure out how to communicate something like this to such a large group of people.

Even their final sequence was placed on the chopping block. They had envisioned a certain sequence. Blaine was very married to the idea. But nobody thought it was working. They had to chop it. And they did. With so many decisions to make throughout the process, it wasn?t worth fighting for something so small in the grand scheme of things. The majority of the decisions were theirs, but some changes were necessary to make it a success.

It was a hit. They received overwhelming positive responses. Between the worship set, creative element, and message, people got the Christmas story and a glimpse of what this all might have been like. A lot of people knew the stories they referenced in the feature-film parable, and they got to see those stories in a new light.

The only backlash they received is from those that wanted a traditional Christmas service experience. They just wanted the simple Christmas story. But you?ll never please everybody. And with something as traditionally charged as Christmas, that small amount of negativity was no big deal. You don?t have to take it personally when people don?t like everything. Not everyone will like it. Blaine Hogan learned this lesson early on.

You can easily spend your energy hoping everyone will like it or wishing you had more resources. But the most important asset in all these events or endeavors is energy. Every moment you spend wishing you had more resources is wasted.

The Willow Creek staff is experiencing this currently. This year?s budget is already smaller than last year?s. And they could spend their time wishing they had more resources. But instead, they?re getting creative and re-prioritizing. They have an abundance mentality rather than a scarcity mentality. There is enough for everybody, they just have to do things in a way they haven?t imagined yet. So this year they?re using less actors and probably won?t be live conducting an orchestra.

The Feature Film Inspiration

There were a few inspirations and moments that truly made the film. Blaine was inspired by the movie Magnolia. He wanted multiple stories happening at the same time.?He also was inspired by Friday Night Lights? use of radio and news stories to narrate the? story and give the idea of the man they?re tracking everywhere.

But the big climactic scene came from a moment of music and a discipline Blaine?s developed in his life.

Blaine was home alone one night. He was listening to music to get inspired and to give himself ideas ? even when he didn?t need any ideas. (He refers to it as scratching when you don?t itch.)

That night, Blaine plugged his computer into his stereo. He was listening through some tracks. He had the playlist on repeat as he was cleaning up and walking around. Then the song from Barcelona came on. Something in that song made him sit down. He played it again and turned it as loud as he could. He knew that was the ending ? the climactic moment when the main character touches Jesus and is healed.

Blaine described it this way:

I?m starting to think that more and more there?s this great interplay of gift and discipline and grace. We all have gifts. We need to refine them and discipline them. It?s hard work. But I find when I discipline myself consistently, grace shows up. God shows up. He says, ?Here?s how it should end.? I want to say that it?s harder work than that. I also want to say it?s magic. But it?s a mixture of those three things. What are your disciplines you should refine? Refine those. Then pray for grace from God that He will give you an idea.

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