Christmas without carollers

I'll be home for Christmas: A muted season for Christians but intimate virtual parties, joyful hybrid services abound

Musicians Earnest Lau and Tan Ming Li recording Lessons and Carols 2020. PHOTO: CLARE CHAO

SINGAPORE - Christmas is muted in a pandemic year, with worshippers mouthing carols behind masks, no live singing allowed in church.

Gone are the glitzy song-and-dance shows, sumptuous buffets and street light-ups staged by churches for their annual throngs of guests.

In place of these extravaganzas are humbler, home-centred pizza spreads or watch parties for five, with even the congregations of mega-churches largely staying home this season.

Such safe-distancing sea-changes wrought by Covid-19 are stark at St Andrew's Cathedral, which had never before closed its doors in 160 years, not even during the darkest days of World War II.

Yet Christians are finding illuminating ways to celebrate safely and embed beloved carols in worship.

A trio of creatives filmed a half-hour video of carols and Bible readings in a chapel, for Christians across denominations to stream in church or at home on Christmas Eve.

Coming home

Many churches, big and small, have also launched Christmas-at-home festivities, intimate events connecting people around a table.

"Home" is now the default concept, with variations such as Christmas @ Home (City Harvest Church) and Come To The Table (Cornerstone Community Church).

The 8,000-strong Faith Community Baptist Church calls it I'll Be Home For Christmas.

For years, it went big with sleek drama productions and a street light-up at its Marine Parade locale. But this time, the congregation will invite friends home for a pre-recorded "party" hosted on YouTube by senior pastor Daniel Khong.

He will lead everyone in a session of games, carols and thanksgiving, and also share a Christmas message. To be rolled out from this Friday, this virtual party will be colossal yet cosy, structured for people to interact in real time, without feeling compelled to keep up with what is happening on-screen.

Faith Community Baptist Church's glitzy Christmas service in 2019. PHOTO: FAITH COMMUNITY BAPTIST CHURCH

He says: "With the pandemic, many things we have become used to had to change, from the way our services are run to how our venues are used. Despite all that, we can still be a community. We just needed to find different ways to connect."

Cornerstone Community Church, where musicals used to be the mainstay in conveying the Christmas message, has crafted a new Come To The Table platform to kick-start conversations about faith.

Cornerstone's Christmas Market last year. PHOTO: CORNESTONE COMMUNITY CHURCH

Church members are encouraged to invite guests to their homes or outside for meals. They get starter packs which include tips to engage guests, plus lists of eateries to help support local businesses.

They can also tap short videos that re-enact pandemic challenges, including the story of a congregation member who overcame Covid-19.

Executive pastor Lim Lip Yong hopes his 5,500 parishioners will connect with those around them personally, perhaps over a cup of coffee or an activity.

"While we may be physically distanced, we can still build deeper bridges with those who may have gone through a challenging year," he says.

"With scaled-down celebrations and activities, we can scale up instead on things that mean a whole lot more - mutual care, support and solidarity."

Hybrid services

Meanwhile, St John's-St Margaret's Church is delighted that the cap on attendance has been raised to 200 in time for Christmas.

Its vicar, Dr Joshua Sudharman, says: "We believe this is a significant opportunity to signal that even though online worship can help plug the gap in a pandemic, it cannot satisfactorily replace congregational worship."

For the home-bound, small teams will bring Holy Communion and Christmas cheer.

Over at City Harvest Church, a hybrid of on-site and online events for its 16,000 members has been planned.

City Harvest Church's Unboxing Christmas production in 2019. PHOTO: CITY HARVEST CHURCH

During the Christmas weekend, members of the megachurch will gather physically for services at Suntec City for the first time since March, with a cap of 100 worshippers at each service.

In parallel, watch parties will be arranged at home for guests to enjoy a light meal and watch the e-service together.

Final-year Singapore Polytechnic student Amanda Loo, 19, a church youth leader, says members of her cell group will split up into groups of five and gather at different homes for games and gift exchanges.

"We can't wait to see how Christmas will unfold this year," she says.

"Gathering in a smaller group is an opportunity to draw closer. 2020 actually taught us that relationships are not restricted by physical distance. We can connect anytime and anywhere to celebrate Jesus through technology."

Ultimately, cell groups are the glue for churches whose members dispersed during the pandemic.

City Harvest has seen its cell groups "thriving", with non-churchgoing family members beginning to join online services from home for the first time.

Its executive pastor Bobby Chaw says lives can be touched anywhere and "not just in a physical building".

He adds: "We know the spirit of Christmas is alive and well among members of City Harvest."

Smaller churches can be more flexible in adjusting to a curtailed Christmas, says pastor Vincent Lee from Live For Eternity Church.

To begin with, there are no flashy programmes. Two services can accommodate his flock of 80 to 100 people.

"The feedback is that attending in person is different from attending an online service. Members feel the bonding of family as we gather in church," he says.

This connection will be prized at Christmas - although, instead of mingling over the usual buffet lunch, small groups of five will head to malls near the Outram church for a meal.

He reflects: "This Christmas will be quiet, like when Jesus came almost 2,000 years ago."

What has not changed, pandemic or not, is that his church still helps debtors through a social agency.

Reaching out

As the recession deepens, churches say reaching out to the vulnerable is more significant than ever.

Because City Harvest Church cannot put on mass shows this year, it has deployed its production budget to a Care Fund to support hard-hit church members and their families. A total of 162 individuals were supported this year.

St Andrew's Cathedral has online classes for migrant workers and tends to a spectrum of elderly parishioners. While some seniors have picked up digital skills to tithe online and Zoom into small-group meetings, the house-bound have started to receive visits again.

Other churches such as St John's-St Margaret's Church and Amazing Grace Presbyterian Church send Christmas care packs to residents in their respective Dover and Kembangan-Chai Chee neighbourhoods.

Children and youth are also roped in to celebrate the meaning of Christmas, safely.

At Amazing Grace Presbyterian Church, kids in Sunday school and their parents are encouraged to invite up to five neighbourhood children or friends to their home to join church-organised online Christmas storytelling, which is packaged with an arts and crafts session.

The Faith Community Baptist Church has filmed Christmas Unboxed, an original five-episode variety show for kids on its YouTube channel.

Faith Community Baptist Church's Christmas Unboxed variety show for kids. PHOTO: FAITH COMMUNITY BAPTIST CHURCH

City Harvest has also delved into a 22-week online Bible study with senior pastor and founder Kong Hee.

The focus of the church now is to grow into "spiritual maturity" with such deep dives, says Pastor Chaw from the church. "It is an endeavour that may not have received as much attention if we were not all working from home and experiencing a travel freeze," he adds.

It has been a "dark and difficult year for many", reflects Dr Steven Gan, senior minister at Amazing Grace Presbyterian, but he prays that Christmas will bring radiance. He cites a Bible verse about Christmas: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light."

Bells and carols

St Andrew's Cathedral will have both live-streamed and on-site services for Christmas.PHOTO: ST ANDREW'S CATHEDRAL

St Andrew's Cathedral, the oldest Anglican place of worship in Singapore, will have both live-streamed and on-site services for Christmas.

Looking back, Ms Vivien Chen, director of administration and operations, says: "The cathedral remained open to all, through all the vicissitudes of life in Singapore." This is the first year in its history the church has been physically closed, except for services.

While this Christmas is quieter, the church bells will still ring at the end of its Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve services, after midnight.

The bells will also chime carols for half an hour from 10pm on Christmas Eve. "People in the civic district will be able to hear them," she says.

Music is "indispensable at Christmas", says Venerable Wong Tak Meng, who represents 27 Anglican churches. This year, it will play on in the form of pre-recorded virtual choirs and worship bands.

Anglican musician-songwriter couple Earnest Lau and Tan Ming Li have recorded a 30-minute online carol service of songs and Bible readings, so anyone can have a time of "quiet thanksgiving and sacred reflection", despite Covid-19 restrictions on big gatherings and singing. It will premiere on YouTube and Vimeo on Christmas Eve at noon.

Professionally shot at the St John's-St Margaret's Church by film-maker Clare Chao, 22, the multimedia moments are intimate and natural. The project is very different from the bright lights and "hectic-vity" the trio themselves experienced in Christmasses past.

Mr Lau, 52, says: "We sing simply, quietly. The scriptures are read from the pews. This is the chapel spilling into the house."

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