Nothing New Under the Sun

Have you heard of the IXI, or the SaeHan/Eiger MPMan? Me neither. I have heard of the Zune, and the Diamond Rio. But most of us know about the iPod…I somehow have three of them.mp3_evolution_1-100350068-gallery.idge

Karl Benz invented what is recognised as the first motor car back in 1885, but it was the Ford Model T in 1908 which became popular, usable and affordable. The English chemist Joseph Swan invented a lightbulb in 1850, but as Victorian vacuum pumps weren’t very effective, it never went into production, so Thomas Edison some 30 years later was credited with inventing the lightbulb (after more than 3,000 attempts).

I’m typing this from my MacBook (Apple Fanboi…), and while Apple is recognised as the originator of the Graphic User Interface, using a mouse and desktop (which was subsequently “borrowed” by Windows…), Steve Jobs actually got the idea from the Xerox 8010. Yes, I had to look that up too…

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

I posted the other week about our new stage design for our series “Boats of the Bible“, which consisted of a boat (surprise) and a series of neon inner tubes across our backcloth. While I would love to take credit for this (and I was the one who produced all of the puff to inflate them and put them up), the idea was not mine. It came from Pinterest, which as many of you know is a great source of ideas and inspiration.

Ecclesiastes 1:9 says:

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.

The phrase “There is nothing new under the sun” is common in society, even being used by Shakespeare in one of his sonnets. We can make life difficult for ourselves, put ourselves under pressure to reinvent the wheel each week, come up with something new and different every Sunday. I try to write a new drama every Christmas for our Christingle service, have a new theme for our Christmas services and feel bad if we reuse a song or clip rather than something brand new and different.

Everything new?

But we don’t need to. We can source ideas from Pinterest, Facebook, Blogs (like this one!) and sharing with other leaders. We can copy, refine, adapt and integrate ideas, presenting them in a way which benefits our congregation, works in our churches and is achievable with the resources we have. And this applies to all aspects of our worship services…while I’d love to be able to play Cornerstone or Oceans with a Hillsong sized band, we are able to worship with our band of five…even if there is no drummer (and only 1 guitarist instead of 5!) This Christmas (as I have done before), instead of writing something completely new I’m going to adapt a book I’ve found.

Apple didn’t invent the MP3 player, Henry Ford wasn’t the creator of the automobile and while Edison clearly had a lightbulb moment, he wasn’t the first. But what they did do was take what existed, refined it, added their ideas and personal touch to it and made it into something better. And we can do exactly the same.

Beg, borrow, steal?

So next time you’re sweating over a Sunday, struggling to come up with ideas and discarding the obvious or already done…step back, take a breather, beg, borrow and steal and remember there is nothing new under the sun…

Get On Board!

We’ve just this past Sunday started our new Summer series, snappily titled Boats Of The Bible. This is the stage decor we’ll be having for the next six weeks!

Get On Board!As you can probably see, we have utilised a lot of inflatables! The boat came with a pump, but the neon inner tubes were purely manual…I had to stop half way through so I didn’t black out!

All of the materials came from Amazon or eBay, all in we spent less than 100 pounds and much of it can be used again. And I put it all together in a couple of hours one evening, again using paperclips and cable ties to mount everything to our curtains.

Small Effort + Big Impact.

I’ve mentioned before about the impact which can be had from changing your scenery or decor, and it doesn’t have to be expensive or drastic to be dramatic. We do have the added benefit of having a good selection of lights as well, but again, these are pretty budget (the LED Par Cans are around 30 pounds each) but still effective. To add some interesStaging Ideast, I mounted a couple of the Par Cans on microphone stands which you should just about be able to see either side of the neon inner tubes.

Of course, with a series titled Boats Of The Bible, we had to get a boat on stage as well! Now I cannot guarantee this is an authentic replica of a 2000 year old fishing boat, and taking into account how quickly it is deflating between services, I wouldn’t wholly trust it for a spot of beach paddling let alone fishing. But it is big, yellow, has oars and looks really cool on our stage, along with a  couple of decorative fishing nets and some strings of cardboard fish.

Summer Season

Boats of the Bible?Our summer series runs from the end of July to the end of August, and as it is holiday season we change our service pattern so there is one all age service at 10:15 on a Sunday. This eases the pressure on rotas for bands, leaders and the like, but also means we have one big loud service…it’s great!

The response from everyone has been overwhelmingly positive, the bright and bold colours having an effect on all ages of our congregation. There is a debate as to whether the neon rings are giant doughnuts or oversized fruit polos…but either way, they are creating a buzz and conversation, which is exactly what we want to be doing. And more than that, the effort which we put into decorating our stage is another small reflection of the effort which we put into Sundays as a whole.

So I again encourage you to put a bit of thought and effort into how you set your stage, even if it is something as simple as making sure the cables, chairs and stands are tidy. And if you’re looking for bigger ideas for how to dress your stage for future services, check in back here, or have a look at my Pinterest page where I’ve started pinning ideas…there is so much out there, I don’t know where to start.

And if you’re local, Get On Board with us this summer at EBC, it’s going to be splashing…I mean smashing…!


It’s in the presentation

Nine Inch Nails isn’t the first band you think of when it comes to presenting worship, but this clip of them live at Lollapalooza is, I think, one of the most captivating but simple performances I have ever seen. (I wasn’t actually there…but you and I have YouTube…)

Notice how there aren’t lots of fancy lights, impressive and expensive stage sets…everyone (of course) is in black and most of the band rarely look at the audience. Yet the way the set starts with a solitary ghost light illuminating Trent Reznor as he sings…then as the track builds instrumentally, so does the band…literally person by person, instrument by instrument. Even by the climax in the middle, the staging and lighting is still sparse…with enormous white flats raised behind the musicians (again one by one) with the stark floor lights casting huge dramatic shadows. Simple but effective. Striking and memorable, but on a budget.

Set Dressing

We at EBC have been working on creating a new stage set for each of our series…we already have a pretty decent setup with a good number of static LED Par Cans and a small array of moving head lights, and our stage area is draped in black curtain which outlines the stage for us and also does an extremely good job of controlling the sound in the hall. But black material is as good at absorbing light as it is at absorbing sound… We have a services budget set aside for Sundays, which is usually spent on music, props, licenses and decor, but recently we’ve started setting aside a small portion for set dressing.IMG_1260

For the past year or so we’ve had up some white muslin which provides a bit of contrast and also a creative backdrop for the lights. For Easter we took it all down and just had a stark, wooden cross which was illuminated in outline by some LED fairy lights (it sounds slightly cheesy, like a Christmas/Easter juxtaposition but trust me, it was effective and tasteful. And then when Easter was complete we started experimenting with a material called Correx, which is like a plastic corrugated cardboard (the same material which estate agent boards are made from). This is large, cheap, flexible and pretty strong.

As you cIMG_1261an see from the pictures, a couple of sheets suspended make a great backdrop. We got several sheets of the 8′ by 4′ Correx in white from eBay (a pack of 10 was around £80 including delivery). The flats were created by cutting the sheets at random angles, and then rejoining them with centimeter gaps using bent paperclips from the church office… The cuts provide interest, but also the way they then hang slightly unevenly make for interesting shadows. All in all (I made two smaller flats for the stage right as well), the cost was around £15.

We’ve also used the Correx to make light tubes which are placed over our Par Cans, and picture frames for our “50 Shades of Grace” series. There have been some questions from the congregation…looking for meaning in the randomness of the set…but the overall feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and there has been more intrigue as to how we created them!

It’s in the Presentation

So I encourage you to experiment with your sets, how you package the background, how you approach your presentation beyond song choice, sermon and printed media. Big and bold has impact, but doesn’t have to have a big budget! Check out more ideas here, and as always, go around with your eyes open for ideas…there is plenty of inspiration around if you look out for it. I’ve also been collating ideas on a Pinterest board as well.

Try a Different Hat

This coming Sunday my good friend Colin is leading the band for our morning services. Now usually I take the opportunity to have a Sunday off and just “be” at church…something which is important to do, and something I encourage all of our musicians to do on a regular basis. But this Sunday (probably because of Easter holidays), we were really short on numbers so I became part of the band.hats

The songs were all familiar, (Indescribable, Happy Day, How Great is Our God, The Stand, Holy Spirit You are Welcome Here and Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone)), and we had a nice little band line-up with drums, bass, guitar, keys and four of us sharing vocals duties (we were doubling up…there were only five of us in the band!).

I’m not saying I’m an accomplished player by any means, but I do know my way around a guitar, and this year especially am taking a bit more time to concentrate on different aspects of my playing. My musical background primarily was as a drummer and bass player, I kind of fell into playing guitar and leading by accident (probably wasn’t an accident…), so historically I always fiddled with the guitar but never approached it seriously. And these days, as I’m mostly leading the band on guitar, I concentrate 90% of my efforts on straight(ish) rhythm and remembering the words.

A time to Stretch

But for me this week, it was a great opportunity to stretch a bit as a guitarist. I didn’t have to lead the band, I wasn’t having to sing the tune to lead the congregation, I didn’t just have to play rhythm. My inner John Mayer could come out, I was able to play at the dusty end of the fretboard and employ much more of my pedalboard. We rocked! I didn’t even bring an acoustic to rehearsal, and I’m going full electric for Sunday!

Now I know this isn’t possible for everybody, that in some churches the band is the band, and there simply isn’t the space or opportunity to do anything other than lead/play bass/be the drummer. But where there is opportunity to play or contribute something different on a Sunday, I really encourage you to do so. We are fortunate to have several musicians in our team who can play different instruments, which we make full use of. Not only does it make putting the rotas together simpler, I also strongly believe (from my own experience) that having an understanding of different instruments makes you into a much more rounded player.

My background in drums and bass has meant my guitar playing is very rhythmic…possibly too much sometimes! And if you think of a band as a jigsaw puzzle, if you understand and or play some of the other instruments in the band, you will have a much better overview of how they fit together, and what your piece contributes. This week I was able to play the things I can’t think about when I’m leading…it’s a different challenge, and a different mindset from leading. But it was releasing, challenging, enjoyable and developed me further as a guitarist and musician.

Make an opportunity happen.

So try and make opportunities like this in your bands. If possible, don’t always lead, just be in the band. And if you’re usually “just in the band”, maybe you could lead some songs in a rehearsal and see it from the other side. Maybe you could sit in with the sound team to see what they do to make you sound great. Try a different hat. See what fits. It could all sound quite different.

Play With Something New

One of my goals for 2015 is to spend more time practicing and learning guitar. I usually lead on a Sunday on guitar, but it is probably my least studied or practiced instruments (I was always the bass player in bands, and then picked up drums for University…something I had always wanted to do)  Guitar has always been a sideline…but these days is something I play more than anything else.

Take Your Pick?

Take Your Pick?

So I started trawling through some books; Fretboard Roadmaps, Playing in DADGAD, The Complete Guitar, and I also downloaded some courses on my iPad. And I am managing to put aside an hour a week to improve my playing, and it is, I think, improving. I am forever fiddling with my guitars, I set them up myself and probably get as much pleasure from tweaking them as I do playing them. I have been remarkably consistent with my choice of set up, I am a pretty strong rhythm player (years of drumming and listening to funk), so I have pretty heavy strings on my guitars (11’s) and use a medium pick (Dunlop Tortex Orange).

A Change Could Do You Good?

But this year, as another nod to “new” I thought I’d try something different. I did a little poll on Facebook to see what my fellow guitarists used, and then got a variety tin from Amazon which had 12 different styles, sizes and weights of picks (in a useful little tin). And it really does make a difference, in what I play, the way I play it, and the sounds that it creates.The Jazz III seems to be a particularly popular style of pick, and this was part of the collection, and it is a bit of a revelation. It is much smaller and thicker than my usual pick, and so requires much more accuracy with playing and a different sort of grip in the fingers. I don’t think I would use it as much for rhythm, but for lead work and speed, it is very rewarding.

Now I realise this post is getting a bit (or a lot) geeky…but bringing it back in to the non-guitarist rest of the world…is there something  you could change that will make you at least approach things differently?

Why Don’t You Try Something New?

Drummers, have you tried different sizes of sticks? Vater Manhattans are my absolute favourites, but I utterly destroy the wooden tips within days…so I generally use Vic Firth 5B’s with nylon tips…they last me for years. Using heavier or lighter sticks, brushes, hotrods…different tunings, different set ups…less toms. I went through a phase of emulating Gary Husband so tried playing open (with the ride cymbal to my left). Made for completely different techniques and patterns.

Bass guitarists, have you experimented with different strings? Using (or not) using a pick? I put a set of flatwounds on one of my basses…again, completely different sound and style of playing.

Pianists and keyboard players, do you try different sounds? My wife is a pianist and leads with our band, but she always used to just play piano, as iit’swhat she knows. But our good friend Colin who has been coaching the bands gently persuaded her to use some strings or pads underneath the piano sound…something  she initially resisted, but now has full control of…and it sounds great.

And let’s not focus this solely on musicians. For  everything you do creatively, try a small, subtle difference in your approach. Try a different TV show for media ideas. Experiment with different fonts in your overheads or graphics. Try an alternative program or app for your design (I’m writing this on a new app on my iPad while travelling on the train…I Usually write this from my laptop  or desktop….

So there you have it. Some small changes that can make a difference in your creativity, or at the very least freshen up your day to day.

Is there anything else that you can add?

Sourcing Ideas

I’ve been running this blog for almost six months now, and have posted up a combination of songs, videos and clips, along with ideas and experience from my role at EBC. And I have been doing the role at EBC for more than 12 years, personally growing and developing over time. One of the things I always do when we plan a new series of services is to just start sourcing ideas from as many different places and artistic elements as possible.

One way of collating ideas...

One way of collating ideas…

We plan our preaching rota usually a year in advance, so currently we have a plan for 2015 mapped out at a very high level, purely dates of series and their titles. Then, we create outlines for each series that detail the overarching theme, and then further detail for each part of the series. This is done to a standard template to make it easy to complete, and there are sections to fill out like “What do we want everyone to know” and “How do we want people to feel”, as well as an outline of the talk and space to fill in creative ideas.

Where to start?

These creative ideas may be worship songs from our list to help give a pointer to our worship leaders. We also have space for performance songs, drama, interactions , graphics and stage design.Media can encompass everything from film and TV clips, recorded dramas, bespoke media for the service and music videos. Of course we don’t use everything every week, but there is always some sort of creative element inserted into the service, either to directly support the talk or to engage the congregation from the beginning. Or even both!

So when I get the outlines (and usually I talk through them with Chris our Senior Minister), I start to just collate ideas that come from the overview as described above. So I trawl through my music collection; sometimes I know exactly what I’m looking for, other times just typing related words into the search field can help too. I am a music addict (as my wife will attest to), so I have a pretty extensive library on my iTunes…around 45,000 tracks and always growing. But of course Spotify now has just about everything you could ever wish for.

I also watch a lot of movies, or at least, I did when the kids were younger and went to bed earlier…but again, sometimes I know exactly what I’m looking for, other times Googling or browsing YouTube for relevant clips is a real boon.

There’s an idea or two brewing here….

Probably because I have been doing this for so long, I rarely am able to watch or listen to anything without considering a Sunday service application for it…it’s always in the back of mind…”could we use this”, “this would be great for an all age service”, “if only he hadn’t sworn in that sentence it would be perfect for telling the story of Job” etc… So I try to keep notes of all of these ideas and more…and Evernote is my note taking software of choice

Seasonally there are always key things happening, so that also gets taken into account. And then popular culture also counts for a lot…but popular culture as is reflected in our church culture… So recently The Great British Bake Off has been on, Strictly Come Dancing has just started, The Apprentice, The X Factor…all formats that are familiar and can be referred to or even copied. These may then feed into the way we present something, or directly influence an element in our service…last Sunday we showed a series of slides of “Bake Off Fails”, and I’ve done a lukewarm cooking slot before as a pastiche of MasterChef to illustrate another story.

And from time to time we also use drama, something we try to do moderately often because of the amount of work it takes to do well, but also to maximise the impact.

The melting pot.

All of this goes into a melting pot of ideas and resources that are entered into the outline template, almost a scatter-gun approach. But that then gives me, the service leader and preacher a great starting point to filter out and hone the ideas into something that is useful, relevant and accessible. And how we edit and refine the ideas is something that I’ll look at next week.