A friend recently sent me a link to a short video called “Quarantine: The Musical.” I discovered it was produced by the creative team at Eagle Brook Church in Centerville, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis, and was created to promote their fall kickoff campaign. I was captivated immediately, so I researched the church and managed to locate John Alexander, the Executive Director of Creative Arts at Eagle Brook. I asked him some questions about the production and he immediately – as creative leaders do – brought in his Associate Creative Director, Michael Pearce Donley.
As John put it: “First of all, this was a collaborative effort. I’m just the leader who gets to oversee all the brilliance. I’m going to have Michael Pearce Donley respond as well. He’s an Associate Creative Director on staff, and he was largely responsible (although he’ll probably defer credit too) for the project. He’s also the guy you see at start of video.”
Here’s our conversation:
Phil Cooke: Where did the idea for Quarantine: The Musical come from? What was it used for?
John Alexander: We have three weekends a year we call the “Big 3”- Easter, Christmas, and Fall Kickoff (the weekend after Labor Day). In Minnesota, it’s largely when schools fire up back in session, and so we use the weekend to “kick off” the upcoming year and reflect on the previous ministry year. Every Big 3 weekend, we shoulder tap 2 staff to help creatively brainstorm and lead the weekend’s main projects. So where did the idea come from? A conglomerate of people who collaborate together, but because of Michael Donley’s brilliance and background in musical theater, it was mainly his idea.
Michael Pearce Donley: We usually think of Fall Kickoff as a time to have fun and celebrate. This year, of course, there has been little to laugh about. So the team started to talk about the delicate dance of creating something fun while NOT making fun of the tragedy of 2020. The original idea was to do song parodies about the language everyone uses in media: “Unprecedented,” “In these uncertain times,” “Now more than ever,” etc. We quickly decided that joke would run out really fast.
Phil: Tell me a little about your creative team.
John: All in all, there are 65 staff on the creative arts team, but that includes music, production, creative (design/media), communication (digital/social/marketing) and online. Just within the creative team, there are 18 staff (media/design/motion graphics). Collectively, we all work together to implement all things creative arts. Specifically, I oversee 5 directors – Production Director, Music Director, Creative Director, Communication and Digital Director, and Online Church Pastor (Director). Within the creative team under the creative director, there are leaders for design, media, motion graphics, and two associate creative directors (like Mike Donley) who run with creative projects.
Phil: Tell about the process of the musical – who wrote the words and music? Who directed the production? What was the size of the crew? How long did it take?
John: I’m going to defer to Mike about the process, but big picture, we start brainstorming 3-4 months out and get a few checks along the way with me + my directors.
Michael: It’s a beautiful thing when the whole team is 100% on board and working at the top of their game. From start to finish we accomplished this in 59 days…9 film shoots, 13 locations, 25+ vocal sessions, 44 on camera talent. Vocal recording sessions were all done individually, no gang vocals during COVID. As the main (but not only) writer for the project, here was the challenge: Be funny about the right things, let each vignette have its own personality and style (we had three producer/directors who split the duties), keep surprising people from beginning to end, use a wide variety of well-known songs that get to the joke fast (“I am not throwing away my – sweats”), but also find a way to make a true spiritual point without sounding cheesy or easy. That last song HAD to feel honest – this current reality sucks, but remember our hope comes from the Lord, and we’re still the Church and the work’s not done. Oh – and do production numbers from a safe distance! If there was close proximity, nine times out of ten they were family. The last number ends with this large group lip syncing (droplet-free!) and everyone was 6-feet apart.
Phil: Was the pastor onboard? What did he think of the final product?
John: He loved it. For the first time in our history, he actually didn’t see the final product until the weekend. That’s not normal, but according to my team, they felt more encouraged and empowered then ever. Apparently, they don’t like us glaring over their shoulders (ha!). But in his words, it’s one of the best things we’ve done in the 15 years he’s been here. He loved it, mainly because it checked all the boxes. Fun, creative, and inspiring.
Michael: Ha! Jason and I haven’t spoken yet, but I believe John!
Phil: What’s been the response from the public?
John: Viral. Last I checked, there were well over 750,000 plays on Facebook and it continues to spread and get played. We’ve had several other churches reach out and ask to use it as well. More than anything, it’s been encouraging and inspiring for our own church to share with their friends and family. These kinds of things become a great invitational tool.
Phil: Give me your thoughts on creativity, communication, and media at a local church. How important are those roles and should the Church take them more seriously?
John: They are means of presenting the greatest message the world has or will ever hear, the Gospel and Good News of Jesus Christ. We take creativity, communication and media as seriously as we take teaching the message on the weekend. Again, they are means of sharing the message. Does that mean all creativity is oriented only around the gospel within the church? Not necessarily. Sometimes, because people are so hesitant to check out church or give God a chance, creativity is an incredible means of breaking down those walls. The right word, the creative visual, and funny video are all ways of breaking down those walls. So yes, without question, the Creator has given us abilities to create – we take that role very seriously to steward with our best efforts.
Michael: Well said, John. As the leader of this large team, John has encouraged us to be bold, take new ground, and keep our mission before us at all times: Empowered by God to reach people for Christ. Blaine Hogan, filmmaker and former Creative Director at Willow Creek, has this phrase that I’ve made my mantra at Eagle Brook: “Surprise and delight.” In the age of instantly shared creative content, it is very hard to get people’s attention, let alone surprise or delight them. So we’re always trying to up our game, asking ourselves, “Is that true/empathetic/still relevant? How can we say it differently or come at it from a different angle?” Not for the sake of being the most clever, but to disarm people, draw them, and ultimately reach them for Christ.
Phil: What advice could you give to other creative leaders in churches?
John: Every person matters to us and they matter to God. Every person. That means, every word you write, every design you create, every video you work on, has the potential to reach that one person for Christ. Through the Spirit of God working in your creativity, that word, piece, video could be the very seed that is needed for God to reach that person. It could be the very thing that connects them to their Creator and becomes the reason an addiction is broken, a marriage is restored, a family renewed, a life transformed. We take every word, every moment, every jot and tittle with that much seriousness.
Another thing: If you ever feel frustrated for whatever reason about using your creativity within the church, join the mountain of people who share your frustration. Satan wants nothing more than to discourage you. Hang in there, keep fighting, stay close to Christ, and trust that God is working through your creativity to reach even just ONE person for Christ.
Michael: I encourage you to get out of your bubble as much as you can. Listen to outside voices, be well-read, go to plays, concerts, dance performances, museums. The more you know culture, not just church culture, the truer your voice will be.
Eagle Book is a church of 25,000 (before the COVID shutdown) with multiple campuses, but what impressed me wasn’t just the size of the production or the budget. What impressed me was the creative approach, the unity of the creative team, and the vision for engaging the audience in a language and style that speaks to the culture today. Those elements are within the reach of any church and any budget.
I have a feeling that Eagle Brook has grown to this level because they understand the value of engaging their community with the power of creativity, and I’m excited to see what they come up with next!
(No pressure guys…)