Youngest singers ever opened worship at Annual Conference 2021
By Lindsay Peyton
Worship returned live and in-person to Annual Conference this year. The event’s theme of “Faith, Hope and Love” was woven through each session.
“There are elements of those ideals in each service, whether it’s preaching, scripture, music or visual art,” Michael Vaughn, Director of Worship, explained.
He explained that once the theme was announced, his team began scouring their resources, looking for scripture to match.
“The theme of the conference is so important,” Associate Worship Director Nicole Gray explained. “It became our foundational pillar.”
The opening worship focused on hope, starting with a processional of youth. A children’s chorus from multiple churches took the stage. Not only were these the youngest performers at Annual Conference, they also signified a new energy, a beacon of light.
“They came in with giant sunflowers,” Vaughn said. “And they were surrounded with warm, bright colors. That represented our hope for the future.”
Next, an ensemble of 16 high school and college students, all choral interns at area churches, took the stage. They were followed by a band, composed entirely of high school musicians from nine different churches, who followed both contemporary and traditional styles.
“After such a difficult year, what a relief and what a refreshing sight to have children and youth lead us in this Conference,” Gray said. “It’s a reminder that God is still creating.”
Faith was central to the scripture selected for both the memorial and retirement service. “It was all about the faithful people who have gone before us,” Vaughn said.
The retirement service featured both a chamber choir and chamber orchestra made up of local professional musicians singing traditional hymns. The retirement service stuck to the tradition of singing hymns.
Usually, a clergy choir leads this segment. Since attendance was limited, however, a video completion of years past was created for the occasion. Special guest Ken Medema made a video that was also woven into the service.
“We got to pay homage to our traditions—and to see all of our friends from previous years,” Vaughn said.
Love became the primary focus of worship during ordination. Vaughn evoked Corinthians, which inspired the theme for this Annual Conference, “the greatest of these is love.”
An entirely new musical group provided worship for ordination, the music directors choir, composed of leaders from churches in the Conference. They also performed during the Service of Sending Forth.
Gray said that watching the music directors from different churches unite for this occasion was heart-warming. “It’s important to see – and reminds us that we’re all on the same team,” she said. “We’re all singing the same doctrine. We can all come together and worship.”
This year included live worship
The most significant change from last year was the live worship, Vaughn said. He explained that in 2020, the Annual Conference was completely scheduled, before the pandemic screeched plans to a halt.
The decision was made to make all worship pre-recorded. “Then it became a race,” Vaughn said.
But it simply didn’t feel right, he said. “Also, the production value was different from church to church,” he added.
This year, he was excited to offer live worship again – even if the in-person audience was limited to certain ceremonies.
“Everything you see is actually happening,” Vaughn said. “Now we know how to do virtual worship, how to broadcast. We’re doing the services just like we normally would, only we’re adapting them to a screen. And it feels pretty normal. We’re back to where we should be.”
All the musicians and choirs assembled at The Woodlands UMC. Vaughn said that the energy was palpable, a testament to the desire to gather again and make music after the challenging year of the pandemic. “Almost every person invited immediately accepted,” Vaughn said. “It was amazing to see the overwhelming response of people who wanted to get involved this year.”
Gray added that creating an online experience that was full of life and energizing to watch was essential.
“The most important thing is being able to provide vibrant worship services that not only translate well in-house but also on-screen,” she said. “We created a product that was not only cohesive but also incorporated so many different generations and so many different churches.”
The hymn “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” came to her mind – especially the lyrics, “Ponder anew what the Almighty can do.”
“Even though there were obstacles in our way, we were not going to let them become a hinderance to our vital worship services,” Gray said.
Vaughn and Gray thanked the worship team for their help. Each brought different talents and a wide interest in various styles to the table, which helped shape a great showcase for Annual Conference.
“The goal was to fit just about every style we could,” Vaughn said. “We had everything from completely traditional to really contemporary.”
This was Vaughn’s first year as Director, after serving for five as associate director. He also is Director of Music Ministry at A&M UMC in College Station “I love to coordinate lots of people to make great music,” he said. “That’s my passion in life -- helping people sing.”
Gray also stepped into her role Associate Director this year. She serves as Director of Worship Arts and Music at Dickinson FUMC, as well.
Gray has spent three years on the worship committee for Annual Conference and looks forward to the event each time. “Conference is the one time of year that we all come together,” she said.