Chapel Carols

Families and churches can spend Christmas Eve celebrating Christ's birth with carols and Scripture reading in the intimacy of the living room, with the help of the video, Chapel Carols. All photos courtesy of Tan Ming Li and Earnest Lau.

“What does it mean to be a church during this unusual Christmas?” 

This was the question that had been nagging at Anglican musician-songwriter couple Earnest Lau, 52, and Tan Ming Li, 49, over the past few months. 

“This is the chapel spilling into the house.”

The couple’s answer: Chapel Carols, an intimate take on the traditional Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols held at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, on Christmas Eve. 

Filmed in the chapel of St John’s-St Margaret’s Church, Chapel Carols is a 30-minute video of carols and Scripture readings that tell the Christmas story.

It will be made available online on December 24, from 12pm onwards, for families spending Christmas Eve at home, as well as churches that wish to weave it into their own Candlelight services. 

Chapel in the home

“We sing simply, quietly. The Scriptures are read from the pews. This is the chapel spilling into the house,” said Lau about Chapel Carols, which is meant to honour the sacredness of the birth of Christ, as well as reverence towards His Word. 

A church member delivering one of the Scripture readings in the video carol service, where the Word is the focus.

The Word here is the focus, emphasises the couple. Explaining the absence of an accompanying prayer or sermon, Lau said the carols and music are but mere “handmaids to the Word”. 

When the music is delivered with honesty and conviction, God will do the rest, he added. 

“As artists, we don’t create truths. The truths lie in Scripture. We fearfully interpret it, and then creatively express it.”

“As artists, we don’t create truths. The truths lie in Scripture. We fearfully interpret it, and then creatively express it.”

Chapel Carols serves to plug a gap caused by the pandemic.

Tan said that, as churches decide on how best to honour Christ’s birth and serve their congregation at the Christmas service – traditionally one of the most popular services in the church calendar – they are grappling with questions like: “What does it mean to be a community at this time? Do we want people to come physically?” 

When a decision is ultimately reached, a group of worshippers naturally lose out, she said. For instance, if a church decides to focus resources on physical services, then individuals who are unable or unwilling to attend in person will be at a disadvantage. 

Chapel Carols was conceived to fill that gap – so that worship and Scripture reading are accessible to worshippers who opt for a quiet Christmas Eve at home with family. 

This dilemma for churches will go beyond the Christmas period, Lau said. 

“If this online thing is going to be here to stay, at least for the next 12 months, we’ve got to start thinking about how to present church (through worship). We can’t follow the ways of music videos.” 

Lau and Tan intend for the intimacy of the service to match the simplicity of home.

Lau said that, for Chapel Carols, he hopes the intimacy and simplicity of the worship space can connect with worshippers in their homes, despite the intrusion of the screens of devices. 

“Worship should spill over the screen,” he said, “so that together, we become a worship community that evening.”  

The selection of the chapel as a setting was a strategic one, as the couple wanted to emphasise the sanctity of the occasion. Visual reminders of the cross, altar table and Christian emblems in clear view set the stage for a sacred time of worship. 

Much like the nativity scene, the physical setting of Chapel Carols will be a humble one.

“We all need physical reminders and indications of our faith, no matter how small,” added Tan. 

The service features Tan on vocals with Lau on the guitar, as well as a few Scripture readers. The couple decided on doing away with a full band and choir, opting to accent the calmness and intimacy of the occasion instead. 

Much like the nativity scene, the physical setting of Chapel Carols will be a humble one. It will not contain bright Christmas lights or decorations.

While the intention is to keep things simple, the production of the video has been nothing short of professional. Every aspect, from the sound and lighting, to the pacing of the video, was thought through, with the key intention of focusing on the Word.  

“When you do things simple, you have to do them well,” Lau said with a grin. 

The 30-minute video required three full days of shooting, with a dedicated filming crew of seven, followed by a detailed process of sound editing and mixing. 

“We all need physical emblems and reminders of our faith,” Tan said, especially during a time of worship.

The film crew is led by film-maker 22-year-old Clare Chao, and consists of alumni from the Ngee Ann School of Film and Media Studies. They were all roped in because the couple wanted people “who knew what they were doing”, said Lau. 

The sound mixing and editing were done by Trevor Michael from England, an engineer for well-known singer Matt Redman. 

Lau and Tan have been performing together for decades, and the live-recorded carol service is a culmination of their experience with many live performances, as well as two albums previously released. 

Reason for the season

“As you get older, it (the meaning of Christmas) is the dawning of a realisation that an infinite God entered our finite reality and how wonderful and significant that moment really is,” said Tan. 

“Our message is to avoid the hectivity of Christmas, to just remember that sense of calm and peace.”

She admitted that while the sanctity of the event might not be appreciated by non-believers, the familiarity and popularity of the season provides an opportunity for almost everyone to open up their hearts. 

Chapel Carols is for anyone open to the extraordinary reminder that Jesus lives, Lau said, especially meaningful during the difficulties of current pandemic times. 

“Part of our message is to avoid the hectivity of Christmas, to just remember that sense of calm and peace,” he added. 

The couple, who raised the funds for the production of Chapel Carols themselves, were touched by the generosity of friends and church members.

This was very much a project that was owned and helmed by the community, said Lau. “We’ve seen the best of the body of Christ chipping in.” 

Support was offered, not only in monetary form, but also in offers of time and services.

The video crew, who are Ngee Ann School of Film and Media Studies alumni.

A group of church members cooked and bought meals for the crew, which included a few non-Christians. 

“In the hospitality and generosity of the community, the crew members saw the love of Christ.”

“In the hospitality and generosity of the community, the crew members saw the love of Christ,” Tan said, adding that the crew was pleasantly surprised by the “level of welfare that they had never received before”. 

There were also moments that embodied God’s faithfulness throughout the process, evident in a “certain sense of momentum” in the video’s progression. 

In one instance, the couple needed 100 egg cartons to absorb the echoes in the chapel where they were recording. When they approached a church member, who runs an egg business, she brought over 300 egg cartons. 

A fellow church member helping to spray-paint 300 egg cartons needed for the live recording.

The egg cartons then had to be treated in a certain way to deter cockroaches from being attracted to the wood pulp. Another church member, who owns a car workshop, volunteered to spray-paint the cartons. 

“If you want a quiet encounter on Christmas Eve, log on.” 

These were moments that were “bursts of God’s favour”, said Lau gratefully.

Chapel Carols premieres on YouTube and Vimeo only on Christmas Eve at noon. No previews are available as the couple wanted the service to be preserved for the sacred occasion.

“I don’t want people to come only because it’s a nice musical performance. That should be incidental,” he said. “But if you want a quiet encounter on Christmas Eve, log on.”

How to join in Chapel Carols on Christmas Eve

Chapel Carols will be released in a video format on Christmas Eve. The link to the video will be released on Earnest and Ming Li’s Facebook page on December 24, from 12pm. 

For churches that want to weave their pre-recorded sermons into the carol service, Lau and Tan will send over the footage by December 20 at no charge. They can be contacted through their Facebook page. 

Check their Facebook page for regular updates leading up to the release of Chapel Carols. 

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About the author

Silas Low

Silas is an undergraduate studying business. His internship at Salt&light is a step towards discovering what purpose in God looks like and what it means. He is secretly hoping that it lies in eating fried chicken for a living.