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Some members of First Baptist Church Lawton adjust the sleeves making up the body of the Living Christmas Tree that is made up of strands of 90,000 lights all together.Around 100 singers will perform on the tree.Members of First Baptist Church Lawton begin screwing in the bars on the Living Christmas Tree to hold up the sleeves with 90,000 lights. The tree will light up Friday for this year’s performance of “Light Out of the Darkness.”

Living Christmas Tree message stays same

For 35 years the Living Christmas Tree presented by First Baptist Church has been a light to the Lawton community. The tree may have changed over the years, but the message has always been the same.

The tree that will light up on Friday is the same infrastructure the church purchased back in 1981. The idea came from then-music minister Chuck Hopkins, who took a group of members down to Florida to see a Living Christmas Tree performance.

"As soon as they saw it, they were like, 'We have to do this,'" said Kay Means, a Lawton church member who has participated in the Living Christmas Tree for 30 years. "But you can imagine buying the structure itself is quite the investment. Several families donated large sums of money so they could actually buy the initial infrastructure of the tree."

For the first couple of years, the tree was decorated with greenery, garland and lights. In 2005 the church did away with the greenery and purchased a 90,000-light package and software to sync the lights with the music. Every year in September, the church begins preparing for the Living Christmas Tree, and volunteers from the church help in all sorts of ways, including assembling the tree.

"It was painstakingly long," Kay recalls decorating the tree with greenery. "It was a really intense thing because you had to fluff every single piece of greenery, put the greenery on, then put the lights on and then the garland."

The 39-foot tree fits around 100 singers, and to make more space, the church added two rows to the bottom of the tree after a couple of years.

"These rows are pretty packed," Means said. "That's why we put in the extra rows so people could spread out a little bit because it gets really, really hot up there."

Different directors

Over the years, the Living Christmas Tree has had three different musical directors: Hopkins, Tom Willoughby and the current music minister, Mike Neff. Two interim music directors have assisted with the tree, James Woodward and Ken Gabrielse. Each music minister has made his own additions to the Living Christmas Tree, and since Neff joined the church staff 4 years ago he has implemented the use of DVD videos that go along with the music.

"In the musical that we have, there's a DVD that has some of the words on there and gives pictorial depiction of the song," Means said. "It adds another element of visual to it."

The Living Christmas Tree has a different theme each year, which may include a drama or narration that goes with the musical performance. For a couple of years, some church members wrote or adapted a Christmas story to incorporate with the music. 

"One year, it was a Tim Allen kind of 'Home Improvement' type of thing and we had the fence with Wilson behind it, and he would go over and talk to Wilson," Means said. "One year we had a tough one that was about a soldier who doesn't come home from war and the letter that comes to the mom. We've done different types of dramas before. Ones more recently have been just the narrative."

This year the Living Christmas Tree will have narration, "Light Out of the Darkness." Toward the end of each performance the pastor gives a devotional, and over the years the pastors have done variations. One year, Means remembered, then-pastor Dr. Gary Cook read his children's book, "Christmas with Mama Jo," and invited children on stage with him.

Even though the Living Christmas Tree has grown and shone more brightly, the initial reasoning behind it hasn't changed.

Gift to the community

"The reason why we started this ministry, and the reason why we still do it 35 years later, is it's always been our gift to the community," Means said. "And not only a gift, but making sure everyone has the opportunity to hear the gospel story of Christmas and to keep the gospel story the focal point of Christmas. And it's free to the community. We might ask them to bring food cans for the shelters, but we've always done it as a free ministry. We've never ever charged in 35 years."

The Lawton Constitution

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