Last Sunday marked the end of the Church calendar year.
This Sunday launches the beginning of a whole new year of celebrations, feasts, and..."ordinary time." But first, we start with Advent! It's a season of anticipation.
Advent has its own music...and with it it's own joys (and concerns). Some of us love Christmas music. Some of us love singing it in church worship services. Some of us can't bear the thought.
"How am I supposed to 'worship' with a song like O Little Town Of Bethlehem?" some ask. "Are we worshiping a dusty old town? What happened to Jesus - the King of kings...we want to worship Him!"
And that's a good point. Because even if you easily worship the Lord in a song like that, there are many folks in your congregation who either:
1. Just love the sentiment of the cherished Christmas songs (and miss the Reason for the season - man that was old school right there!)
2. Fume, wondering why we waste four (and this year FIVE!) Sundays singing these "non-worship songs"
At my church, the first thing we will hear as we walk into the sanctuary this Sunday is O Little Town Of Bethlehem. Which reminds me, I need to transpose that chord chart to F...but back to the point. How will I help us "get" why it would make sense to do such songs fraught with sentimentality, memories, and dreamless sleep?
Many of the Christmas hymns (and hymns in general) are songs that recount our testimony, that give voice to our own journey, and that testify to God's work among us (versus songs that sing directly to God). We can let these vivid songs dance through our minds as we see God's hand at work throughout history...and let our hearts respond in worship.
Songwriters (like Paul, Chris, and Lincoln) have been doing mashups of well known Christmas hymns with well known modern worship songs. These can be a great help in teaching our congregations to marry the two worlds (as they sometimes seem). I've been taken by surprise at what happens when we're lifelessly singing through an old Christmas tune and suddenly I make the connection and find such meaning in what I was singing...and let my heart respond in worship.
This is just as true for Advent as it is in all our music, but don't need to sing every Christmas song during the season! There are songs that I love and might feel like "it isn't Christmas until I listen to it" and that DOESN'T mean that I will give it airplay during Sunday morning gathered worship. What you choose to NOT play is as important as what you DO play. (that music lesson was just a bonus) And then even giving our folks an "out" like "You may find it difficult to worship with these songs, but let God reveal Himself to you in these stories and experience the wonder of Emmanuel...God with us...and let our hearts respond in worship."
Include some Gospel and Old Testament readings before singing the Christmas hymns to tie it in to God's story with His people. Use things that strike awe in us (the ANGELS!, the humiliation of a stable birth, the unthinkableness of a young virgin carrying God's Son as our Rescue, foreign, gift-giving dignitaries finding Jesus by following - get this - a STAR!...) When we hear this living, active Word of God, something lights up in us and our hearts respond in worship.
Sometimes it just fine to play favorites. Like choosing songs that deeply resonate with you. That way you're at least starting from a place of deeper passion than "well, I guess we have to do these songs now...I can't wait until we can go back to 'real worship' again." Oh please. Lead better than that. Get your heart into a good place, connect with music that moves you and lead it well. Our hearts will respond in worship!
In that spirit, here's one of my favorite Christmas songs. It's not an old song, but Bob Kauflin did a great job of capturing the story. This could even be a cool reading...hmm that's an idea.
In The First Light
In the first light of the new day no one knew He had arrived
Things continued as they had been while a newborn softly cried
But the heavens wrapped in wonder knew the meaning of His birth
In the weakness of a baby they knew God had come to earth
As His mother held Him closely it was hard to understand
That her baby, not yet speaking, was the Word of God to man
He would tell them of His kingdom but their hearts would not believe
They would hate Him and in anger they would nail Him to a tree
But the sadness would be broken as the song of life arose
And the firstborn of creation would ascend and take His throne
He had left it to redeem us but before His life began
He knew He'd come back not as a baby but as the Lord of ev'ry man
Hear the angels as they're singing on the morning of His birth
But how much greater will our song be when He comes again, when He comes again
Hear the angels as they're singing an the morning of His birth
But how much greater will our song be when He comes again to earth
When He comes to rule the earth
Bob Kauflin © 1988 Bridge Building Music, Inc., Organon Key Music, CCLI Song # 142589
Lord, I pray for myself and all my friends who lead worship. Help us to lead well. Awaken our hearts to the mystery and wonder of the Incarnation. Remove the cobwebs from our hearts and enable us to lead as if this is the very first Advent season we've known. Compel us to create beautiful music, soaring harmonies, and God-focused lyrics. Capture our hearts until we all respond in worship. Amen