Christmas is a fascinating time in our culture. Our commerce dramatically shifts toward retail, people lucky enough have days – even weeks – off of work to spend with their families, and our media culture takes this bizarre hiatus from producing new material to reminisce days gone by. Instead of hearing the usual top 40 on the radio, we hear Bing Crosby & Nat King Cole lulling new generations toward a simpler time of roasting chestnuts and sledding down hills of snow with cousins. And when we aren’t listening to the musical relics of the golden age, we often hear the superstars of today put aside their usual modern themes to sing their own versions of these songs of yesteryear. And surprisingly often, they even lay aside the usual to sing a song or two about a little baby being born to a virgin in a stable in Bethlehem. This is fascinating. To know that an essential, foundational portion of our story as the people of God is being told by everyone from Mariah Carey to Sufjan Stevens is worth mentioning. I come up short on naming another topic other than love itself that threads all genres and generations together in this way.
But in many believer’s eyes, these kinds of trends of the season can be a reflection of the “cheapening” of Christmas carols. Because of the exposure these tunes experience during Christmas, it’s kind of hard not to be frustrated with “Truly He taught us to love one another, His law is love and His gospel is peace” being observed with the same reverence as “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose…” We can certainly be guilty of valuing nostalgia & whimsy over credibility & authenticity in Christmas music. It’s easy to get chills during a well-sung chorus of “O Holy Night,” but are we really worshipping God when we sing it?
We as the church are not limited to a worldly perspective of these songs, guilty as some of us might be of having it. It is my strong belief that we can and should utilize Christ-centered Christmas music during worship, regardless of our culture’s disenfranchised perspective of them. As a music leader, I have a real challenge ahead of me each year to utilize these reverently in worship services. This season, as it does for so many roles I play in my life, forces me to reflect on my purposes and motivations for what I do. So, I thought I would share with those interested my process for selecting songs and arrangements for worship, and how Christmas music (for me) plays an intrinsic role in that process this time of year.
You might notice that I do not refer to myself as a worship leader. Music plays a vital role in corporate worship, but it is only one of many parts pertaining to a congregation gathering to worship God. So, I don’t think it’s this terrible, heretical thing to refer to one’s self as a “worship leader” if you happen to do what I do each Sunday, but I just don’t find it to be an accurate job description. So, no offense to any worship leaders who might be reading this. Love you guys.
When planning worship with Scott during our weekly Thursday lunch meeting, I certainly keep this specific job title in mind, always doing my best to center the songs we sing around the scripture God has lead him to preach. The themes, focus and message of the passages we will observe in that upcoming Sunday always dictate the songs we will sing. I feel that this really keeps us focused on God’s word, and helps protect me from imposing my own agendas into this sacred time. So, when all of the scriptures we are observing for an entire month are centered around Jesus coming to earth, it simply makes sense to sing about his coming. “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night,” ” O Holy Night,” and dozens of other songs at our disposal do this immaculately.
Other key elements to consider when choosing songs for a Sunday morning worship service are theological accuracy, singability, familiarity, and over-all musical quality. As far as these qualities are concerned, it’s tough to beat Christmas carols and advent hymns. Just like many of the wonderful and beloved hymns we sing most other Sundays, these songs have stood the test of time for a reason. Even the most “modern” of worship settings on a Sunday morning cannot stop themselves from finishing the phrases of “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.” The text, the singability, the contagious melodies, were flat-out destined to be sung by droves of believers.
Going back to the context in which biblical Christmas carols and advent hymns are observed in today’s world, do not let our culture’s misappropriation of these songs prevent you from seeing the true, spiritual relevance they hold at this time of the year. Saint Nick, sleigh rides, and jingle bells aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. They certainly have their place and can be enjoyed innocently, but they will not last forever. However, the truths embedded in this wonderful catalog are as eternal as they are comforting to our lost and thirsty hearts. Do not miss out on the opportunity this Christmas to truly worship the Lord by their vanguard.
– Lee Taylor
*Bonus – Christmas albums I highly recommend listening and worshipping to:
Chris Tomlin, Glory in the Highest: Christmas Songs of Worship
Sara Groves, O Holy Night
Phil Wickham, Songs for Christmas
Jars of Clay, Christmas Songs
Andrew Peterson, Behold the Lamb of God