Christmas Worship Among the Great Hymns of Our Faith

Featuring Posted on November 20, 2012

On a recent chilly morning as I walked home from my neighborhood coffee shop, I received a phone call from a friend who’s a worship pastor. With the holidays approaching, the conversation soon turned to Christmas.

My friend confided that this time of the year often is accompanied by a sense of dread. It’s not that he doesn’t love aspects of Christmas. But for those in ministry, the season often means more pressure than any other time. Special programs or concerts result in extra evenings away from home, extra hours of work, and the greater possibility for things to go wrong. It’s the time of the year when we’re expected to produce fresh ideas and keep things current and festive, all while maintaining the regular work load.

While it’s tempting to feel stressed during Advent and Christmas, we have great reason to embrace the season. It’s worth pushing through the challenges when we consider the opportunity at hand. For most of us, we’ll reach more unchurched people at Christmas than during the remainder of the year.

To do so, we don’t always have to grasp for the best, brightness or latest trends in music. A bounty of rich carols, hymns and traditions from centuries past is available at our fingertips. We need only to humbly turn to our heritage for inspiration in order find an energizing array of options that will help us make the most of the open door God gives us this time of year to reach others with the gospel.

Here’s four reminders of how we can benefit from the lives and work of those who’ve gone before us as we enter the Christmas season.

Christmas allows us to utilize the classics. The great carols often were inspired by ancient, beautiful liturgies and written by some of the finest hymn writers and poets of all time (such as Wesley, Watts, Luther and Rossetti). Additionally, these songs were arranged by equally outstanding composers (Mendelssohn, Handel, Holst, Beethoven and Bach come to mind.)

For example, we have Mendelssohn to thank for the melody of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” while the lyric belongs to Charles Wesley (in my mind, the greatest hymn writer in history).

Christina Rossetti, England’s finest poet of her generation, wrote the poem “In the Bleak Midwinter,” which composer Gustav Holst later put to music. Isaac Watts gave us the words to “Joy to the World,” which eventually was paired with Handel’s classic melody.

“Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” is the irrepressible theme from Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony.”

There’s a reason these songs have stood the test of time and become part of the fabric of Christmas tradition. Often, they’re more ascendent in their worship, more theological in their lyrics and more enjoyable for people to sing than almost anything written in history. Through using these songs at Christmas, a believer’s passion for Christ is reignited and the unchurched hear the gospel explained in the most clear and winsome way possible. We should aim to sing as many of these great carols as we possibly can.

Carols tell the story of the faith like no other songs can. Christmas carols blend a story form of writing with simple melodies. The tradition of caroling was originally intended to bring the gospel message to people. Hence, carolers went door to door, delivering songs that proclaimed the good news.

We may not go caroling in our neighborhoods as much Christians did in years past, but the principle remains. Carols still relay a powerful story, and people are more willing to listen to that story at Christmas than at any other time of the year. In fact, carols continue to be one of the few remaining conduits that allow us to proclaim our faith in the public square. Amazingly, they’re heralded on secular radio, used in advertisements and sung on television throughout the season. We would do well to use them wisely in our churches and allow the powerful message of these songs to dwell in the hearts of those with whom we worship at Christmas.

The season invites us to broaden our artistic pallets. It’s all too easy to get in a rut when it comes to planning music for the weekly worship service. But Christmas breathes fresh air into our efforts. We can try different music for the choir, or even attempt assembling a choir in the first place. We can explore the more classical forms of music, or hear children perform. We can delve into the traditions of the church that might otherwise be overlooked, examining the symbolism behind a candle or bell.

Again, we don’t have to go looking for the latest, greatest or most expensive ideas. The simple artistic expressions that have been carried down as traditions through the centuries are effective in creating memories and illustrations through which Christmas can become fresh to people again.

The Body of Christ is strengthened during our celebrations. When we glean from the richness of historic church music, we demonstrate that we’re part of the longstanding Body of Christ. The past 100 years of evangelistic efforts, although well-intentioned, have left many cynical of Christianity. Skeptics view the faith as a fad, an emotional experience, or something that can easily be tried on for size and later disregarded. Evangelical Christianity in particular is unfortunately often associated with the commercial, the manipulative or the solely American experience.

Yet when we lean on the generations who’ve gone before us, we remind outsiders that we stand in our churches this Christmas because of the faithfulness of the pastors, teachers, mothers, neighbors and friends throughout the ages who’ve given their lives to the incarnate Christ. Ultimately, this strengthens the Body of Christ in the eyes of the watching world.

Ministry leaders also are fortified when we look to the past for inspiration. Whether a worship leader, church musician, or composer/arranger, each of us essentially act as creative music-theologians. Utilizing music that’s stood the test of time immerses us in the best of what our heritage has produced in terms of musical theology. Incidentally, it’s also some of the most brilliant art written in the history of Western civilization. We can only become more energized, inspired and stronger in our own roles when we steep ourselves in the work of those who’ve gone before us.

This year, allow the splendid traditions and music of the Christmas season to refresh you. Choose one of the great hymn writers and study his lyrics. Ponder how a classical composer weaves together both beauty and simplicity through a single melody. And know that the time and energy you invest in your ministry ultimately will point others toward Immanuel--the God who came to dwell with us.