We Need a Little Christmas, Right This Very Minute: On Singing Christmas Carols During Advent

by MaryAnn McKibben Dana

One of the gifts of being in the NEXT Church is the opportunity to examine everything—literally everything—we do as people of God, to see whether our practices are still a faithful witness to Christ in the 21st century.

One of the challenges of being in the NEXT Church is… the very same thing.

I have thought for many years about the church’s observance of Advent—those four weeks leading up to Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, I get the importance of Advent themes. Spiritual preparation helps us not get carried away in a wave of kitschy detritus and overconsumption. There’s something important about not jumping the gun. There’s something lovely in letting the moment ripen. In an instant gratification culture, the discipline of waiting and watching could not be more vital.

On the other hand, it’s a challenge for the church to begin the celebration of Christmas on December 24. By that time, most people have been binging on yuletide cheer for several weeks and are ready for Christmas to end. We’re cranking up the Christmas carols when people may be sick of hearing them thanks to so many mall PA systems.

When we in the mainline church insist on Adventen purity (no Christmas music until X, no tree until Y), when we hold Christmas back with a whip and a chair, because it’s good for us, darn it!… then we are out of step with the world around us.

Maybe we’re out of step in an important, prophetic way. But I wonder. Some years ago I heard Tom Are of Village Presbyterian Church in Kansas City name this dynamic: “I just don’t think the church gets to tell the culture what time it is. Maybe in Christendom we could do that, but no more.”

In fact, there have been years when the people I serve seemed so desperate for the incarnation, so starved for good news, that it seemed downright cruel to withhold the message that the Lord is come. Is come, now, in early December, amid the shopping and the hustle and the stress. Other years, it seems appropriate to hit Advent themes more strongly. I wonder if pastors might plan their Decembers based on the rhythms and needs of the communities they serve first, rather than the dictates of the Revised Common Lectionary.

One of the arguments for Advent is that it provides space for people to grieve. Advent gives permission for people not to be jolly. But that’s a question of mood, not of message. Advent is about preparation and expectations unfulfilled. which can bring pain. But Advent waiting can also be deeply joyful (think of the hymn “People, Look East”). By contrast, the incarnation of Christ is cause for rejoicing, but Christmas can also be wistful and brooding (“In the Bleak Midwinter.”)

In other words, yes, Advent can be a corrective to the jingly jangly cheer that’s so jarring—even hurtful—to people who just aren’t feeling it. But Christmas can be that corrective too. There are ways to minister to the brokenhearted while also preaching Christmas. True Christmas, not the store-bought version.

Over the years I’ve thought about other reasons we might observe Christmas in December, specifically through the singing of Christmas carols. Some, I will admit, are more weighty than others:

1. The dramata-liturgical reason. (I think I made that word up.) Rather than erecting a rigid wall between the seasons, many of us see the boundary between Advent and Christmas as a semi-permeable membrane. The longing for Christmas blooms over the four weeks. This happens in many churches visually, with decorations growing more elaborate throughout December. It could happen musically as well.

So on Advent 1 we might sing all Advent hymns. Advent 2, we might do two Advent and one Christmas–one of the more obscure ones. Advent 3, same ratio, but we might break out with a well-known carol, e.g. “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” or “What Child is This?”. And so forth.

2. The numerical reason. Advent is twice as long as the Christmastide, yet there are twice as many Christmas hymns as Advent ones (at least in the current PCUSA hymnal—we’ll see what Glory to God offers us!). Why would we limit ourselves liturgically in December? It would be like planning worship with one hand tied behind our back.

3. The pedagogical reason. In the bygone years of Christendom, children learned and sang Christmas carols in school. I’m only 40, but even I remember this from my childhood. The shift in our culture means it’s our job—church and family—to teach Christmas carols to our children. I want my kids to know all three verses of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” I want them to know both tunes for “Away in a Manger” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

4. The musical reason. As pastor of a small church, I agree with David R. Ray, who urges small-church pastors to choose songs that their people know how to sing—even if those hymns may be a bit old-fashioned or have some iffy theology. In a large church, you’ve got a big choir or a critical mass of people who can carry an unfamiliar hymn. Not so in a small church. A beloved hymn well sung is a more joyful noise to the Lord then a theologically impeccable hymn that people fumble their way through. And few hymns are as familiar and beloved as Christmas carols. (That’s not to say that we don’t teach new ones, but the familiar ones are the spoonful of sugar that help the new ones go down.)

5. The pastoral reason. Life is difficult. Folks are hassled, grieved, cranky. It costs me so little to choose Christmas carols in December, and people genuinely appreciate it. Not because they are spiritually shallow and impatient, and “If only they got Advent they would love it as much as we clergy do!” But because they know the carols well and singing them brings them joy. Because Christmas hymns connect them with loved ones long gone. And the words can be powerful. The “dawn of redeeming grace” never fails to give me goose bumps.

In short, it is not necessarily kowtowing to culture to sing Christmas carols when people long to sing them. It is pastorally sensitive. (I’ll take the “kowtowing to culture” argument a lot more seriously when I hear about churches singing “Frosty the Snowman.”)

6. The evangelistic reason. December is a well-attended month of the church year. People want to be in church. It’s a good time to be attentive to guests. As such, it’s an act of hospitality to choose familiar hymns. Newcomers may not know what the heck a doxology is, and darn it, the church does a different version of the Lord’s Prayer than the one they know, but whew!, they can join in on ”Angels We Have Heard on High.”

There you go… I’ve made my best case. Let’s hear from you now. Hit me with your best shot in the comments or on our Facebook page.

MamdMaryAnn McKibben Dana is pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church, a small and growing congregation in Falls Church, VA. She is the author of Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time, selling like hotcakes on Amazon and Chalice Press. She writes about “beauty, ideas, creativity, and the life of the Spirit” at her website, The Blue Room. She is on the strategy team of NEXT Church and a co-editor of the NEXT Church blog.

And she looks forward to singing “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice” this Sunday in worship.

With an Urgency Born of This Hope

by Jeffrey Lehn

Preached at a meeting of Whitewater Valley Presbytery, November 7, 2012

Isaiah 40:28-31

God, by your grace may we hear in your word what we need to hear and may we then be strengthened by it in order to do what you call us to do. Amen.

Bald-Eagle-gold-black-SILH-_J7X2112Our Scripture lesson this afternoon comes from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 40, verses 28-31. Listen for God’s word to you.

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

– – – – –

Every time I read this passage aloud I can’t help but think of a scene from the movie Chariots of Fire. You may remember it. Eric Liddell, the famous sprinter, travels to Paris for the 1924 Olympics games, but instead of participating in the 100-meter dash—a race he is heavily-favored to win—he opts to disqualify himself, because the preliminary heats are scheduled for Sunday, his weekly Sabbath rest. Liddell decides to attend a local church in Paris instead and the film depicts him standing in the pulpit and reading these old, compelling words from Isaiah, his gentle Scottish brogue pervading the sanctuary. In the background, Michael Joncas’s contemporary hymn, “On Eagle’s Wings,” begins softly playing—“and he will raise you up on eagle’s wings…”—a piece we all sang together at the outset of our meeting this morning.

Now Chariots of Fire is one of my favorite movies, and I have no interest in bashing it, but I’m afraid this rather sentimental scene hinders more than helps our interpretation of Isaiah chapter 40.

Remember that the prophet Isaiah initially sings these poetic words to an Israelite people who have been paying their dues in exile in Babylon. Captivity in Babylon was a cruel reality—God’s people were uprooted from their homes, scattered from their place of worship and forced to learn a new way of life in an unfamiliar place with strange people telling them what to do. Their identity was lost and God seemed more aloof and callous than ever. Perhaps those Babylonians were right. Perhaps Marduk, the chief god in the Babylonian pantheon, did now have the upper hand. The great God of Israel, so faithful and loving and almighty in decades past, now seemed impotent, or at least asleep at the wheel.

Down and out as they are, the word of the Lord the Israelites need to hear is not the soothing Scottish brogue of an Eric Liddell, but the rousing, throat-clearing pleas of a seasoned prophet who knows nothing is guaranteed and every word must count.

So Isaiah minces no words. He goes right for the jugular. “C’mon, guys. You know this. You’ve heard this a thousand times. Remember our Lord is the never-ending God, the creator of everything that was, is and ever will be. Our God isn’t feckless or distracted or tired. Our God isn’t stumped by our predicament, scratching his head about what to do next while we wallow here in exile. No, remember our God is the one who empowers us when we’re weak and lifts us up when we’re bowed down. We have to stop looking for hope in all the wrong places, and start hoping in God, who helps us to run even when we’re weary and to walk even when we’re faint.”


As I look around the PC(USA) these days, I think Isaiah’s words are as timely as ever. I’m afraid we’ve gotten caught up in all that we’ve lost in our exile since the heyday of the 1950s and ‘60s—the loss of members, the loss of influence, the loss of cash, the loss of buildings. I’m afraid we’ve been looking down, sulking and murmuring about our decline, far more than we’ve been looking up to the different but hopeful future God has in store for us. I’m afraid we’ve been grasping far too often for the latest shiny but fleeting fad that comes down the church-growth pike—“it’s all about bringing in young families,” “it’s all about small groups,” “it’s all about hiring that dynamic pastor,” “it’s all about changing our worship style,” “it’s all about hiring someone to get us on Facebook and Twitter,” “it’s all about getting rid of the progressives,” “it’s all about getting rid of the evangelicals.”

Understandable as many of our collective reactions are, they are too oriented around us, around our experience of exile, around our litany of frustrations, around our ability to generate hope. Thankfully, Isaiah clears things up for us. He reminds us no matter how energetic or seasoned we are, no matter how impressive our PIF or CIF is, no matter what our church has done in the past or is doing in the present—we are all, every single one of us, going to stumble and fall. We are going to get tired. We are going to daydream about quitting our current church and joining the bigger and better one down the street. We are going to wonder if it is all worth it.

It’s in those moments that we find out the true source of our hope. Are we hoping in membership numbers or stewardship results or a return to the glorious glory days of the past? Or are we hoping in the Lord who renews our strength, who mounts us up with wings like eagles, who helps us to run and not be weary, to walk and not be faint?

I wonder, in whom or what are you hoping this afternoon?

Reading the newspaper, especially after yesterday’s elections, it’s easy to get caught up in hoping in our favorite candidate or political party, or a still tepid economic recovery. Watching TV commercials, it’s easy to get duped into believing that youth, materialism and pleasure will give us the hope we need. As a pastor, it’s easy for me to get looped into the narrative that if I just skim one more book, watch one more webinar, make one more visitation, offer one more prayer, create one more committee, then perhaps our church will have something more concrete to hope in. But we know better. As Isaiah’s vision reminds us, the only hope that truly lasts, that does not disappoint, that renews us when we’re tired and lifts us up when we’re bowed down, is hope in our Lord.

It was this kind of hope that allowed William Sloane Coffin, former minister of Riverside Church in New York City, to preach the sermon at his own 24-year-old son’s funeral service. Days after Alex’s death in a freak car accident, Coffin climbed into the pulpit and preached these unforgettable words, “… a week ago last Monday night, driving in a terrible storm, my son Alexander . . . beat his father to the grave.” Coffin, who knew God well enough to realize she would never cause such a tragedy, still lamented the loss of a future without his son. The only thing that kept him afloat in those incredibly dark days was his tenacious hope in our Lord for whom death was not the final word.

It was a similar hope that compelled the writers of our Confession of 1967 to open the final paragraph of that statement of faith with this line: “With an urgency born of this hope.” “With an urgency born of this hope,” they write, referring to the “hope” we have, not in membership figures or stewardship results or fruitful ministries—as good as those things are—but our hope in God, in God’s promise to reconcile all of creation someday, somehow and someway.

Friends, may you and I leave this place hoping not in ourselves but in our Lord. As we return to engage in our ministries, may we find our strength renewed and our weariness eased. May we remember that we don’t have to be the creators of our hope. We have all the hope we need in our Lord already. And we need only share it.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Jeff LehnJeff Lehn is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Fort Wayne. He hails from St. Paul, Minnesota, where he learned to cheer for the Twins and Vikings and ate far too many casseroles. He grew up attending a Baptist church, but had a theological metamorphosis of sorts after college, eventually finding his way to the Presbyterian fold. He enjoys staying in touch with family and friends, spirited conversations over meals and the gratification of yardwork. And he is grateful every day for Arianne, his spouse and colleague in ministry.


An Advent Prayer

By Jessica TateIMG_1277

Tear open the heavens and come down, O God.

As the light dims in the cooling days

our vision turns inward.

We see the wilderness of our lives, the desert of our spirits–

the crooked priorities

the low valleys of selfishness

the mountains of consumption

the uneven ground of malnourished spirits

the places made rough with wounds we carry.

Reveal again your glory, God of the Most High,

reveal your goodness, your love, your power—

reveal your judgment tinged with grace

so that all people see it together.

Now consider, O Holy One of Israel, we are your people.

You are the potter and we are the clay,

tough but willing to be molded according to your likeness.

Consider, O Lord of Lords, we are your people.

You are the fire that baptizes us in your Holy Spirit

captive by fear but willing to be your servants.

Turn us around to go in your way–

Teach us again not to be afraid.

According to the promise made to our ancestors,

O God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob:

Comfort, O comfort your people and speak tenderly to Jerusalem

for there is great pain.

Bring good news to our brokenness,

hold close those jagged places in our hearts,

speak freedom to the tension we carry,

release us from patterns that hold us captive,

proclaim the time of your good favor

and the day of light of our God!

Tear open the heavens and come down, O God!

Jar us into wakefulness.

Though the hour is uncertain

be it evening or midnight or cockcrow or dawn

We await your glory; we are awake!

We watch, we long, we stand on tip-toes

expectantly, urgently, eager.

Tear open the heavens and come down.

Break into our lives–

we are awake!

(Advent meditations on Isaiah’s prophecy, Mary’s Song and the gospel of Mark)

Jessica Tate1Jessica Tate is Director of NEXT Church.

Reformation Redux- Anniversary and Action

by Nathan Proctor

Earlier this week, I shared some thoughts and questions about how and why we celebrate World Communion Sunday, and mentioned that how we observe and remember the Reformation is also worth exploring together.

Reformation Sunday

Each year on the last Sunday of October, we dust off the red paraments we haven’t seen since Pentecost, hire brass instruments, create a liturgy of historical creeds and confessions, and bust out some of the most beloved hymns of the Protestant church.  How great is that moment when with joined voices we get to joyfully sing A Mighty Fortress Is Our God or I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art?  I love that these hymns are not only strong and beautiful melodies to sing but they have a tangible connection to our history.  Our services talk of Luther and Calvin and then in well-loved song we get to experience something these reformers shared with the church- we suddenly are connected with believers and congregations across time!

While I think our understanding of how to honor Reformation Sunday is a worthy effort at connecting our faith with the history of these important reformers, could we also stretch beyond the historical component, and allow ourselves new space to think and celebrate?

By always having this celebration on the last Sunday in October, tying it to Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses in 1517, we minimize the Reformation to simply a historical anniversary to observe.  Instead of marking a specific day, could we change it up and celebrate a church that is still reforming on a different Sunday of the year?  I think if we are freed from a specific date or historical occurrence, we can in turn be free to look at reforming as a broad and wonderful concept -an idea of change and growth that is bigger than ourselves and ultimately bigger than any one day or season.

Instead of a Sunday that traces the history of the Protestant church, what if we looked at a bigger picture of our world and witnessed how the church, through God’s grace, has been (and still is) a reforming agent? Maybe then we could focus on how our congregations have been praying and growing over generations when faced with hard questions about race relations, or gender equality, or poverty.  How interesting would it be if we celebrated Reformation on “International Day of Peace” in September or on “World AIDS Day” in December? What if we celebrated reformations multiple times a year? I think days like these suggestions would challenge us to think about how we care for the sick and the outcast, or work for ways of peace in the world. Yes, we would discover that the church has made missteps along the way, but I think the bigger picture is what we could learn from this honest history, and to dream how we might do things differently. How are we, as individuals, as a congregation, as a denomination called to reform our world?  A fresh date might allow us new insight in trying to answer this question.

There is also something that feels odd to me about celebrating only one side of the story without acknowledging that the actual Reformation event spurred one of the biggest schisms in church history.  I realize that it’s more vision than reality to imagine all of us living peacefully together in faith, and that the church has always had some sort of fracture as it reflects the fractured people that take part in it, but I long for ways of reforming that bring us closer together to be the church we think God is calling us to be.

Can we be intentional about training our celebration towards some of the more beautiful ways we have all reformed? I am struck by Martin Luther’s idea to translate the scriptures into the vernacular.  In the midst of a divisive era, it created new ways for people to unify together around the word of God.  Hearing God speak your language breaks down barriers and proclaims that language does not separate you from God or one another.  Imagine all the reforms the church has made since that time that continue to break down divisions – your country or political regime does not separate you from God, your gender or sexuality does not separate you from God.  Neither does family, diagnosis, disease, physical limitations…and on and on.  Reformation can be about widening the circle, opening gates and welcoming people, not just about breaking away and dogmatic disputes.

Reformation is clearly both an anniversary and an activity.  Can we see it as a celebration of something in history, and as a driving force in the future story of the church?  I dream that as we next encounter a Reformation Sunday we might be able to bring about more justice, more hope, more unity, and more beauty to our world.

{This post is the second of a two-part series; Part one discusses sharing communion from a universal perspective on  World Communion Sunday.}

Nathan 2Nathan Proctor serves as Associate Director of Music at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh NC, where he helps plan and then leads three worship services each Sunday at the organ, and conducts choirs of children, youth, and adults. He considers himself lucky: he grew up in Iowa but now lives in North Carolina, so he can handle everything from ten-foot snow drifts to cheese grits. He travels for mission work, for fun, and for coffee, and is guilty of ordering one too many churchy books online.

World Communion

by Nathan Proctor

I think about worship a lot. Like, a lot. In my current church, I plan and lead music in an average of two hundred worship services a year. As I look back on the hours of planning and rehearsing to prepare for worship, every year I get caught off guard by October. The two church celebrations that frame the month, World Communion and Reformation, throw me into a mind-spin. Having just gone through the month, I cautiously look back and wonder about next year. I wonder if as a congregation we remembered and celebrated these occasions faithfully and lovingly. I wonder if we found the right balance between remembering our history and dreaming about the future.

As the church changes and we witness to the church that is becoming, the big question that weighs on my mind is this: Will we reach a time when we can no longer answer why we do this? Will we discover a time when we need to outgrow these occasions? As compared to celebrations and feast days where the church year marks the life of Jesus Christ, how can these ecclesiastical occasions, to honor the church itself, grow and change with us as a reforming church?

World Communion

I grew up Lutheran, so it wasn’t until my first Presbyterian church job that I experienced a tried and true World Communion Sunday in October. I quickly learned that this day was a special part of the Presbyterian heritage. At its very core, celebrating communion with the entire world is a beautiful and holy thing to do. However, over the years I have seen lots of “interesting” ideas: wearing traditional costumes, speaking in different languages, sharing global music, and even using “global” bread during communion. I worry that these ideas can cheapen our grand vision for the day, and we end up at some sort of costume party eating pita bread together. While I am grateful for people who share ideas and for the hours it takes to bring them to fruition, I also wonder how we can expand our visions and search for ways to celebrate that have less to do with our own perceptions of the world and more about what God’s view of the world might be.

First, I think God calls us to see the concept of world as “welcome,” not geography. Our current technology allows us to connect with people living afar so quickly and effortlessly compared to the first time we celebrated it in 1936, so the notion of World Communion takes on (or should take on) a different meaning. Instead of exotic geography, perhaps we should focus on radical invitations to the table. Maybe the church that we are slowly becoming is one that thinks less about how our own church specifically does communion and instead looks outward to how everyone could feel welcome to share in the feast. Do we dare to suggest a new idea in that the world celebrates communion with us EVERY single time we partake in the sacred meal? What if the real gift of World Communion and its history and tradition is that it brought about an openness — a step outside of ourselves — within our practice of communion?

Second, I think God hopes we are open to new ideas every time we gather to worship. World Communion has given us permission to experiment, to be playful, to try on something that might not feel like our own tradition for one Sunday out of the year. Why not allow that to happen other Sundays (if not every week)? Local tradition is important because it gives us continuity, history, a sense of belonging, but let’s build and honor local tradition out of “music,” not subsets of “our music” and “global music.” Let’s allow all language, fabric, movement, color, faces, tastes and smells from God’s creation to inform and inspire our weekly worship, not just those that have always been in our church closet.

Costume parties are fun because you can try out a different character while knowing you will change back to the old you in the morning. Shouldn’t we expect more from World Communion? Shouldn’t encountering the world transform us? Shouldn’t seeing the face of God in different forms and hearing the stories in different tongues alter our relationship to our brothers and sisters? Maybe the measure of success for World Communion Sunday is when we no longer need one token day of remembering, and instead invite the whole world to supper each time we gather together.

{This post is part one of a two-part series; come back later this week to continue exploring how we worship — on Reformation Sunday.}

Nathan 2Nathan Proctor serves as Associate Director of Music and White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh NC, where he helps plan and lead three worship services each Sunday at the organ, and directs choirs of children, youth, and adults. He considers himself lucky: he grew up in Iowa but now lives in North Carolina, so he can handle everything from ten-foot snow drifts to cheese grits. He travels for mission work, for fun, and for coffee, and is guilty of ordering one too many churchy books online.

What’s NEXT: From the Pew to the Pulpit

This summer, we are inviting leaders and participants from the 2012 gathering to share what they’ve been thinking about or working on since Dallas. Where are we seeing seeds of the NEXT Church? What ideas are taking root?

The following was submitted by Andrew Taylor-Troutman:

Emily, one of the elders at the church I serve, took it upon herself to design new and updated welcome cards to be placed in the pews for the benefit of Sunday morning visitors. These stylish index cards included a picture of our small sanctuary nestled in the middle of farmland and listed a few of our activities. But Emily did not stop there. For everyone in attendance, there is a “Pew to the Pulpit” card that serves as a means to alert the pastor and elders about pastoral care needs, such as hospitalizations and deaths. There is also space to indicate a desire to volunteer for a committee or request a pastoral visitation. Finally, there are blanks spaces to ask questions about the service and indicate preferences for worship, including sermon topics and hymn selections.

In Dallas, I led a workshop about best worship practices based upon what I’ve learned from the input of my congregation. Through our discussion, we moved beyond the tired, old “worship wars” and shared ways to make the experience of worship reverent, joyful, inspirational, and thought-provoking. The key discovery was that changes in the service should come from the bottom up, rather than from the top down–from the pew to the pulpit. As preachers and worship leaders, we fill our sanctuaries with words week after week. But it is also instructive to listen: to let the people speak and be intentional about offering opportunities for feedback. It seems to me that the NEXT movement is about promoting such investment by congregations into the daily life of their worshipping community.

andrew ttAndrew Taylor-Troutman is a teaching elder at New Dublin Presbyterian Church, a congregation founded in 1769 in the Appalachian Mountains of southwestern Virginia. He has written a book about his first year as their pastor, Take My Hand: A Theological Memoir. More information about the church and the book, including his blog, can be found at www.takemyhandmemoir.com.