Friday, November 19, 2010

(Bump) The Problem with Christmas Music and The Church

This is a post I wrote in November of '07...I thought I'd bump it in case anyone missed it.

I love Christmas music. I began listening to "Jingle Bells" and "O Holy Night" several weeks ago. The way I see it, the department stores (and their incredibly early commercialism) are finally catching up to my family and our traditions. My mother would pull out the Christmas music well before Thanksgiving, and we had a very nice collection. Old records of Bing and Nat, updated classics with Steven Curtis Chapman and Amy Grant, and even a little bit of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra filled our house and car with the sounds of the season.

Anytime I hear any of those recordings, or even any recording of some of those songs, a warm and welcome sense of nostalgia causes a flood of memories to flash through my mind. Christmas music is such a beautiful and fun part of doubt everyone has distinct memories of Christmases past (whether good or bad), and, my guess is that most of us relate many of our Christmas memories with the music of the season.

And, therein lies the problem with Christmas music and the Church. I've discovered over the years that, it's very easy for us to sing our favorite Christmas carols at church in December and never allow for anything more than that warm nostalgic feeling. We can get so caught up in the warm feelings that worship never really takes place...worship is our primary purpose when we gather together on Sunday mornings, not singing Christmas songs.

And, I think this problem goes way beyond Sunday mornings. Christmas (or any holiday season for that matter) can, as a whole, seem more like a nostalgic and whimsical dream than a reality. The commercials, the movies, the shopping, the parties, the food and's a huge thing that can seem to pull us out of our everyday lives, including our everyday worship. Singing songs, hanging out with friends, giving gifts, and even reading the Christmas story (Jesus) can become the ultimate goal instead of means to a greater end. (that's partly why January can feel like such a depressing month).

I've discovered some ways to help our people (including myself) understand how to worship during the Christmas season. But, first, have you ever thought about this or recognized this in your church before? What are some ways that you use the nostalgia and joy of the season to point people back to worship?



Paul J. said...

There's one other problem with Christmas music and the church.
Three words.
"The Christmas Shoes".

MilePost13 said...

I've only heard the song a few times, have never seen the movie, and will never mention anything about it in our church. :)

higgie07 said...

Good observations, Nate.

I did notice, at my old church, that people tended to go into "auto-pilot" at Christmas. Suddenly the genuine worship stops and everyone just sings those good old carols just because it's something you "do" at Christmas. The meaning of the songs becomes more about the nostalgia and less about what the songs are actually saying and what that means to us as Christians.

When I was leading, I tried to freshen the old carols with new arrangements that were true to the original but updated a bit. I would also encourage the congregation to really meditate on what the songs were all about. I would also mix in current but relevant songs with the carols, like "Here I am to Worship" (which we used a lot in Advent), "Prepare the Way" by Jared Anderson, and "You are Holy (Prince of Peace)". I felt that this still kept the focus on worshiping and not just on singing the same old carols.

MilePost13 said...

good thoughts, higgie.

MilePost13 said...

Some of the ways we're addressed this issue:

1) Start at the top. If your pastor, preacher, band, etc. understands (and acts) that singing a carol can be just as worshipful as singing a Chris Tomlin song, I guarantee it will trickle down to the rest of the church. Teach it AND exemplify it.

2) (as was mentioned by higgie) Mix the Christmas stuff in with some modern songs. A few examples of some that we've done in the past: "Angels We Have Heard On High/King of Glory (Third Day)", "Sing To The King (Passion)/O Come All Ye Faithful". Give people reason to think about old things in a new way.

3) Treat Christmas Music the same as the rest of your music (this could be a post in and of itself). I can't understand the churches that make such a huge deal out of Christmas, putting to much more time and energy and money into these few weeks than the rest of the year. Neither can I understand those churches that give their band a few weeks of in December so that they can simplify things. We do some rockin' Christmas music that is just as good and sounds just the same as the rest of the music we do Jan.-Nov. We DON'T do huge productions, and we don't do traditional piano only carols. It's understandable why church people differentiate between carols and worship when the music is so radically different.

higgie07 said...

Exactly, Nate.

I'm excited to see what our new church does at Christmas, since this will be our first Christmas season there.

Thom said...

if you have PowerPoint or some overhead imaging, using some really powerful imagery can help bring the old carols back to life. It can be amazing how you can say words and never realizing what you are saying or what it really means. some people are way more visual, so the song it self being broadcast about the room isn't hitting them, until you help them visualize it.

Josh and Kelly said...

perhaps turning one carol into a reading instead of musical worship could get people to focus on the meaning? don't know how much you use liturgy in your services.

CFHusband said...

@Josh and Kelly

That's a great idea!

Another one of the ways we knit our normal worship music in with traditional Christmas music is to introduce it slowly as we move toward Christmas. Instead of doing all Christmas music all December long, we'll do 1 Christmas song at our Thanksgiving worship gathering (the night before Thanksgiving) to look ahead to what's coming next, 1-2 Christmas songs the first Sunday in December, 2-3 song the next, and so on.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I think part of it is not starting Christmas too early - use the lovely Advent hymns and songs for the first few weeks, whatever the world is doing. After all, their Christmas finishes on Boxing Day - ours goes on until Epiphany!

Some of the truly great Christmas hymns really are great but there's an awful lot of dross out there, too. Away in a Manger for one.... "The little Lord Jesus/no crying He makes" - well, whoever wrote that never had a real baby, did they?

But things like Joy to the World or Of the Father's Love begotten; Christians Awake on Christmas Day itself, and not singing the 4th verse of Oh Come all ye Faithful until Christmas Day are all very conducive to worship, in my opinion.

Mind you, I do serve God in a very different (I suspect) style of Church to you, and of course I am a different nationality, so what works for me won't, perhaps, work in your context.

CFHusband said...

"Away in a Manger for one.... "The little Lord Jesus/no crying He makes" - well, whoever wrote that never had a real baby, did they?"

I've heard this argument before, and I'll honestly say, I don't get it. The song is painting the picture of one scene of Jesus' life, not attempting to say that the infant Christ never shed a tear. Yes, it may be overly picturesque, but it's certainly not impractical or unBiblical to imagine a single moment in the baby Jesus' life when he awakes without crying.

Unfortunately, we don't know who the author of the first two stanzas are (the author of the third is supposed to be Charles H. Gabriel), so it becomes even more difficult to determine what the author's original intentions of the lyrics were. What we do know is, the song was used as a childrens song when it was first published, and with that understanding, the lyrics make more sense.

It could be argued that the third stanza is unBiblical - those who know Christ do not need to "ask" Jesus to stay with them forever, because He has already made that promise in His Word.