CHICAGO, IL (November 28, 2016) – A controversy reignites in some churches every December over music: Is it okay to play Christmas songs during Advent? One side contends that staying true to the themes of the liturgical calendar requires holding off on Christmas music until the season of Advent concludes on Christmas Eve.
But many worshipers want the opportunity to sing Christmas songs throughout December, and they grow frustrated with what seems to be a slavish adherence to the liturgical calendar. After all, they hear Christmas carols everywhere else, so why not at church?
Four Sundays before Christmas, Advent begins the liturgical new year. The first two weeks especially emphasize the theme of painful longing and waiting for the birth of Christ.
Dave Bjorlin, the worship leader at Resurrection Covenant Church in Chicago, as well as other worship leaders and pastors say they aren’t trying to be liturgical snobs by holding off singing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and other carols. Rather, holding to the calendar is a means of discipling as well as educating the congregation about the reasons that led to the birth of Christ.
Those themes are expressed in well-known Advent hymns such as “Come, O Long Expected Jesus,” “There’s a Voice in the Wilderness,” and of course, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
“By ignoring Advent, some of the strains of lament and pain are missed,” says Bjorlin, who also is an adjunct professor at North Park Theological Seminary. He notes that the need for people to express their pain is a reason that the number of “Blue Christmas” services in churches is growing.
Singing only music that keeps with Advent themes also is a form of prophetic witness, Bjorlin says, explaining, “I find it countercultural to actually wait for something and not give in to our culture’s instant gratification.”
He jokes, “My adviser once said that written on my tombstone will be the epitaph: ‘He sang no Christmas songs during Advent.’”
That’s not to say he is the ultimate stickler. “I often will use Advent texts with more familiar Christmas tunes, which seems to scratch an itch for some,” he says.
Andrew Gates, pastor of Bretton Woods Covenant Church in Lansing, Michigan, also is committed to connecting songs with Advent texts in the Revised Common Lectionary. “Though we often diverge significantly from the lectionary, we generally follow those texts during Advent, with themes that range from eschatological hope to longing to celebration,” he says. “There are some songs traditionally deemed Christmas songs that work well during Advent, but we generally reserve the more celebratory and triumphant Christmas songs for Christmas Eve and that next Sunday.”
Other worship leaders struggle with the tension of keeping to Advent music and keeping the congregation happy.
“I’ve been reluctant to play Christmas hymns during Advent,” says Thomas Simonsson, director of worship and youth ministries at Turlock (California) Covenant Church. “I’m old school in that I believe there’s a spiritual and earthly value in the anticipation.”
But his epitaph won’t read like Bjorlin’s. “It is not one of the hills I’m dying on, so I will mostly do Advent hymns during Advent, and let the choir sing some Christmas songs. I’ll gradually sneak in more Christmas hymns as we get closer to Christmas.”
Chris Logan, pastor of worship at Bethany Covenant Church in Berlin, Connecticut, incorporates both, choosing to lean on the advice of the pastor at a church he served previously. “Don’t fight the Advent music debate; the culture won that one.”
Part of the problem facing worship planners is only a handful of Advent hymns are familiar to congregations, but there is an abundance of celebratory Christmas carols that people love to sing in church. Logan says he needs the entire Advent season just to fit all those carols in.
Logan adds that he sees an evangelistic reason for using Christmas music. “It’s such an opportunity to give guests a familiar set of music that I can’t help but use it.”
The Christmas season does not begin until December 25 and lasts until Epiphany on January 6, and the calendar does influence Logan’s choices. “Once we get past the 25th, we use the next Sunday for Epiphany music such as, ‘We Three Kings,’ and then we’re done,” he says.
Kelsey Kotash, director of music at Grace Covenant Church, in Clay, New York, also chooses familiar carols throughout the season but tries to include familiar pieces such as “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
“I’m excited this year because Christmas falls on a Sunday so I feel like we can stay relatively true to Advent and then sing the heck out of Christmas carols like ‘Joy to the World’ on Christmas Day,” she says.