Celebrating Advent During a Tough Year

Q. I don’t want to go into all the details, but our congregation has had a really tough year. Our worship planners are weary and worried about guiding the church through the “joyful” Christmas season. They don’t have a lot of joy and wish they could skip ahead to the New Year so we can start over. Do you have any ideas to encourage them?

A. I’m sorry to hear about your tough year. If it’s any comfort, know that you are not alone. Most congregations go through various struggles at some point in their history. Without knowing the particulars of your situation, I’ll offer some general suggestions:

Focus on Advent. Advent is a time of longing and waiting for the Messiah to come again—at Christmas and at the second coming—and for things to be made right in the world. Maybe this year you can focus with particular genuineness on Advent longing and waiting by acknowledging in worship the difficult times you’ve had—through prayers, readings, songs, and messages. You can point to the Old Testament prophecies in which God promises that the wolf will lie down with the lamb, death will be swallowed up, and every tear will be wiped away. This difficult year will not last forever!

Begin again. Recognizing that Advent is actually the beginning of the liturgical year may rejuvenate your worship planners. It is a time to start again by rehearsing the story of redemption. You may want to find Bible stories that especially connect with your story—your current situation—as a way to find your place in God’s redemptive plan.

Recognizing that Advent is actually the beginning of the liturgical year may rejuvenate your worship planners.

Keep it simple. Worship planners put a lot of time into making plans and implementing them. Perhaps this would be a good year to downsize your seasonal celebrations and plan for simple services that don’t involve a lot of new or complex elements that take lots of planning and preparation time. I know a church that took a year off—a “Sabbath” from their annual community Christmas pageant, just to give the congregation a rest during that busy time of the year, encouraging them instead to spend more time with their own families.

Something borrowed for something blue. If your congregation is a little blue or depressed, this may be the year to borrow from the past or from other churches and resources as you plan for the Advent and Christmas seasons. Many series and service plans are available online from back issues of this journal (reformedworship.org) as well as at other websites such as that of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (worship.calvin.edu). Tweaking existing service plans to fit your congregation could save your worship planners a lot of the effort they normally put in. Perhaps you could “rerun” a favorite from your own congregation, enjoying the nostalgia of Christmas and honoring a better time in your past.

Look to the New Year. The new calendar year can be a time to look back and express regret or lament, but also to look forward and focus on the hope that we have in Christ and God’s faithfulness to all generations. Shape a simple Old Year’s or New Year’s service around a psalm that has sections of lament and praise. And write a meaningful litany that weaves the congregation’s experiences through the psalm, acknowledging the difficulties but ending in praise.

Kathy Smith (kss4@calvin.edu) is associate director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. She also directs continuing education programs for the Institute and Calvin Theological Seminary, and teaches at the seminary. She is filling in for John Witvliet as editor of this column during his sabbatical year.

Reformed Worship 101 © September 2011, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.