On ‘Tired,’ ‘Clueless,’ and ‘Impressive’ Advent Services

Q  After twelve years of planning worship, Advent is starting to feel a bit tired to me—we seem to fall back on the same texts and songs. How can we freshen up our approach?

A  For starters, realize that using the same texts and songs over time is not bad. A balanced approach to repetition is actually essential, regardless of worship style. The question is not whether to repeat materials, but how. So for starters, discern which Bible texts, songs, symbols and gestures are most crucial for you to repeat for the sake of building up your own congregation.

When it comes to new (or new-to-your-congregation) elements, start with the Bible. If you take the three years of the Revised Common Lectionary and review all the texts listed for Advent or consult the list of basic Advent texts in The Worship Sourcebook, you’ll find well over thirty Advent-oriented texts, more than half of which a typical congregation does not use in worship. And these texts only scratch the surface.

For music, try disciplining yourself by studying multiple music sources (hymnals, online resources) to identify a list of “the ten songs that would most significantly rebalance the musical diet of your congregation” (rather than the “top ten greatest hits” or “golden oldies”). Think like a spiritual dietician—aim for songs of both praise and penitence, songs about both Jesus’ first and second comings. Once you have this list, work with your musicians to choose two or three songs to be used this year. Next year you can choose again and further edit your list.

As you think about freshening up your approach, think about “going deeper,” not “adding frills.”

Finally, as you think about freshening up your approach, think about “going deeper,” not “adding frills.” How tempting it is to add frills that only make worship more cute rather than relevant, simplistic rather than simple, sentimental rather than profound—which leads naturally to the next question. . . .

Q  We have been talking in our church about reducing our “clueless quotient”—naming those areas in which we may be doing harmful things without realizing it. When it comes to Advent and Christmas, what are some areas that churches need to pay attention to?

A  I like this question! Challenging ourselves to imagine the unintended consequences of our actions is a great way to promote self-awareness and balance. It also encourages us to talk with others who have different gifts and insights than we do—for we are each the least qualified candidates to answer this question for ourselves. (And before I answer, I should ask all RW readers to help me reduce the “clueless quotient” of this column. Comments are welcome!)

From my vantage point, one unintended dimension of current celebrations of Advent and Christmas is an underemphasis on Jesus’ second coming. Whereas a generation ago many churches sang many songs and heard at least some sermons about Jesus’ second coming, that number is dramatically decreased today, when we are more likely to sing about experiencing God’s presence now than focus on the future. For churches that follow the lectionary, the first Sunday of Advent is really “Second Coming Sunday” (the only Sunday all year long that focuses on this theme). All churches could learn from this emphasis.

A second temptation is to skirt the deep, aching longing that Advent is really about. It’s not about anticipating a merry little Christmas. It’s about the end of earthquakes and child abuse, tsunamis and discrimination, poverty and loneliness that the coming of the kingdom will bring.

Advent is one of the church’s best responses to the world’s deepest pain. It is bracingly honest about the “not yet,” and resolutely hopeful about the “already” and “what is sure to come.” What if Advent worship were described by terms like “resolute,” “bracing,” “aching,” “longing,” and “brimming with hope”?

Q  Many people in our church leave town for Christmas. So we tend to have our “big” Christmas service a week or two early. This makes Christmas so anticlimatic. Any advice for us?

A  First, challenge the assumption that Christmas worship must be big and impressive. Of course, we want services that are thoughtful, meaningful, Christ-centered, and profound. But that doesn’t mean big, loud, impressive, or attention-grabbing. In fact, that approach can undermine the point of the Christmas gospel. There is such noble simplicity in a wonder-drenched reading of John 1:1-14 or Galatians 4:4-6 or other compelling Christmas texts, in unaccompanied singing of Christmas carols, and in a thoughtful, comprehensive prayer of intercession for the needs of the world.

Beyond that, how might you embrace rather than lament the cross-pollination of Christmas travel? Before people leave town, consider having a special prayer of blessing for Christmas season travels—and not just for safety on the roads and in the skies. Pray that some graced part of your congregation’s experience can be brought with your people as they travel. Pray that you will be blessed by a testimony you hear from an out-of-town guest. Pray that many non-church-goers will attend worship.

Then, think about what you might be able to do uniquely with the people who will join you for worship. How about arranging for a one-rehearsal, intergenerational choir that could include out-of-town guests as well as regular attenders? Or a prayer that offered specific intercessions for each town or city represented among you on Christmas Day?

John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin College.