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December 2, 2021

Christmas Carols?! During Advent?!

The Christian year is a cherished and terrific tool that blesses congregations, but worship planners should not overemphasize it to the point where they refuse to let it adapt for their contexts.

The Chapel Schedule is a Formational Agenda

In my position as campus pastor, I am responsible for creating each semester’s chapel schedule. The process is more intense than some might imagine, balancing a swarm of theological, liturgical, and political pressures. A chapel schedule, in many ways, communicates a school’s formational priorities. Thus, as I craft a semester theme and schedule that juggles these competing desires, I feel significant responsibility to:

  • Respect the school’s theological heritage while representing the cultural and denominational diversity of the student body;
  • Honor the requests of senior administrators and traditions of the school while inviting innovative and exciting speakers;
  • Maintain unity in a consistent theme and liturgy while offering space for creativity and freedom.

One more tension comes from the schedule itself. I often struggle with following the formational rhythms of the Christian year while acknowledging the frequent gaps of time missing in the academic year. Unlike parish calendars, which have a predictable weekly Sunday rhythm, a college or university’s sense of liturgical time is built around an established academic calendar, ratified years in advance by the administrators and board of trustees. The chapel schedule—and its plan for spiritual formation—follows the academic year, not the Christian year. The flow and vision of chapel, in turn, are regularly interrupted by fall breaks, reading days, holiday breaks, and research celebration days.

Academic Time and Liturgical Time in Tension

In their book Lovin’ on Jesus, Swee Hong Lim and Lester Ruth argue that a dominant feature of contemporary worship is an obsession with clocks. Time is always ticking in a worship service, adding up next to itemized elements on a Planning Center document or counting down in large red text on a confidence monitor hidden from congregants’ views. I would expand Lim and Ruth’s observation by suggesting that a different kind of obsession can take place in some congregations—that is, a fascination and obsession with adhering to a liturgical clock expressed in the Christian calendar. The Christian year is a cherished and terrific tool that blesses congregations, to be sure, but I worry that we can overemphasize it to the point where we refuse to let it adapt for our contexts.

I especially feel this concern when it comes to scheduling chapels that recognize both Advent and Christmas. This year at Trinity Christian College, most of our fall semester was in Ordinary Time. We have two weeks (four chapels) to celebrate Advent, but depending on your school’s academic calendar, you might have more chapels or fewer chapels during Advent. I think that the salient themes of Advent—waiting in the darkness, cultivating an eschatological worldview, preparing room for Jesus to enter our lives—are especially needed in the faith formation of our college students. But how do you celebrate a very formative season with an already narrow window, especially when the students will not be present for most of it?

What follows are some initial considerations for celebrating Advent and Christmas in chapels. In addition to undergraduate and seminary campus chapels, there are similar implications for high school chapels, youth groups, and churches that have large populations of college students. In a chapel worshiping community, what might it look like to . . . ?

  1. Build around the academic calendar. Move through the rhythms of Advent and Christmas, just in the time frame that you have available. Compress these seasons as needed; perhaps—deep breath—you could even begin celebrating Advent and Christmas earlier than the lectionary suggests! As scandalous as it may sound, for those who are trying to honor the rhythms of both Advent and Christmas, it might be appropriate to shape a few chapels around the themes of Advent and then hold a Christmas chapel at the end of the semester.
  2. Celebrate Advent and Christmas outside of chapel. Thanks to social media, it is possible to reach your students even after they have left campus. Invite worship leaders to record covers of Christmas worship songs or carols, or ask student leaders to record brief Advent devotional videos that you can share on Instagram, TikTok, or Facebook. This approach would be useful if your semester ends before Advent.
  3. Construct your own liturgical calendar. Who’s to say that we only have to talk about waiting for God during four weeks in December? At Trinity, we have spent an entire semester exploring what it means for Jesus to enter our lives and make room for us to become more like him—a theme not reserved only for Advent. Some schools are moving to a multi-year spiritual formation curriculum to leverage the frequent turnover of students. In this model, chapel themes flow through a three- or four-year cycle. In so doing, these chapels are essentially creating their own liturgical calendars that nimbly form their students along academic time.

Suspending Liturgical Law

I return to my original claim: A chapel schedule sets the formational agenda for the semester or academic year. Given the serious weight of this task, it seems best to prefer pastoral wisdom over liturgical law. The point of the Christian year is to help us journey with Jesus, not to burden worship leaders and pastors. Liturgical law is meant to free us from becoming Pharisaic over the rules we have created for ourselves. As we activate a pastoral imagination, we might discern that the formation of our students is more important than ensuring that we sing no carols during Advent, that we have a pink candle for Gaudete Sunday, and that the baby Jesus does not make it into the nativity scene until Christmas. As cultivators of wisdom, we join the psalmist in asking God to “teach us to number our days, so that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

The COVID pandemic has disrupted our sense of time in general, and it can feel irresponsible for chapel worship leaders to emphasize the waiting and tension of Advent without the relief and hope of Christmas, simply because we default to mimicking how our area churches are following their liturgical rhythms. Yes, the dynamics of the Christian year in campus ministry contexts might be rockier than a church’s steady, weekly beat. Yes, planning can be annoying and awkward at times. At its best, nonetheless, campus worship offers us the opportunity to steward these hour-long moments together, praying that we might honor the Triune God and bless God’s people gathered for chapel—in all times and seasons.

Ben Snoek is the Campus Pastor at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Ill., where he also teaches as an adjunct professor of theology. He is ordained in the Christian Reformed Church in North America.