The ever-approaching beat of Christmas is enough for many church musicians (and their staff, family, and pastors) to feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and lacking in creative freshness. We have to work harder, produce better, innovate wider, and handle over-committed volunteers and their opinions. All the while we’re stressed, budget-squeezed, and of course, must still deal with all the usual personal and family pressures while wondering how on earth we can find a “new angle” on the Christmas story.As a local church musician and composer who’s involved in an annual touring Christmas production, I offer several instructive principles for this highly anticipated time of year.
1. Remember that Christmas is a huge opportunity to sing the gospel.There are more people in our churches over Christmas who are on the outside looking in than at any other time of the year—children, children’s families, nominals, friends, neighbors, and the needy of every description.Moreover we have inherited this privilege through the faithful witness of generations of faithful believers. This season may not always be such an open evangelistic opportunity.My high school music teacher opened my eyes to the real beauty of Christmas carols. He claims he wants his funeral to be a service of carols. Why? Because they tell the story of our faith. Indeed, the greatest carols tell the gospel story in all its undeniable richness. They tell it more beautifully, more succinctly, more elegantly than almost anywhere else.Let’s start with the rest so many long for in the advent season:Come thou long expected Jesus
born to set they people free.
From our fears and sins release us
let us find our rest in thee.
Or the beautiful sense of forgiveness in the face of deep regret that pervades the season in Phillips Brooks’s masterpiece:
How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given
so God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven
no ear may hear his coming
but in this world of sin
where meek souls will receive him still
the dear Christ enters in.
These songs speak of the One who gives the peace and rest every soul craves to find. And while this gospel story should be the core of every Sunday worship service, it finds new hearers during Christmas when many who don’t yet know the Lord attend a church service. What a great opportunity; what a great challenge—to clearly and artfully present this world-changing story in the songs we select, present, and sing together! In the eagerness for musical innovation let’s not compromise on content.
2. Explore and immerse yourself in the abundance of historic church Christmas music.
These are the real “crossover” songs of Christian music—appearing in movies, musicals, television shows, commercials, novels, and radio charts; affecting the education of countless generations; sung more frequently and knowingly and passionately in the public square than any modern song likely ever will.
With traditional carols, there is a sense of familiarity, quality, depth, and relevance to the whole church body that a modern-based diet can almost never bring. Christmas music is the best place to see this contrast. The most widely known carols are written by the greatest composers in history, including Beethoven, Handel, Holst, and Mendelssohn. Others are a unique hybrid of folk music and church music traditions that have stood the test of time. The poems of Christina Rossetti, Phillips Brooks, as well as Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts arrest both the mind and heart.
Certainly congregations enjoy both innovation and the familiarity of tradition, new sounds and also the sounds they grew up hearing and singing. While everyone has different tastes, one thing the majority of young and old, the churched and unchurched have in common is that they love to sing carols at Christmas.
Let’s worry less about being cool or doing something new and more about playing these hymns beautifully and creatively. Then when we add something it can be genuinely fresh.
3. Educate and reinvigorate your congregation to sing well.
Congregational singing throughout time is a huge witness—seen in the Old Testament, New Testament, and church history.
These are the days to confront your congregation with this truth: they will be a witness to the unbeliever who visits your church. They have no choice in the matter. By their engagement with the songs and participation in the singing, they will testify to the joy of an excited believer or betray the chill of a disinterested spectator.
By singing great songs they already know, in a season of joy and celebration, with more inspiring instruments, choirs, and arrangements, you have a great chance to really encourage your congregation to sing well. Let’s make sure pastoral leaders are behind this goal of witness through congregational praise and that together you are preparing the church for it. Ultimately, the deepest part of ourselves—and of your non-believing guests—will respond better to authentic, passionate, a cappella singing of timeless carols than even the slickest production our churches can inspire.
4. Challenge and broaden the musical vocabulary of the church.
Traditional music invites re-interpretation—new sounds, new voices, new instruments. It’s an opportunity to be more of what you aren’t at other times of the year.
Think of it like this: If you were to chart the breadth of your personal musical taste as represented in your iTunes library, how would the breadth of your church musical expression compare? The natural posture and tendency of corporate leadership is to reduce, to find the common denominator, to extend the easy handle.
Christmas is about expansion—in the world of musical production from classical to pop almost everyone acknowledges that audience tastes are wider and more eclectic. And it’s a season when most churches welcome the role of performance music of all kinds in a worship context, from children to adult choirs, from instrumental to vocal solos.
Around 2008 and 2009 I had probably my worst ever period of creative drought—didn’t write a single good congregational melody. So I decided to change things up. I started writing solo music for Kristyn, went back to my roots and wrote choral music, collaborated with a traditional Irish musician, and wrote instrumental music and carol arrangements. Then when Kristyn became pregnant we wrote children’s carols and lullabies. It refreshed our creativity and we ended up being able to write better congregational hymns afterward.
If you are a church piano player, singer, choir director or writer—use Christmas to try new flavors or to refresh your artistry. If you’re music hasn’t grown for a few years you’re probably really boring the people whose imaginations you are supposed to inspire.
5. Seek fresh opportunities to think outwardly and to take music outside of the church building.
For every 1 car that drives into your church 99 drive past—and I bet almost all love Christmas music.
The acceptance of Christmas music in certain parts of our wider culture allows a unique occasion for witness and thinking outside the walls of our chapel. Talk to your church leaders about how you can work together to reach the community around you. Perhaps we can use our innovation to play at schools, in retirement homes, and for military groups. We can go door-to-door carolling, host neighborhood open air events, hire a concert hall, or bring music to a house party. Many of us need to understand our musical gifts as being more in tune with the wider mission of our churches.
Christmas is a huge opportunity for church musicians. If we can get that right, it sets us up for the next year and helps us re-adjust our thinking to ensure other things can find their rightful place.