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Lessons & Carols Ideas

We’re grateful for friend of The Center and Hymn Society member Greg Scheer for sharing his document of “Lessons and Carols Brainstorms” that includes general background on this type of service, guidelines and advice on how to pull it off, and specific songs and resources for each lesson. We hope you find it as helpful as we have! – Brian Hehn, Director of The Center for Congregational Song

 

Greg’s Master List

For a number of years I planned an annual lessons and carols service at Church of the Servant in Grand Rapids, MI. In my own humble and objective opinion, it was freaking awesome.

If you’re new to the idea of the “lessons and carols” service, it’s simply a service of scripture readings (below) and songs that trace the arc of redemption from the Fall to the birth of Christ. It’s a simple, yet powerful format. My L&C services weren’t quite as stuffy as a traditional British cathedral L&C service, but not as tacky as most Christmas musicals. The services included a mix of music styles from choral anthems to folk songs, and always included plenty of congregational singing. They were relatively easy to organize, and included no live animals.

Win/win.

A few bits of wisdom I gained over the years:

  • Let the people sing. Seriously, this is the one time of the year when everyone wants to sing. No matter how much you want to show off your choir and other musicians, don’t take away from the congregation’s voice.
  • Don’t ruin people’s favorite Christmas carol. You may think your 7/8 rendition of “O Come, All You Faithful” is full of musical intrigue, but your people will hate it. I guarantee they will smile politely while inside they seethe and wonder why the music guy can’t just leave their favorite songs alone.
  • Keep it simple. There’s no need to kill yourself for Christmas, right? People have enough school concerts and work parties to attend during the Christmas season without you putting a gazillion rehearsals and services on their calendar. Just keep things easy on everyone. Invite them to come read scripture and sing some Christmas songs; maybe eat some cookies afterward. Your congregation—and your family—will thank you.

About this list:

What you will find below is the list of songs I consulted every year as I planned the upcoming L&C service. If there is a date in parentheses beside the song title, it means we sang it the year listed. Other songs were options for future services. If you have ideas, questions, or comments on this article, please feel free to contact me at greg@gregscheer.com. I hope you will find some gems here!

 

PRELUDE:

“Zion Hears the Watchmen Singing” by J.S. Bach from Cantata 140 (2006, 2009)

Overture from Messiah (2010)

The Babe of Bethlehem (2007, 2011)

Jazz Combo: Divinum Mysterium, God Rest Ye, Joy to the World (2013)

Good Christian Friends Rejoice (2008, 2012, 2014)

IDEAS:

Pastoral Symphony from “Messiah”          G. F. Handel

 

PROCESSIONAL CAROL:

Taize Gloria with handbells, children, choir in four corners (2008)

Once in Royal David’s City (2005, 2006, 2008, 2010)

On Jordan’s Bank/All Earth Is Waiting (2009, 2011)

Dawning Light of Our Salvation (2012)

Brightest and Best (2013)

Creator of the Stars of Night (2007, 2014)

IDEAS:

“O Come All Ye Faithful” Ososo

In the Heavens Shone a Star Restore Us, O God (Carlos Colón)

 

Invocation and/or bidding prayer and/or Lord’s Prayer

 

GATHERING [BIDDING] CAROL

Sacred Harp “Fulfillment” (2008) strings play it while people sit, then choir sings it

On Jordan’s Bank/All Earth Is Waiting (2011)

“O Come All Ye Faithful” (2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014)

Of the Father’s Love Begotten

Creator of the Stars of Night (JN413)

Up, Good Christian Folk, and Listen

Good Christian Friends, Rejoice

 

FIRST LESSON: Genesis 3:8-15

God announces in the Garden of Eden that the seed of the woman shall bruise the serpent’s head.

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.”

 

Creation Fell in Adam’s Fall (2008) Greg’s arrangement V4 men, v5 women

The Truth Sent from Above, Vaughan Williams (2009 unison choir)

A Mark of Grace, Scheer (2010)

Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus (2006, 2007, 2011, 2012, 2013)

Hopp: From the Apple in the Garden (2014)

Adam Lay Y–Bounden

By Adam’s Fall is All Forlorn (ELH 430; text needs upadating)

Dorothy Otte: Genesis/Revelation recording

How Sweet was the Garden (LUYH 29, jazzy)

In Adam We Have All Been One (LSB 569)

Psalm 90 in connection with Gen 3 L&C reading?

Scheer: Garden of Grace

Son of God and Son of Man/At the Tree (Wardell)

The Tree of Life (LSB 561)

There in God’s Garden SNC 138

View the Present through the Promise

Watts: Deceived by Subtle Snares of Hell

What Adam’s Disobedience Cost (LUYH 34)

When Long Before Time (ELW 861)

 

SECOND LESSON: Genesis 22:15-18

God promises to faithful Abraham that in his seed shall the nations of the earth be blessed.

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”

 

“The Babe of Bethlehem” by William Walker from Southern Harmony, 1835 (2006)

O Abram, Look Up to the Sky, by Jim Clemens (2011)

When God Promised Many Children-Andrew/Wendy Donaldson (2012)

I Will Be Your God, LUYH 40 (2013)

The God of Abraham Praise (2008, 2010, 2014) congregation

All the Stars (Caroline Cobb)

Blessed Be the God (LUYH 67) other benedictuses?

Come, Thou Redeemer of the Earth

I Will Be Your God (LUYH 40)

In a Deep Unbounded Darkness (LUYH 38)

O Come, O Come, Immanuel

When God Promised Many Children, Andrew/Wendy Donaldson http://www.ippdf.com.br/musicas/musicas-prontas/certeza-e-conviccao/

 

THIRD LESSON: Isaiah 9:2,6-7

Christ’s birth and kingdom are foretold by Isaiah.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

 

The People Who in Darkness Walked, Bach/PsH 192 (2009)

For Unto Us a Child Is Born, Atteberry (2010)

Before the Marvel of This Night (Carl Schalk, 2006, 2011)

Come Now, O Prince of Peace/Ososo (2005, 2007, 2012)

Parvulus nobis nascitur, choir (2013)

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel – Liebergen (2014)

Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light – Bach/PsH 343

Come Little Children (children’s chorus)

I Saw Three Ships

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, K. Lee Scott

Puer Natus Est (variety)

The Holly and the Ivy

Welcome, Dearest Jesus (children’s choir)

 

FOURTH LESSON: Isaiah 11:1-9

The peace that Christ will bring is foreshown.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

 

Lo, How a Rose (2008, 2009) congregation

Peace in the Valley (2007, 2011)

“Lo, How a Rose” by Greg Scheer (2005, 2006, 2013)

O Lord, May Your Kingdom Come – Sarwar (2014)

Of the Father’s Love Begotten

There Was a Rosebud Bloomed in the Snow

How Bright Appears (LUYH 101, with Mendelssohn’s “Es Wird Ein Stern”)

 

Alternative Fourth Lesson: Micah 5:2-4

The prophet Micah foretells the glory of little Bethlehem.

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth;

Bethlehem Night and A Child Will Come (2008) children’s choir

O Little Town of Bethlehem

Bethlehem, of Noblest Cities

How Far Is It to Bethlehem?

 

POSSIBLE ALT READINGS:

Isaiah 40:1-5 – Isaiah speaks comfort.

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

“Every Valley” John Ness Beck (2005)

Every Valley by Greg Scheer (2008)

Baptismal Anthem/In Those Days Came John the Baptist (2009)

And the Glory of the Lord, from Messiah (2010)

“Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” PsH 194/LUYH 59 (2006, 2007, 2011, 2013)

Portions of Handel’s “Messiah”

All Earth Is Waiting

Isaiah 12 – The day of salvation is foretold

 Rejoice and Sing Your Praise – Colón (2012)

Isaiah 35

The Desert Shall Rejoice (PH 18)

They Shall Enter Zion (Scheer)

Isaiah 54

For The Mountains Shall Depart (Hank Beebe)

 

FIFTH LESSON: Luke 1:26-38

The angel Gabriel salutes the virgin Mary.

In the sixth month the angel month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

 

“No Wind at the Window” by John Bell (2006)

I Sing a Maid (2008) RitualSong #899

My Soul Will Magnify the Lord, Scheer (2009)

In This Quiet Annunciation – Colón (2011)

Mary, Mary, What You Gonna Call that Baby? Youth choir (2011)

“Dixit Maria Ad Angelum” Hans Leo Hassler (2005, 2012)

Holy Is Your Name (2007, 2008, 2010, 2013)

Mary’s Song/Our King of Peace – Kimbrough (2014)

A Virgin Most Pure

Blessed Be That Maid Mary

Gabriel’s Message

Holy Is His Name (John Micael Talbot)

Magnificats of all stripes

My Soul Does Magnify (SNT #7) good gospel magnificat

The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came – Anthony Prower

The Sans Day Carol

 

SIXTH LESSON: Matthew 1:18-23 [Christmas Eve]

Matthew tells of the birth of Jesus.

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph,  but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he   had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

 

That Boy-Child of Mary” (2005)

Away in a manger  (2005)

How Will We Know Him?, youth choir (2009)

Lo, How a Rose, congregation (2010)

Today a Savior Is Born, youth choir (2010)

Sing Alleluia – composer? Adult and youth choirs (2012)

Good News – youth choir (2012)

On Christmas Night, arr. Ann Kapp Andersen; youth and adult choirs (2013)

Hark the Herald Angels Sing (LUYH 80)

God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen

Ding Dong! Merrily on High

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” Patrick M. Liebergen

Twas in the Moon of Winter Time – Jean de Brébeuf

In This Quiet Annunciation (Carlos)

To a Virgin (TWC 139)/Cold December (UMH 233)

Gentle Joseph, Joseph Dear (NCH 105, see Joseph, lieber Joseph mein)

 

Alternative Sixth Lesson: Luke 2:1-7

The birth of Jesus.

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

 

Mary Had a Baby – Dawson (2005)

“One Small Child” by David Meece – children’s choir (2006)

“Emmanuel Now” words by Colin Gordon-Farleigh, music by Greg Scheer (2006, 2007)

As a Tiny Baby/Husberg (2007)

Carlos Colon: Weary Is the World (2008)

O Little Town of Bethlehem (2008) people standing

Away in a Manger (2014)

We Do Not Know – Bell/Alonso (2014)

“Once in Royal David’s City”

How Great Our Joy

Love Has Come

In This Quiet Annunciation (Carlos)

The Pedigree (Bell)

 

SEVENTH LESSON: Luke 2:8-16 [Christmas Eve]

The shepherds go to the manger.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

 

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks – Sacred Harp (2005)

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (2005)

The Aye Carol, John Bell (2009)

Before the Marvel of this Night – Vajda/Schalk (2009)

Messiah No. 14a, 14b, 15, 16, Glory to God (2010)

Joy to the World (2010)

Infant Holy, Infant Lowly – PsH 353 (2011)

Angels We Have Heard on High – PsH 347 (2011)

While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks – PsH 215 (2012)

Angels from the Realms – PsH 354 (2012)

Cradle Hymn – Curry (2014)

How Great Our Joy (2014)

All My Heart This Night Rejoices

Come, Leave Your Sheep

Messiah, Chorus: “Glory to God”  G. F. Handel

Messiah, Movements No. 14a, 14b, 15, 16  G. F. Handel

On Christmas  Night

See, Amid the Winter’s Snow

Sussex Carol

While by My Sheep I Watched at Night – Jungst

 

EIGHTH LESSON: Matthew 2:1-11

The wise men are led by the star to Jesus.

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

 

As With Gladness Men of Old

The Infant King

Unto Us Is Born a Son

A Shadow upon Cheops Sat – Durbin Schalk

O Come, All Ye Faithful – cong

 

NINTH LESSON: John 1:1-14 [Christmas Eve]

John unfolds the great mystery of the incarnation.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He  came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in  his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

 

The Glory of the Father by Egil Hovland (2007)

The Word of God Was from the Start (2010 Xmas Eve)

In the Bleak Mid–Winter

Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence – Holst

Mirabile Mysterium

O Come, All Ye Faithful

O Magnum Mysterium – Victoria

Verbum Caro Factum Est

 

Benediction/Collect

 

CLOSING CAROL

Joy to the World (2008)

Go Tell It on the Mountain (2007, 2009, 2011)

Jesus the Light of the World (2012)

Prepare the Way, O Zion (2013)

“Good Christian Friends, Rejoice” (2005, 2006, 2010, 2014)

On This Day Earth Shall Ring – Holst

Love Has Come

Beautiful Star of Bethlehem

 

Postlude:

Good Christian Friends/strings (2007, 2010, 2014)

Go Tell It, reprise (2009)

Felicia Patton is a lifelong Chicago native and worship leader at Urban Village Church. Felicia received an undergraduate degree from North Park University followed by two graduate degrees from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

 

 

 

Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord. (Isaiah 2:5, NIV)

 

How do we tell the story

How do we tell the story of Jesus through song? I have asked myself this question every year when starting to plan for the Advent/Christmas season. When I first started as a choir director, I pulled out all of the bells and whistles in order to give the congregation a story they would never forget. There were fireworks, and Jesus came down from the ceiling (please note that liberties were taken in the retelling of stories for entertainment purposes only). My conducting baton was a light-saber that would light up purple and lead the ensembles in a magnificent dance of liturgy and song. The ideas that flew out of my brain were endless. I loved everything about planning it. After every successful Advent/Christmas season, I would nap and have a good burger. I deserved it; I had made God proud. I could rest.  But after a few years of consistent work and fatigue, I found myself dreading the upcoming seasons. The expectations had been set, and I was struggling to find inspiration. The demand for something new and familiar had me stuck in my own head. My brain was empty and dark. I wondered how I could spark the light within myself while telling the story of the light of the world. See what I did there?

The expectations had been set, and I was struggling to find inspiration.

 

I struggled

I struggled to find a response to that question. How could I find new inspiration within the biblical stories that have been told for many years? In order to find new inspiration, I had to step away from what I knew, and I had to listen. I got so comfortable with what I thought I knew about these stories that I didn’t turn to God for inspiration. In order to get out of this rut, I had to stop and reflect on my practices as a leader and develop new practices in order to lead the communities that I have been privileged to serve in a thoughtful and informed way.

The first practice I implemented was to start each season with a renewed mindset. Think about it in relation to a physical light. When a light goes out in our house, we would change it, right? If we cannot find the light (inspiration), we might have a burned out light source. If we are depending on a burned out light bulb which initially had light, but is not a source of light anymore, then we should change it. Are we listening for the voice of God, the light, or are we depending on what God gave us in a previous season?  But what do we do with the light we have used?  We recycle it. We can recycle this wisdom and impart it in the people that we lead. When led by the voice of God, any light can burn out, but is not unusable.

Are we listening for the voice of God, the light, or are we depending on what God gave us in a previous season?

 

A Light Source

Working without a light source is not a good way to lead.  As leaders, we have to refresh and renew our ministries.  We cannot do this without a light source.  One of the texts in the 2019 planning guide for the United Methodist Church is Isaiah 2:5: “Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”  That brings to mind the song, “Jesus, the Light of the World” written by Mrs. James Vincent  Coombs. The text speaks of walking in the light, a phrase that resonates with me deeply. If we are to have light in our ministries, we have to “walk in the light” of God in our everyday lives. If our relationship with God is constantly being renewed and allowed the space to grow, the light will never burn out. But the only way to have space for the “light” is to make space for it. We cannot get so weighed down by expectations that we do not allow ourselves to grow as leaders. If we do not make space or change the bulb periodically, the light within us is doomed to burn out.

 

Jesus, the Light of the world

Beautiful light (well it’s a beautiful light)

Come where the dewdrops of mercy shine bright (Oh Lord)

Shine all around us by day and by night

Jesus is the light of the world

— Mrs. James Vincent  Coombs, 1898, Public Domain

 

Find “Jesus, the Light of the World” on hymnary.org

 

 

 

Author – Adam Perez is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.

 

I hope that you, dear reader, had a wonderful season of music and worship during Advent and Christmas. In my experience, it is the most difficult season of the year for worship planning. It is tiring to navigate all the… er… “needs and desires” of our congregations, liturgical and cultural calendars, and family vacations—whose kid is going to play Joseph in the pageant if the Perezes are out of town? (definitely not a real example from my childhood)—along with the ideas and desires of other church leaders. It makes for a ton of emotional and physical labor for worship leaders and planners. The experience of relief can be euphoric after the last Christmas decorations are torn down, photocopies recycled, and the last specks of glitter finally stop appearing out of nowhere.

We do all this because of how important the season is to the life of the church. Sure, sometimes it falls into the ditches of sentimentalism and consumerism, but the season is central to our faith. The event of Christ coming into our world and being “born in us today” is something worthy of every single exhausting hour of preparation. We did it last year, we did it this year, and we’ll do it again next year. You may not quite be over the exhaustion from this holiday season, but your planning for next year begins right now. Yes, right now—before the last Christmas lights are put away, before the poinsettias have wilted, and before the clarity of collective memory goes with them. Next year’s planning begins by giving your Advent and Christmas season services a liturgical post-op evaluation.

 

Solo Assessment

Our liturgical post-op begins with a review of what goals we set before the season began. Did you have a range of clear goals, some concrete and very achievable and some more ambitious? (Maybe you didn’t establish any goals beforehand, and that is the first thing to note for next year: set goals.) If the idea of having goals for your worship services sounds odd, let me suggest some broad Christian discipleship-related questions to frame your song planning:

Over the course of this Advent and Christmas season,

– Do your songs both embody the piety (or “heart song”) of your congregation and seek to stretch it? If so, how?

– Do your songs reflect a Psalm-wide engagement with God specific to the season?

– Do your services include songs from a range of diverse sources, periods, and styles (within and across hymn traditions)?

– Is there an appropriate balance between the familiar and the new?

– Do your songs address all three persons of the Trinity? Do they reflect variety in orientation (to God, to self, to others, to creation)?

You can probably go back through your services and answer these questions on your own. From there, develop some goals for next year (make your 2019 planning folder today!).

 

Draw the Circle (of Reflection) Wide

Deeper questions on the congregation’s experience of worship are harder to answer on your own. You’ll need to do that one thing that many of us avoid the rest of the year: ask the congregation for their input. There’s no better way to know how the services impacted the faith and discipleship of the congregation than to ask. I’m not suggesting you ask for generic thoughts and opinions on the season—that’s probably a terrible idea. What I am suggesting is that you create some pointed questions based on your explicit or implicit goals for the season. Crafting good questions will prime the pump for more meaningful answers and help to avoid the hurtful feedback that is often lobbed at music and worship leaders. It can also encourage a positive environment for reflection and feedback that might be a model for Christian lives out in the world.

 

Yes or No?

One way you can solicit feedback is with simple yes-or-no questions. These kinds of questions make it easy for others to get involved in the feedback loop. Yes or no questions aren’t necessarily bad. While they do limit feedback, they can be helpful for questions about the nuts and bolts of your services.  There are also better and worse ways of using these kinds of questions. For example, if you introduced new songs this season, avoid asking a preference-based question with a yes-or-no response (e.g., “did you like the new song(s)?”). On the topic of new music, you might ask something like this: “Was enough time given to teaching new songs in the service?” and a companion question, “Was enough information provided for learning new songs outside of the service?” You might need to use more than one question on a given topic to get feedback that is actually meaningful. With all feedback—and especially with yes or no—it is helpful to collect some personal, anonymous info on the respondent to help you understand their responses.

 

Short Answer

Opportunities for slightly longer written responses increase the meaningfulness of the feedback but may also limit the number of persons willing to do it. When asking open-ended questions, it is helpful to frame the question for a positive answer. Following on the topic of new music, “How did [the new song] enable your deepened participation in worship this season?” This framing puts up a higher fence between you and those who want to offer careless critical feedback. (The most vocal will still find a way to jump that fence and tell you how they feel about things, but they’d probably do that anyway, right?) You can also be more constructive: “How quickly were you able to join in singing [the new song]? What could be done to more effectively introduce or teach new songs?” It would be good to ask about the relationship between the music and the rest of the worship service: “How did the singing help you understand or respond to God’s call to [name a service/sermon theme] this Advent/Christmas season?” What other questions might it be helpful to see ask in order to assess whether you’re accomplishing what you hope to?

 

Spectrum Responses

Somewhere between the yes/no and the open-ended questions is to provide a spectrum between two responses and ask respondents to place an x along a line between the two. In Designing Worship Together, Norma deWaal Malefyt and Howard Vanderwell have some wonderful examples of how to do this (and a variety of other evaluation forms!). Benefits of this method include that it has a relatively low threshold for participation, more nuance than a yes/no question, and you get to frame the kinds of responses that are given. Check out that book for tons of other resources and methods for worship pre- and post-op.

Sharing reflective and evaluative practices with the congregation can help them gain an appreciative glimpse behind the worship planning curtain (sharing opportunities for feedback means, at the very least, a sharing). The congregation may also surprise you with the kinds of connections they make that were unforeseen and unintended (hopefully positive ones!). I’m reminded of Mark Porter’s excellent research on how congregants relate idiosyncratically (in ways peculiar to themselves) between worship music and their everyday lives. Regardless of how your congregation responds, the act of making space for the liturgical workers to reflect on their leitourgia is integral to your role as the one(s) in whom they’ve put their trust.

What were your goals in worship and music and how will you assess whether you’ve achieved them? Asking the congregation for feedback doesn’t have to be a fearful event—it’s just another opportunity for Christian discipleship. In 10 months, you’ll be glad you did. For pastoral musicians as much as for anyone, one aphorism still applies: don’t ask a question if you don’t want to know the answer!

 

Author – Ginny Chilton Maxwell is Music Minister at Church of the Ascension in Norfolk, Virginia, where she serves as organist, choirmaster, and elementary music teacher.

 

Lessons and Carols

My church has a tradition of doing a service of Advent Lessons and Carols every year. To me, the term “Lessons and Carols” brings to mind King’s College in all its perfection, so planning my first service felt a bit daunting. I serve a small congregation with a small, but capable, volunteer choir. I knew the level that King’s produces was not attainable for us, so I embraced this as an opportunity to get creative. I ended up having a ton of fun crafting something that allows my choir to shine and encourages more active participation from the congregation. Below are some helpful tips for anyone who is still crafting Advent and Christmas services at your church.

 

Add some more prophets

Lessons and Carols is much like an Easter Vigil service in that it retells the Christian story of salvation: both services start with the Genesis stories of Creation and The Fall and end with stories of Jesus from the Gospels. As long as you start and end correctly, you can insert almost any readings, and any number of them, in between. The readings of the canonical nine Lessons and Carols connect Genesis to the Gospels via two passages from Isaiah. In my congregation, we enjoy hearing from several prophets in addition to Isaiah, which is perfectly fitting. I don’t mean to criticize the curators of those original nine lessons (okay, maybe I do), but the Israelites waited a long time for their savior! We should hear from more than one prophet before we jump to the Gospels.

In addition to it being historically appropriate, adding more prophets makes for a more exciting service. Start out joyously after the story of Creation and have the mood drop dramatically after The Fall. Then, make your congregation wait a bit before the star of Bethlehem dawns on the horizon. Jesus’s arrival will have much more impact.

 

Engage the congregation

When I’m worshiping as a congregant, I confess that I often get so caught up in the music that I miss the message. That is definitely the case when I attend a traditional service of Lessons and Carols; you’ll find me humming “Tomorrow Will Be My Dancing Day” for days afterward. I wanted to be sure the members of our congregation were engaged in the story of salvation from beginning to end, so I picked several congregational songs to fit with the additional prophetic readings. “Deep Within” by David Haas has a hauntingly beautiful melody and a refrain that is easy for congregations to pick up. The words about God writing a new covenant on the people’s hearts are taken directly from Jeremiah 31:31-34. “People, Look East” by Eleanor Farjeon is a common carol sung in Advent; most people don’t realize these words are based on the prophet Baruch (4:36). The prophet Micah also foretells a savior (5:2-4), and you can pair this with any number of Advent or general Parousia hymns (I often use “Soon and Very Soon” by Andrae Crouch). Finally, it is gratifying to hear from John the Baptist, as in John 1 where he foretells the coming of Christ. Pair this reading with “There’s a voice in the wilderness crying” by James Lewis Milligan using the ASCENSION tune.

Having plenty of congregational music also makes it easy to add in the odd musician from your congregation: flute sounds lovely on “Deep Within,” and “People, Look East” benefits from one or more brass players. Having more congregational music and musicians engages people in what is happening, and aids the service in feeling more like worship and less like a concert. If you’re doing Lessons and Carols on a Sunday morning, which we do at my church, it is fitting (and fun!) to engage your congregation more.

 

Make your choir shine

When taking a creative bent on Lessons and Carols, the more difficult job can be finding the right anthems for the choir to sing. Certain anthems have carved a special place in my heart, and my choir members feel the same way. After the reading from Genesis 3, for instance, it’s hard not to hear Elizabeth Poston’s “Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree.” “To Dust” by Karen Marrolli (a living composer!) is a new anthem that I’ve tried in this slot with much success. It makes an impression on listeners and has become a favorite of my choir. Since I like hearing from as many prophets as possible, I sometimes add Zephaniah 3:14-18 and have the choir sing a setting of Psalm 96 or 98 (perhaps your choir already knows a setting of one of those they can dust off and perform with gusto). Pitoni’s “Cantate Domino” worked well for us. Stainer’s “How Beautiful Upon the Mountains” and Carl Schalk’s “As the Dark Awaits the Dawn” work well with any prophetic passage, are fun to learn, and allow volunteer choirs to shine.

….

The King’s College version of Lessons and Carols is not feasible for the vast majority of us who work at modest churches with volunteer choirs. This isn’t a bad thing. Tinkering with their version to make it fit your congregation is quite enjoyable. In the process, you’ll learn a lot more about the individuals you’re working with and the message of the service you’re planning. Happy planning, and happy Advent!

 

For more blogs by Ginny Chilton Maxwell, go to the Centered in Song Blog Page.

 

Author – Ginny Chilton is Music Minister at Church of the Ascension in Norfolk, Virginia, where she serves as organist, choirmaster, and elementary music teacher.

It’s a struggle every year: how can I balance the quiet expectation of the Advent season with the rush and excitement of Christmas? You would think that as a church musician in an Episcopal church, I’d get plenty of Advent, but that’s not the case. As many of you know, I’m sure, if you’re involved in church, you’re spending the four weeks of Advent in a rush to be ready for Christmas: getting the kids ready for the pageant, prepping for the church Christmas dinner, practicing your Christmas choir music. Then you leave church, and our stores, radios, and neighborhoods are full of reindeer and bright lights. It feels like it’s Christmas the day after Thanksgiving. What can you do?

There are all sorts of answers to that question, but here I am writing a blog for the Center for Congregational Song, so I have to say: community singing can help set the mood for Advent. I’ve been angst-ing over how to bring more Advent into my family and church life this season, perhaps more so than in previous years. My son is growing up, and it feels more imperative than ever that I figure out how to bring Advent into our home—without being the “Scrooge” mom who won’t allow anything fun before December 25th. And in my work as a church musician, I help plan beautiful worship services of expectation on Sundays, but during the week I’m singing Christmas songs and ringing jingle bells with the children in our parish school.

I think many of us came feeling much like I was: stressed about everything I had to do at work, everyone I hadn’t found a present for, etc.

All of this came to a head this past Thursday. I’ve been leading a new weekday gathering at our church for parents and young children. Each week we have about a dozen parents and small children gather to sing songs, play instruments, and play or do a craft together. This past week we made plans to meet at the local assisted living facility to sing Christmas songs with the residents. I think many of us came feeling much like I was: stressed about everything I had to do at work, everyone I hadn’t found a present for, etc. It didn’t help that it was about 90 degrees in the facility, and there was a bit of a holdup before we could start singing. The children were getting restless, and the elderly residents were giving us a skeptical look. I was beginning to wonder if I’d made a huge mistake in planning something like this so close to Christmas.

But then we started singing. The children calmed down. The residents perked up, and even those who had been confused a moment before, sang as loudly as anyone.

There’s something about making eye contact with others while you’re singing together that ignites a little flame in your chest. What do you call that? Love? Belonging? Joy? God? It brings a sort of hush even in the midst of commotion. It was the Advent moment I had been hoping for all month, and a perfect way to set our hearts in the right place as we wait for Emmanuel, God with us.

Do you struggle to experience Advent in the midst of all the busyness December brings? What have been your moments of Advent hush this season? Does group singing play a part in any of that? Happy Advent and Merry Christmas, everyone!

 

Author – Adam Perez is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at Duke Divinity School.

I am going to be upfront with you that, for some, this post may contain an unwelcomed or unpopular suggestion. And I know that I kind of “missed the boat” on the timing of this post—it probably would have been more appropriate before Advent, on Christ the King. Oh, one other thing to be candid about: this is a post that is going to suggest that if you don’t already sing some praise and worship in your congregation, now might be the best time, in this month and a half-ish between Christ the King and Epiphany. In fact, I won’t be suggesting you try on just any praise and worship from the last 40 years, but what we might call “classic” praise and worship. Better yet, you’re welcome to call it “traditional” praise and worship. I’m talking about the stuff from the mid- and late-1980s, the songs that came out before CCLI was a thing and before Christian bookstores picked it up and before the CCM industry saw the market value in it. I guess you might just call it “hipster” in that way—”traditional” praise and worship was doing it before it was cool.

You might be wondering what, exactly, this so-called “traditional” praise and worship was doing? And what that non-liturgical charismatic praise and worship stuff has to do with the so-called “liturgical” calendar?

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It’s no mystery that the central themes of the Advent season revolve around waiting, anticipation, patience, preparation, and expectation. These themes are quite appropriate for this first season of the church calendar that celebrates the grand narrative of Christian hope that ended last week with Christ the King Sunday. The King has now crowned the liturgical year, and we’re back to the beginning of our story in time: Christ the King not-yet.

If your experience in congregational song is anything like mine, the deepest sense of expectation during Advent is actually for the opportunity to sing Christmas carols. Radios and shopping malls everywhere have long beat us to the punch, and it’ll be another three weeks before many communities let their O come‘s become has come’s. We (myself included) can often be quite zealous about our careful navigation of the liturgical calendar. We’ve got a cosmic story to tell and only 52ish Sundays a year to tell it, much less the four of Advent and the one Sunday after Christmas. Time is short. Choose carefully, choose wisely.

For so many, the songs themselves are the greatest reason for the season. I don’t mean to be harsh but—as you probably know from experience—no other season of the Christian year is so infused with popular demand for a certain repertoire of music. In the span of just a few days, many communities celebrate a Lessons and Carols service, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the Church Christmas Pageants/musicals, not to mention all the concerts put on by schools and community organizations (also not to mention those of you who livestream musical events like those at St. Olaf College or King’s College Choir Cambridge—you know who you are).

In the midst of our waiting for this short flurry and flourish of appropriately Christmas-y repertoire, how can we infuse a deep sense of expectation for the coming of Christ himself? How can we help Advent sound its own part of the story? Do we commit to only the “traditional” Advent carols and the medieval church modes?

—–

Pentecostal and charismatic traditions have something to teach the rest of the church about a fervent expectation and experience of God in worship. Sure, we have had some inter-Christian disagreements about what happens when God is “manifestly” present, and that’s fair enough. But what I think we in congregational song can learn is another musical way to celebrate the basic rhythm of Christian worship in revelation and response and in expectation and fulfillment and how we might more deeply join in the palpable sense of excitement that God is truly making Godself present in our worship and in the world, and God is doing so powerfully.

One thing traditional praise and worship does well is generate a sense expectation. In fact, the expressed goal of these songs and their use in worship is to facilitate the journey from expectation to fulfillment of God’s coming in Christ through the power of the Spirit. And not with the journey itself as the goal, but the celebration of the very presence of God.

Now, if there’s one thing that I feel confident in saying that this season of Advent to Christmas is about; one thing that matters for our participation in the present portion the Christian narrative; one thing that we can hang our discipleship hats on, it’s so that we have the palpable sense of expectation that is ultimately fulfilled with an enjoyment of God’s presence in the incarnation; Emmanuel, God with us. Traditional praise and worship can help us do this well, if we give it the opportunity and take it on its own terms.

Here’s one great example: go have a look/listen at the early Integrity’s Hosanna! Music tapes from the mid 1980s—a great place to start would be the tape “All Hail King Jesus”[1] from 1985 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OlAWfJl8Ljo). I mentioned in the opening that this would have been quite appropriate on Christ the King Sunday— “but wait, there’s more!”—listen to how chock-full the songs are with language of expectation directly from the Psalms and Prophets and invites our direct response to the great acts of God, especially in the person and presence of Jesus Christ. Over the course of the album, it moves from boisterous praise and confident statements of beckoning or expectation into quieter songs of response to the enthroned Jesus Christ. It’s a very cosmic—and very Advent-friendly—narrative.

Use these (or others from this repertoire), and make them your own. But also be sure to give them the space they need to do the work they were made to do. So to say, take some cues from this album as to how the performance practices might do as much work as the texts in generating a strong sense of expectation and fulfillment. The other great part about traditional praise and worship is that the instrumentation is highly adaptable. You can do it with virtually any arrangement of musicians that will suit your context and your services. Because these were originally done in orchestral settings, it makes for a much easier process of simplifying to suit your context than “complexifying” to suit. Take for example the title track mentioned above, “All Hail King Jesus” that Lifeway offers in lead sheet, chord chart, piano, vocal, and full orchestral versions (print or as digital files).[2] All very easily accessible. But don’t just do one song, do a whole set, musical transitions and all. It’s called “flow.”

All this to say: I hope we continue to reach across the musical boundaries that have grown up around us to celebrate the good in other traditions of congregational song in Christian worship by participating in them. “Traditional” praise and worship has something to offer all of us in learning how to deeply experience and rehearse the story of the coming of Christ in Advent and Christmas as more than a symbol of Christian unity, but an embodiment of it. As Rosa’s recent blog reminded us so keenly: our singing is an act of love, not just with our lips or ears but with our actions and our presence. We celebrate in sung prayer and presence as an act of love for each others’ diverse experiences of God. And all of this stems from the layers of hope, expectation, and ultimate fulfillment we find in this first season of the Christian year, and ultimately in God’s eschatological fulfillment to which the year so beautifully points.

 

[1] The title track of the album, “All Hail King Jesus” Words and music by Dave Moody. © Copyright 1978 Dayspring Music, LLC.

[2] https://www.lifewayworship.com/findAndBuy/songPage/AllHailKingJesus?versionId=90387&searchString=null#song-Parts