By Gary Durbin
This time of year is an interesting phase for the worship leader. We’ve just made it through the trick-or-treating, Thanksgiving is within sight and Wal-Mart’s garden center is littered with holiday lawn decorations.
It’s an exciting time. We’re thinking about all the festivities, fun and family time that the winter holiday season brings.
But, there is another side of it for me, and I know, other worship leaders. There’s a twinge of “Bah Humbug” that courses through my veins. The Grinch-side of me creeps in and I start dreading the annual tale of “How the Christmas Stole Worship.”
I consider myself a true worship leader. I’m not satisfied with just playing great songs with excellence. I have a passionate vision to see my church encounter the living God every week. That drive fuels me to challenge and teach my congregation every week, all year long.
That drive and vision runs into December like a freight train, only to be met with an often frustrating and inconvenient challenge called CHRISTMAS.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Christmas! I love busting out the Mariah Carey Christmas album and laughing at Christmas Vacation and Ralphie in his quest of the Red Ryder BB Gun (very spiritual, I know). I love everything about it that everyone else does…everything except…Christmas church services.
I’m probably pretty alone in this in my church. For everyone else, it’s not so much of a challenge and I’m sure it’s very enjoyable. If I was not the worship leader, I would be totally content and probably enjoy the Christmas focus, as we should.
My challenge is simply keeping the “worship” focus in front of my church during this season. There’s a lot of worshipful Christmas songs that we all sing every year, but I have definitely seen a drop in the worshipful spirit of my church. The spirit of Christmas, as great as it is, should never replace the Spirit of God.
This is definitely a challenge, but not an impossible task. It’s a worthy challenge and God can do some great things in our midst. We just have to be willing to rise up. Sure, we can dwell on the crowd’s responsibility to worship, but we, as worship leaders, have a responsibility to prayerfully reach a balance. Christmas doesn’t have to steal worship. It can be a time of worship as well.
So, how do we help our church focus on the presence of God more than the presents under the tree?
1. TALK TO YOUR PASTOR
This is so important. If you do not clarify your pastor’s Christmas expectations, December will not be so holly and jolly. I have never regretted submitting to my pastor’s vision, even if it differed from mine. Make sure that you know what is expected. Feel free to challenge sacred cows, but DO NOT attempt something, unless you have your leader’s approval. Every year, I intentionally have a conversation with my pastor to find out what kind of direction we’ll be taking in December. Some years we’ve done a Christmas series throughout the month. In that case, I know the Christmas songs will be rolling out a little early and I need to seek and pray for direction on how we can reach a balance with worship. If there’s not a Christmas series, then I know there’s not going to be as much of an urgency to dust off the holiday hymnal. In my years of ministry, I’ve done my share of challenging at Christmas time, but I have always made sure that we are in agreement with the immediate direction. Unity is a priority when you’re ministering TOGETHER and you will unite under the vision that God has given your pastor. When you unite, God loves it (Psalm 100:3) and His presence will be faithful during Christmas.
2. SHARE THE ORIGIN
There’s a correlation between singing familiar old hymns and singing traditional Christmas hymns. They both carry a sentimental power that touches people in positive and negative ways. Some people struggle with worshiping with hymns that they sang in the past that may remind them of a church that was dead or legalistic. I have found that when I share the origins of those songs and heart of the songwriters, it helps people look at it with new vision. The same can be accomplished with the traditional sentiment that comes along with Christmas hymns. The challenge with the familiar is we can forget what we are singing. If we’re not careful, we can sing “Joy to the world the Lord has come” in the same way we sing “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas”. Sharing the origin of a hymn, Christmas or not, can direct hearts back to the heart of the song. When we think about the words we are singing, we are more likely to go deeper. In this case, we are more likely to worship.
3. USE WORSHIPFUL CHRISTMAS SONGS
This is really simple, but you cannot expect God to come down in your midst, while lifting up “Jingle Bells”. As much as I dread preparing for this time of year, I always look forward to worshiping God with the song “O Holy Night”. It’s one of the most worshipful songs we can sing. As worship leaders, we should pray over the set list every week. We should seek God’s leading as we pick songs. Christmas should be no different. Examine your heart and examine lyrics as you choose songs. Make sure they are God-glorifying and inspiring for worshipers.
4. USE CHRISTMASFUL WORSHIP SONGS
This is a great way to reach a balance of Christmas and worship during December. A classic example of this is “Here I Am to Worship” by Tim Hughes. It starts off with the Christmas story – “Light of the world, You stepped down into darkness”. “Let Us Adore” by Hillsong and “Jesus Messiah” by Chris Tomlin are also good. These are effective and familiar, especially if you help people see the correlation with Christmas. If you have any other song suggestions, please comment below. I’m always looking for these in December.
5. FIND NEW VERSIONS OF OLD CLASSICS
Sometimes a new take on an old Christmas song can bring a fresh experience. Every year I’m looking for new versions more than I’m looking for new songs. Establishing a new Christmas song is much more difficult than bringing a new version of an old Christmas classic. It works well, because the people don’t have to learn a new melody. They may have to learn a new time signature or a new feel, but because the melody remains, they can engage quickly. Last year, I introduced Lincoln Brewster’s “Joy to the World” which was fun and new, but still accessible for everyone there. You can really have fun with this. You can also keep things familiar, while bringing something fresh.
6. LOOK FOR MEDLEYS
Something that I am trying for the first time this year is using a medley with a Christmas hymn and a worship song. I’m using an idea off of Paul Baloche’s new Christmas Worship album. He took his song “Shout for Joy” and put it with “Joy to the World” and it works great together. What’s great about this is I will be introducing the regular version of “Shout for Joy” at the beginning of December, which will be a song I use throughout the year and then using the medley right around Christmas time. It will be new, but still familiar. Again, if you have any other medley ideas, let me know!
What are some other tips you have experienced that help balance Christmas and worship?
Gary (@garydurbin) is the worship arts director at Orchard Church in Denver, Colorado. He is also a blogger and a songwriter with a passion to serve the church. He and his wife, Jennifer, have two children and have been married since 1999. Visit his blog here.