What do churches you have been a part of do well at Christmas, and what could be richer, more congregationally sensitive, and have more Biblical imagination?
I love any church that has Advent rhythms to help people pay attention at Christmastime. At our church, one of my favorite weekly traditions is that a featured artist shares something they have made in response to the themes of Advent. It is a simple idea, but it is always so moving. I grew up in a faith context that put a lot of emphasis on personal holiness, and I found two things to be difficult for me there—it put me in a place of striving, and it was often solitary work. The Advent season moves me in a different direction. It is not about reaching, but is about receiving; and it is not siloed but takes place in community. Reenacting the nativity story is one of the ways that churches engage in the arts every year, but I love churches that expand on that—allow the artists among you to tell the story again, to bring light to the longings and the questions we all hold in seasons of waiting.
I think if I could do anything different or better, it would be the focus on receiving him. As I’m answering these questions, I’m looking at a nativity in my home. Because of our long-time familiarity with the Christmas story, we can lose the power of it. I try to imagine the story fresh. I think of the wealth of heaven, thinking of the King of heaven who came to redeem humanity. I think about all that is packed into this child—our salvation, our redemption, our rescue. A person could take all of this as just a story, but it’s another thing to say, “We receive You, this person,” because He didn’t stay a baby. He did everything He said He was going to do. That is our reality as believers. That is our privilege. That’s what’s been given to us. Now it’s about us learning to receive what it is that He’s done.
I love the Advent tradition where churches spend time in quiet, spacious expectation leading up to Christmas. Without wanting to be too rigid about the idea of waiting to sing carols until Christmas Day, I have found that it can be an effective way to prepare for the celebration of Christmas. A slow build-up to Christmas goes hand and hand with an active pursuit of justice and generosity. I’ve seen church communities do this well by participating in giving campaigns during the holiday season. It’s a countercultural practice that helps us to align with the humble, triumphant message of Jesus’ arrival into this world as a baby.
I love singing Christmas songs at churches on Christmas. The extra sense of wonder, community, family, the spirit of giving, Everyone’s in a different mindset in a special way to remember what God has done. What I love at the churches I’ve been a part of is to take advantage of the opportunity to share with a lot of people who don’t go to Church regularly. You get a lot of people coming to Church during Christmastime. The churches I’ve been a part of, such as Harvest Christian Fellowship, have a massive heart for people to be saved and evangelized and come to know Jesus, so almost every Sunday through December, they give a chance for people to respond to the Gospel. There’s no more beautiful thing than to watch people walk from that darkness into light, making that decision to follow Jesus. This time of year, people are more open, more open-minded, open-hearted to hearing that amazing story.
What they could be doing to be more congregationally sensitive and have more Biblical imagination…man, I’ve seen a lot of congregational sensitivity and biblical imagination, so I can’t think of anything that would be more so. I think keeping it simple, telling the story about Jesus, and how it relates to us, I really don’t think you need more creativity or imagination.
How do you hold God and shepherding the congregation in worship in tension?
The most helpful stance for me in leading people in congregational worship is one of remembering. We are not doing a rain dance to entice God to come closer. He is already near, already redeeming, already pursuing, already loving, already at work, already being who He is. We need to remember, pay attention, and allow that reality to sink in and realign us. Remember Him and celebrate, lament, repent, give thanks.
The first thing for me as a leader is to point out Jesus. I want to have a moment with the Lord with a bunch of people and say, “Hey, come join in in this. Come look at Him, the provision for every need, the comfort, the counselor, the teacher, Emmanuel. This is God with us.” For me, it’s being a connecting point and taking somebody else’s hand and saying, look, look at Him, look at Him, and then whatever that yields because of their experience and their encounter with Him.
To lead well is to be fully present, bringing ourselves honestly and confessionally before the congregation. It makes me think of the woman at the well when Jesus tells her that worshipers will worship Him in “spirit and in truth.” God is glorified all by Himself, and we participate by giving Him glory as His image-bearers, bringing ourselves fully and truthfully when we sing. Whether we are in the front with a microphone or on the back row, Christ is the Host, and we are His guests.
I don’t want to put them in tension. They go hand in hand with me. As I’m looking to God and reminding my heart and the congregation of what He has done and what He’s promised, I think such a big part of what it means to lead worship is to remind the Church as they’re coming in from a crazy week and kids and work and schedules and school and life, for them to come in and remember, “Yes, my God is great! Yes, He has done great things. He is my living hope.” It’s crazy that even with 20 minutes of just sitting in a time of worship, what it can do to your heart. From a place of chaos and stress to putting all that you’ve been going through in life in light of the truth of who God is and His love for us. It can completely change your perspective, where you’re heart’s at, and where your priorities are.