Something happened to me a few years ago… I’d never been one to do a whole lot of Christmas decorating. Maybe it was laziness, maybe it was PTSD from a childhood full of mountain vacations with hour after hour of my mom dragging the entire family into every kitschy Christmas shop in a 20-mile radius of Gatlinburg, TN. Maybe it was the fact that as a musician, I’m contractually obligated to entertain a certain degree of cynicism about things that are overly cheery or “commercialized.” I’m not completely sure. But for many years, my wife, daughters, and I would purchase a tree from Home Depot, throw a few strands of lights on some bushes, and that was about the extent of the Christmas decor.

Then a few years ago, our first Christmas in our current house, I decided to surprise my wife one Friday in November by stringing some icicle lights above our garage while she was at work… and something apparently snapped within me.  What began that fateful Friday with a single strand of icicle lights has turned into an ever-growing number of boxes of string lights, wreaths, spotlights, light-up reindeer, a trip to the local farm to cut down a fresh tree, and the ever-important question asked to my wife each November, “What’s my lighting budget this year?” 

The 30 minutes it took to hang that single strand of lights has become an all-day affair that always includes at least one or two trips to Home Depot for new stuff.

I’m not exactly sure what prompted the change. Maybe it’s the fact that starting in November it starts getting dark outside at around 4pm and I just like a bit of light to greet me when I get home. Maybe it’s the look of awe that appears on my youngest daughter’s face when the lights get turned on for that first time each year. Maybe it’s some sort of Griswoldian need to outdo myself every year. 

But whatever the reason, I’ve officially become “that guy” – the one counting the days after Halloween until the scrooges at the HOA will allow the lights to go up and the one getting letters from them after Christmas that it’s time to take them down. A couple years ago, after I had finished dragging my family out into the cold night to admire my handiwork, my wife took a look at our yard, took a look at me, and said “This is the one thing about you that doesn’t fit at all with who you are…” 

This lifelong cynic has gone all in on the Christmas cheer! I look forward to getting the lights hung every year, and I can’t help but smile every time I drive up to my house and get to bask in their warm, festive glow. In just a few short years, I’ve officially gone from Grinch to Griswold.

Similarly, I’ve been leading worship professionally for over 23 years, and for probably the first 13 of those years, I dreaded Christmas. I would wait as long as possible to begin incorporating Christmas music into my worship sets, and only then because I knew angry emails would come if I didn’t. I mean, Christmas songs are not the easiest thing to pull off in a modern worship context. There are lots of chord changes, weird rhythms, words that nobody understands, and the ever-present concern that some kid in the congregation is going to turn to their mom mid-song and ask, “Mommy, what’s a virgin?”

But a few years ago, my senior pastor popped into my office and asked how I felt about incorporating some Advent practices into our services. To be honest, as someone who had spent most of the preceding years on staff at a large, nondenominational church, I was pretty clueless as to what that might look like. I only really knew of Advent from the calendars where you open the door and get a new piece of candy every day for a month. But I began doing some research, finding several sources of Advent readings and adapting them to our context. I began thinking more deeply about the songs that we sang throughout the season and explaining the deep heritage and meaning of them to our church as I led worship. And as I did these things, I began to fall more and more in love with the season, the songs, and the tradition of it all.

In a more modern church culture, traditions can get a bit of a bad rap and not entirely undeservedly so. Tradition for the sake of tradition can become stale and lacking in meaning. I spent my early years of ministry in a large Baptist church, and after a few years, the practice of “singing verses 1, 2, and 4, with a key change and drop in tempo on the last verse” kind of made me want to poke my eardrums out. 

Scripture tells us that we are to “sing a new song” to the Lord from our hearts. If you think about it, many of the hymns and Christmas carols that we tend to hold so precious as traditional elements of our faith were, at the time they were written, an attempt to create music that was accessible to the culture of the time, even sometimes basing the melodies loosely, or not-so-loosely, on the drinking songs of the day. 

So I believe there is tremendous value to doing ministry in a way that feels familiar in our modern world. But just as our family traditions, like “heading out into the country in the old front-wheel drive sleigh to embrace the frosty majesty of the winter landscape and select that most important of Christmas symbols,” can be so meaningful and important to us, so can our faith traditions, and I have grown to love the opportunity that Advent allows for us to do that.

We get to read passages and sing songs that have been sung by believers for hundreds of years to celebrate the exact same world-changing event that we are celebrating right now. When we do this, we don’t just worship with the souls physically present in the room when we sing, but we worship in fellowship with centuries of saints that have worshipped before us with the same words and the same melodies. What a powerful thing!

Leaning into the observation of Advent also allows us to tell the larger story of Christ’s arrival. Christians in general have gotten really good at reminding people via bumper stickers to “keep Christ in CHRISTmas,” but Christmas is really just the midpoint of the story. The observation of Advent gives us an opportunity to lean in to the darkness and the longing of God’s people for a rescuer to come and then draw the parallel to the time we are living in now, as we wait for Christ to return once again.

I’ll never forget the email I got a few years back from a lady who was very upset with our rendition of O Come O Come Emmanuel, telling me that it sounded more like a Halloween song than a Christmas song. I spent some time gently trying to help her understand that O Come O Come Emmanuel isn’t a Christmas song, but rather an Advent song, and the minor key and haunting melody are intentional tools used to express the longing and yearning of a people living in darkness before the chorus finally erupts with hope, saying “rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee!”

Just take a look at the following verse:

“Oh come, Desire of nations, bind in one the hearts of all mankind;

Bid thou our sad divisions cease, and be thyself our King of Peace.”

How much more relevant to the past few years in this world can you get? Let’s not be so quick to rush to the celebration of Christmas that we miss out on a piece of the story that is so relevant to the days we are living in. Then the joy of Christ’s arrival becomes that much more meaningful as it gives us comfort and hope as we look toward the day his promises will once again be fulfilled when he returns.

As I am writing this, I’m realizing that this blog was initially intended to offer practical tips and resources for incorporating some Advent and Christmas practices into our worship services over the next month or so. (And if you are interested in some resources, please feel free to reach out to me at ryan.bailey@mvccfrederick.com.I can share readings, song lists, and examples of videos and service flows that we have used.)But as I gathered my thoughts, I realized that what we probably all need more than specific resources is simply a mindset shift.

As ministers of the gospel, we’ve probably all led our churches through so many Christmas seasons that all of the logistics and parties and extra events can easily make us cynical and rob us of the deep meaningful experience that we can all have and invite our churches into if we choose to take a step back and reflect on the bigger picture:

WHY we celebrate: Because God chose to send His perfect Son into a broken world full of darkness and division.

WHO we sing TO: Jesus

who we sing WITH: Countless numbers of saints throughout centuries battling the same struggles and also celebrating the same good news.

So let’s not allow this season to be just one more year of dusting off all the old songs that we HAVE to sing because otherwise people will revolt.Instead of dreading the routine of another holiday season, let’s lean into it by embracing old traditions as we create some meaningful new ones.

And don’t forget the words of the great theologian, Buddy the Elf: “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear!”

The following two tabs change content below.

Ryan Bailey

Ryan is the Worship Leader at Mountain View Community Church in Frederick, MD, where he lives with his wife, Meghan, and their three daughters.  Ryan has been leading worship for nearly twenty years and also serves as a worship leading coach with the Guest Worship network.

Latest posts by Ryan Bailey (see all)

3 Comments

  1. Joe Henseler on November 16, 2023 at 8:11 pm

    Lots of Yuletide love your way on this!!!

  2. David Hansen on November 15, 2023 at 8:26 am

    Ryan:

    Excellent post and very appropriate for the world we live in!! Thank you!!

  3. Norberto Colon Jr on November 15, 2023 at 8:21 am

    This was great! Thanks Ryan!

Leave a Comment





This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.