Monthly Archives: November 2015

Advent, Worship and Outreach

(Advent worship planning is upon us again, and I hope this re-post of an earlier entry will help in your preparations both personally and corporately…)

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

The Season of Advent is a wonderful, historically rich time of preparation, contemplation and celebration revolving around the coming of Christ in human flesh.  As the fulfillment of prophecy, and the height of redemptive activity, God intervenes in the course of human events to restore what was lost due to Adam’s disobedience.  For centuries, the Church followed the liturgical calendar and considered the themes of the Advent Season, but for many this practice was long ago forsaken.  Advent is, in fact, the beginning of the Church year.

Let us consider Advent and how it might become special once again.  Specifically, how can we utilize the Season of Advent and its themes to both regain some historical connection with the ancient church, and help our neighbors see the reality that Christ is the answer to life and renewal?  How can we allow the richness of this season to once again take an important place among the commercialization of the holiday?

It seems to me that many Christian groups, by distancing themselves from historical traditions, have done a disservice to the Body of Christ.  We could also make a case that some in more staid traditions have lost a connection with history and its traditions, giving in to more modern leanings.  Certainly, we are warned by Paul to beware of the “traditions of men” (Colossians 2:8), however, if we are honest with ourselves we will notice that there are many traditions in which we participate that are healthy and God-honoring.  By reviving the celebration of the Advent Season, we can redevelop a particularly meaningful tradition.

“Advent” simply means “coming.”  The Season of Advent celebrates the coming of Christ into the world – God becoming man and dwelling among us.  Throughout this season there are themes that can be followed week by week to help us reflect upon differing aspects of His incarnation.  The season begins the Sunday after Thanksgiving, includes four Sunday services, and ends with a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day service.  The themes of Advent may be described as follows:

ADVENT-CANDLESAdvent week 1: Vigilant waiting for the birth of Christ – This week focuses on remembering the experience of waiting.  The Israelites waited for centuries for the Messiah to appear, and the promise of His coming was first heard by Adam and Eve.  In reality, the human race waited for the Messiah almost from the beginning.

Advent week 2: Personal preparation for the birth of Christ – The focus in this week is on personal evaluation.  There is a reason that Christ came to dwell among us, and that reason is one that is found within each of us as sinners in need of a Savior.  Here we consider our need for Him in a deeply personal way.

Advent week 3: The Joy of our waiting – The most celebrative of the Sundays of Advent, we celebrate with great expectation the day of the Lord’s coming.  We celebrate His love for us and the wondrous work of salvation He comes to accomplish.  Our celebration in community brings a special character to worship on this day.

Advent week 4: The incarnation of the Word in the womb of the virgin Mary – The mystery of the incarnation is that of God dwelling among men.  He comes to us, and only in the beauty and grandeur of that action can we be drawn to Him.  The incarnation is not a doctrine to be ignored in this important season.

Christmas Eve or Day: Celebrating His birth – Our waiting is over.  He has come, and our waiting for this day has come!  As faith communities and as families, we share with each other the fulfillment of God’s promises in Christ.

There are many ways that each of these themes can be explored, and in doing so we can reclaim some awareness of why the life of Christ is so significant.  This would be a worthwhile endeavor for those who knowHim, as well as those who need Him.  For example, we might take each theme and simply as a question each week to explore the theme:

Week 1 – Why was the waiting for the Christ necessary?  Why was it so important?

Week 2 – What are we preparing for?  How do we prepare ourselves?

Week 3 – What is this “joy” that we can have in Christ?

Week 4 – Incarnation means what?  And why does it matter?

Christmas – How does Christ fulfill our needs?  (Sin and renewal)

Coming back to these themes each year allows us to build a common experience for all generations.  Exploring the themes in different ways will help us find great depth in the Person of Christ and His work.  Re-telling the story of the goodness of Creation, the tragedy of the Fall, and the Redemption in Christ will give opportunities for discussion for those who hear the story and consider its implications for their own lives.

There are many resources available online to help create these services.  Some have altered themes, different themes, ideas for music (both traditional and contemporary), and other creative thoughts.  Do some exploring, and re-discover for yourself the joy of the Season of Advent.

 

(Original Post on Nov. 28, 2013 at the Worldview Church: http://www.worldviewchurch.org/worshiparts/articles/20817-advent-worship-and-outreach)

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Worship Planning for the Holidays

The seasons of Thanksgiving and Christmas are filled with Christian history.  We know that our Thanksgiving holiday in America is directly the result of the Christian influence on our early heritage.  The first Americans expressed their thanks to God for the provisions and care He supplied throughout the year, and we have done the same ever since.

Christmas, of course, carries within it the very name of Christ.  In fact, the word “Christ” and the word “Mass” were brought together to form the word.  The “Mass” is a term that the church of the Middle Ages used to describe its church services.  Thus “Christmas” is in fact the season of church services specifically about Christ’s coming to earth.

As full and rich as the history is behind these seasons, worship planners and pastors often come to this season wondering how to bring a fresh perspective, or a new insight, into this age-old story.  I’d like to suggest some ideas, and give you the permission to use them, change them, or re-create them as you would like and need for your congregation.  These are ideas I’ve used at one point or another in my worship planning.

Ideas for Thanksgiving

For many years I have planned the largest and most involved service of the year to be the service just prior to Thanksgiving Day.  I found that the people participating in this service had plenty of time prior to Thanksgiving for rehearsals, planning and preparation.  However, once Thanksgiving Day was upon us everyone’s schedule became so crowded that trying to plan a big Christmas service became really difficult.

Short testimonials of thankfulness are excellent during these services.  This helps congregational members to connect with their own instances of God’s care in their lives.  There are also plenty of musical selections geared toward thankfulness and praise to God for all that He is and does.

One might organize a Thanksgiving service thematically.  For instance, spend time during the service thanking God in three areas:  1) for redemption in Christ, 2) for family and friends, and 3) for daily needs supplied.  There are any number of themes that can be used for this.  Supplement each theme with Scripture readings, songs, testimonies, and short sermonettes.  Repeat the same flow three times—once for each theme.

Sometimes it’s good to use Scripture as a jumping point.  Psalm 107 is an excellent passage that has built-in repetition of specific stories, how God met the needs of His people, and then a response of thanksgiving for His work.  This worship flow works well and is already planned for you!

Ideas for Christmas

Think of the Christmas season as a multi-week discovery and consideration of the meaning of Christ’s coming to earth.  Use the Sundays between Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day to gradually build expectation from week-to-week in preparation for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services (if you have them).

I’ve written previously about celebrating the Advent season with its candle wreaths, colors and weekly themes.  Information on how to do this and what it means is readily available on the internet—along with lots of ideas on how to implement these services.  Celebrating Advent is the classic style of building anticipation for the coming of the Christ Child.

Another four week idea (there are usually four Sundays between Thanksgiving and Christmas) is to explore the offices of Christ each subsequent week.  The four offices of Christ would be Prophet, Priest, Judge and King.  One topic for each week.  What did it mean for Christ to fill these offices?  How was He the fulfillment of each one?  What does it mean for us today as we remember His birth?

On a more practical level, I have found that enlisting the help of other worship planners for this special season really has its benefits.  By having four different people plan the four services, we have variety in style and thought that permeates the season.  This reflects the variety we find in the body of Christ, the church!  I will often give overall guidelines, Scripture references and thematic descriptions—and then set them loose!

Overall, the burden that pastors and worship planners feel during these yearly seasons can be lifted by trying some of the ideas I suggested.  It will also provide for the purpose of our discussion—to find a fresh voice to remind us of these important Christian seasons.  May your celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas bring you ever closer to the God Who has demonstrated His love toward us so faithfully.

New Does Not Mean Effective in Worship

New songs.  Everyone likes new songs.  Worship planners and congregations are exposed to new Christian songs week by week, whether they are introduced during a worship service, by listening to the radio, or somehow engaging online with their favorite band or artist.  New is cool!  New is exciting!  New means we won’t be left behind.

Or does it?

There are so many issues with introducing new music in worship that it’s difficult to know where to begin.  That’s not to say that we should NOT introduce new music to our congregation.  I have written in the past that it’s important to “stretch” our congregation in this way, while it is balanced with familiar songs that people already know.  So, it’s not that new music is done, but rather how it is chosen and how it is taught

Let’s focus on just a few specific areas that lead to frustration on many levels when introducing new music to a congregation, especially when it is intended to be sung by the congregation.  Frustrations may occur on several levels, whether that be the Worship leader, the musicians, the Pastor or the members of the congregation.

First, song choice is critical.  The absolute golden rule is that a song must be accessible for a large group of people.  In other words, they have to be able to sing it!  This means that the range of the song is important.  It cannot be too high, nor too low, which discourages participation.  The song must have a reasonable overall range.  Octave jumps, or repeated choruses an octave higher (like the album) does not lend to a positive experience for the congregation.  Complicated rhythms also pose a problem which many congregations never overcome.  Often those melodies must be simplified in order to be usable.

Second, song style is important.  Although a Worship planner finds a song that carries a lot of emotional impact, or is a perfect fit for the theme of the day, the very style of the song may be difficult (or impossible) to pull off with musicians of varying ability.  Although there are many quality musicians even in the smallest churches, it’s rare to find an entire group of musicians at the same level in the same church.  Some will be better than others.  The worship industry produces a lot of music which may be fun, upbeat, cool or moving – but just not fitting for a church that has a guitarist, vocalist and keyboard player of differing ability.  To put it another way:  Rock-n-roll is just hard to do without drums and electric guitar.  Poor song choice can lead to a bad experience for the volunteer musician.

Third, the fact that the Worship leader or Pastor likes a song does not make it a good song for congregational singing.  Over and over again I sit through worship services in which someone’s favorite song is planned – and executed poorly.  Singing along in the car is different than singing with 100 or 1000 people.  Trying to duplicate the recording is a recipe for disappointment, except in churches with deep pockets and professional musicians.  Not only does the congregation get frustrated, but the musicians are disappointed with their inability to make is sound “cool,” and the one who “loves that song” wonders what happened to ruin it!

Generally, a good rule of thumb is that we remember that corporate worship is, well, corporate.  We must keep in mind the whole congregation and seek to make the worship experience something that can be entered into by everyone who is there.  Song choice is something that can discourage and distract from that unity, so we must be careful in our planning and introduction of new songs.

Losing Beauty in Worship

A discussion of beauty is one that seldom remains unemotional.  “Beauty,” we have been told, “is in the eye of the beholder.”  And with that powerful suggestion of autonomy, each individual is able to declare what they believe to be beautiful, and what is not.  To challenge this cultural assumption is often met with disdain, yet to clearly understand beauty this assumption must be challenged.

As an element of philosophy, beauty is part of the study of aesthetics.  In a larger context, it is part of the three-fold scheme philosophers have considered for centuries:  goodness, truth and beauty.  According to John Cottingham, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Reading:

“Truth, beauty and goodness…are all what philosophers call normative concepts — they carry with them the sense of a requirement or a demand.  The true is that which is worthy of belief — “to be believed”; the beautiful is that which is worthy of admiration; and the good is that which is worthy of choice.  They all therefore seem to be rather ‘queer’ properties (as the late Oxford philosopher John Mackie once put it). They have this odd, magnetic aspect — they somehow have ‘to-be-pursuedness’ built into them.”*

As concepts which are “to-be-pursued,” we can recognize that they are outside of us with an existence (if we can say it that way) that is independent of our thoughts or opinions.  In other words, something is not beautiful because we determine it to be so (“in the eye of the beholder”), rather, beauty is something we discover because it is in the world for us to find. When considered this way, it is no longer a matter of opinion, but an objective reality that anyone seeking truth and beauty can discover.

This is in keeping with a biblical view of beauty.  Goodness, truth and beauty as constructs of thinking are evident in many Bible passages (see Romans 12:1-2 as an example).  Overall, these are part of God’s creation, because His creation represents His character (Romans 1:20).  They are all discoverable things – so that beauty is something that we discover infused in God’s creation around us.  Things are not beautiful because we think that they are, we discover the beauty and agree that the beauty is there!

Worship in the gathered Christian community would benefit from removing the cultural baggage that beauty is “in the eye of the beholder.”  Rather than singing songs we like, or that “get us moving,” or somehow touch us emotionally, we would benefit from finding songs that represent beauty holistically (the music as music, as well as the message), allowing them to shape our response.  Beyond music, architecture, lighting, use of technology, and other facets of worship must be part of this thinking, and we would be well-served to avoid making decisions primarily because they are practical.  In doing so, we may lose the beauty in the process.

 

*http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/faith/article2100657.ece

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