I know that in some circles, the furor over Advent versus Christmas music continues to rage. As is my conflict resolution style, I try to find a middle way in this debate: starting the season squarely with Advent hymns and slowly moving into some of the lesser known Christmas songs as we reach the fourth Sunday of Advent. A liturgical purist I am not. But I find there is one special opportunity during this season for the congregation to not just sing a new Advent song, but to actually learn one.
Singing a response as we light the Advent wreath is a perfect opportunity to introduce a new piece of music. You can teach the song the first week – and then the congregation has three more weeks to really get it down. While worship leaders can certainly do this any other time of the year, too, Advent has a clear rhythm to it. People know exactly how many weeks they will be singing this song and they know to listen for God’s messages of waiting, anticipation and fulfillment. Four weeks is enough time to learn the words, melody and beat. And it’s not so long as to make people dread singing the same song.
I’m partial to using a simple song where I can easily insert the word to represent that week’s candle (hope, peace, love or joy). This year, my church will learn “He Came Down,” a traditional Cameroonian song arranged by John Bell of the Iona community. Though it’s only three lines long, at first glance, its rhythms are intimidating. But with easy, repeated words, singers can focus on feeling the beat and not have to stare at the lyrics. Since my church has no choir to lead them, I trust that week-by-week they will also gain confidence as they learn something new. Natalie Sleeth’s “Light One Candle” is another song that lends itself to this simple method. The new “Glory to God” hymnal offers many fresh Advent choices, especially “Light One Candle to Watch for Messiah,” a Yiddish tune with words by Wayne L. Wold that takes up the incremental strategy. Singing a single verse of a hymnal staple also works well, particularly one I’d like folks to know better! In past years, my church has learned “People Look East” by singing a new verse each week.
For my church and for me, the value in all this is two-fold. By the time Christmas arrives, I am certain we have built better singers who can own a song, not just get through it. No longer is that melody just words on a page, but now it is written on the worshipper’s heart and mind. Second, they have added something new to their repertoire. Next year, instead of complaining, “We don’t know that one,” the congregation might enjoy that song even more as an introit, response or hymn because they remember its message well.
What are singing as you light the Advent wreath this season?
EMMA NICKEL serves as stated supply pastor of Ebenezer Presbyterian Church in Greensburg, Kentucky. She is passionate about small church ministry, cooking and playing with her cat, Scout.