The Worship Leader's Guide to Advent and Christmas

Introduction

In this guide, you will learn a simple worship planning strategy for Advent and Christmas. First, I will unpack the meaning of Advent and Christmas from a theological standpoint. A lot of worship leaders miss the critical step of identifying the role these seasons play in the Gospel narrative. Understanding their theological meaning will make it way easier to plan services and pick songs during December. The second portion of the guide contains my list of recommended worship albums and songs to aid you in the song selection process. New Christmas albums are released every year. This guide will help you stay up to date with the latest Christmas worship songs that are non-cheesy and easy for your congregation to sing.

It’s not Christmas time. It’s Advent.

Once Thanksgiving is over, western culture kicks into Christmas mode. Even in my own family, it’s a tradition to watch It’s A Wonderful Life after our Thanksgiving feast, and it becomes acceptable to listen to Christmas music. All throughout December, businesses bombard us with advertisements for Christmas sales, Christmas movies, Christmas cookies, and Christmas parties. The problem is it’s not Christmas yet. Christmas does not start until December 25, and it lasts 12 days until Epiphany. That’s why we have the song, The Twelve Days of Christmas. Instead, the actual beginning of Christmas feels like the end of Christmas. December 26 comes, and the decorations go.

The major downside of going straight from Thanksgiving to Christmas in the context of worship is we miss out on the season of Advent. Advent begins four Sundays prior to Christmas and is more than just a pre-game to Christmas. It’s tone and nature is significantly different. The word Advent comes from the Latin word, adventus, which translates coming or arrival. It’s a season of preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ. It anticipates both his coming as a baby as well as his second coming in the final days when God fully establishes his kingdom on earth.

A season of preparation, repentance, and hope.

When someone or something important is about to enter into your life, there is a lot of preparation work you need to be done. My wife and I are expecting twin babies in January. We are in the midst of the crazy amount of preparation work that needs to be done before the babies arrive. There’s a lot of practical prep work like getting the baby room ready. There’s also a lot of work we need to do on preparing our hearts and mindset. We are trying to figure out how we will care for two fragile little lives as well as maintain a healthy marriage. We will never be completely prepared for the arrival of our twins, but there are a lot of smart things we are trying to accomplish now to start the parenting thing off on the right foot.

Advent reminds us of the prep work needed in our hearts so God can truly be king of our lives. It does not take long examining ourselves to realize how much we have fallen short. If Jesus were coming back on Christmas Day, how would your life look different between now and then? What type of prep work would you want to do? I would probably be a lot more intentional at loving my neighbor and loving God, knowing that those two things are of highest priority in the kingdom of God. I would probably spend less time watching Stranger Things and Youtube and go knocking on doors in my neighborhood to tell people about Jesus. Basically, I would do things I already know I should be doing but don’t because I feel no urgency or conviction about my current condition.

Advent is a season of repentance. It’s an invitation to turn from our sinful desires and refocus our hearts on the kingdom of God. Advent is also a season of anticipation and hope.  We are soon going to celebrate the birth of Christ at Christmas. The King is born. The reign of God has commenced. But when we look around at the world, we know that God’s reign is far from being fully consummated in this broken place. Our world is full of tragedy, evil, and pain. Every time we hear about natural disasters, mass shootings, wars, disease, and genocide, alongside our grief, we have hope that someday Jesus’ second coming will put an end to it all. That’s what Advent is all about: preparation, repentance, and hope.

The tone of Advent is significantly different from the happy, cheerful, celebratory mood of Christmas. It makes little sense to sing our traditional Christmas carols or even the spiced up ones by Tomlin and Baloche during the season of Advent. The message of most of those carols is too early. They skip the part of the story, our story, when we have to examine ourselves, prepare our hearts, and hope for the coming of Christ.

You do not need to eliminate all Christmas songs from your repertoire before December 25. You most likely are not in a church that observes the church calendar. Advent in your context is pre-game for Christmas. That’s okay. What you can and should do is tailor your song selection during Advent to hit on themes of preparation, repentance, and hope in Christ’s coming. You will find this will give your worship planning in December a lot more intentionality and purpose. Not every song you play needs to be a Christmas carol. There are plenty of non-Christmas worship songs that touch on these themes and would be appropriate for Advent.

Identify opportunities in worship to explain the meaning of Advent to your congregation. For example, you can say, “In a few weeks, we will be celebrating Christ’s coming. There’s a lot to celebrate and be joyful about His first coming as a baby in a manger. Because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we have hope for a future beyond death. We have hope that God will renew this broken world. Christ will come again and completely eradicate evil, sorrow, and tragedy. But as we look forward to Christ’s birth and his second coming, we need to do some prep work to our hearts. We often desire things that are not compatible with God’s kingdom. We need his Spirit to reshape and aim our hearts back toward God. As we sing songs celebrating Christ’s coming, we will also sing songs in which we cry out to God in repentance and acknowledge our need for Him.” Then you could sing a song like Lord I Need You by Matt Maher or Kyrie Eleison by Chris Tomlin.

Okay, now it’s Christmas time.

You probably do not need much explanation around the meaning of Christmas. If you take anything away from this guide, I hope it is a better understanding of Advent. But Christmas is still a big deal. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day we celebrate the incarnation. God became man. The incarnation is the starting point for understanding the identity of Jesus. It sets the stage for comprehending the significance of his life, death, and resurrection. Christmas historically has always been a joyful celebration, so do not be afraid to pull out all the stops and have a high energy service.

There will be a whole lot of visitors at your church. Make sure there is a clear invitation to salvation in Jesus. Our culture cannot quite get past the instinct to go to church on Christmas Eve. Don’t squander this evangelistic opportunity. As a worship leader, pick songs that tell the Christmas story and connect that story to the cross and the empty tomb.

As for Christmas song ideas, I would recommend sticking to mostly traditional carols that your church and visitors will know. Use fresh arrangements of these traditional carols found in my song selection guide. Make sure the arrangements do stray too far from the original tune, or else that could just confuse people trying to sing along. If you introduce a new Christmas song that isn't based on a traditional carol, I recommend introducing that song in Advent, so your congregation is ready to sing it on Christmas Eve. Also, make sure songs are in a singable key for your congregation. Finally, make sure your songs are playable for your band.

By now you have a better understanding of the theological meaning and significance of Advent and Christmas and hopefully you have a more robust framework for picking worship songs for the month of December. I’ve compiled my recommended songs and albums into a free PDF download. This will save you hours of research trying to find the right songs for Advent and Christmas. This guide also includes links to the songs’ chord charts and multitrack sessions. You can access the guide by completing the form and it will be sent to your email inbox.


The worship leader's guide to advent and christmas songs