Advent may be one of the most difficult of church seasons to observe. Every year we feel various pressures to skip it and go straight to Christmas. People love singing Christmas carols, but the Advent hymns? Not so much. It is harder and harder to fit the children’s Christmas program into the schedule anyway. I actually talked to one pastor who told me that the children’s program in his congregation had to be on December 2nd! (Just in case we’ve forgotten already, December 2 was the first Sunday in Advent.)
All the more reason for leaders to help a congregation prevail in observing Advent, because:
1. Observing this season teaches us something about history, especially that God has an opinion about how things have gone and do go on earth – everywhere and for all time.
2. Observing the season teaches us something about the future. It (the future) has already invaded the present in the One who is the Word-made-flesh. His incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection and promised return frame everything else – past, present and future. We live in the Kingdom now and we pray for it to come and we believe in the fullness of its coming.
“…until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet…”
3. It may not be the only way, but it is certainly an absolutely crucial way to help disentangle followers of Jesus from the consumerist crush of the season. In other words, Advent really matters to our souls!
So, let’s keep working to observe it with energy, determination and soberness. The following are a few suggestions to this end (you’ve probably already thought of them), if you find yourself struggling to get the congregation channeled in the right direction.
1. Although it may seem really clunky and totally illogical, go ahead and mix Christmas carols with Advent hymns during Advent. In other words, if you find yourself feeling pressure from people to start singing Christmas carols before Christmas, don’t fight them tooth and nail. Go ahead and sing the carols, but sing at least one Advent hymn each Sunday in Advent. Yes, make them do it! And take just a moment (not too long) to explain what the hymn means.
2. Again, I know it’s awkward, but work with your church organist, pianist, choir director, to let people practice singing Advent hymns. It’s OK (at least it’s better than not trying) to practice during worship. If you have a choir and the choir can practice a new Advent hymn ahead of the Sunday, all the better. But go ahead and use the time to practice. Otherwise, people will never learn these deeply important hymns. (Remember – hymns and other good contemporary songs and choruses teach us. Come to think of it, the bad ones teach, too.)
“O come, O come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel…”
3. Finally, for pastors and other leaders responsible for this work, allow me to put the bee on you just a little: it’s your job to help people practice the Christian faith in its fullness. You can’t dodge this matter of Advent and you should not cave. I know the pressure to do so. I’ve felt it myself. You as a leader can bear witness to your faith in Christ – you can be a witness while you’re acting as a leader. God will give you the grace to lead with grace in the midst of contrary pressure. Politely, firmly, lovingly, stay the course.
I believe that if we all just “hung in there” a little more resolutely about observing Advent, that, with time, we would start to see a salutary change in our congregational cultures.
“Hail to the Lord’s anointed!” Come, Lord Jesus!