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10 Rules for Keeping Christmas Simple

The DOs and DON’Ts for Less-Stress and More Engaging Advent Services

Christmas: it’s the most wonderful time of year. Except for worship leaders.

The Advent season really is a special (and potentially wonder-filled) time of year. But somehow, too many churches internalized the exaggerated truth (read: a lie) that it has to be “extra” special. As in more and better than last year. So making it “extra” special requires an increasing amount of… 

  • Extra time.
  • Extra energy.
  • Extra focus.
  • Extra people.
  • Extra money.

There’s nothing wrong with making the Christmas season a meaningful time for your church family and guests. But our extra efforts to make Advent extra special too often just adds extra complexity and stress for you and your team in an already-busy time of year.

So I wanted to give you 10 rules—four DON’Ts and six DOs that help you make Christmas special without the excessive pressure, complexity, and worship team overtime.

Now, these are my rules. Some might resonate with you. Some might infuriate you. I don’t expect you to agree with all my rules. But keep an open mind as you read them.

Let’s start with the DON’Ts.

1. DON’T “bait and switch” your guests.

Too many churches bring a level of pageantry and production into their Christmas services that aren’t sustainable beyond December 26. 

They lure people in with a promise of a fantastic experience. But what delights guests in December bears little resemblance to what they’ll endure if they come back in January.

Besides the risk of a disappointed and confused crowd, the “bait and switch” is detrimental to you and your team. How many Christmas Eves have you come home emotionally and physically spent with little left for your family? 

In my last two churches, I’ve been grateful to have senior pastors who don’t buy this lie. While they wanted to engage and connect with the guests coming to our Christmas services, they also didn’t want to create a false picture of what our Sunday services were like.

So we focused on retaining the feel of our usual services but adding intentional elements along the Advent journey. There might be a kids choir one week. Or a little more “special music” (solos/performance songs) during December. Or we’d create themed readings or a short drama.

While these elements added some extra work, it didn’t rise to the level of insanity that many of my worship leader friends were experiencing. And if the Chreasters (those who only attend church on Christmas and Easter) happened to return January, the service still felt familiar.

2. Don’t bastardize the beloved carols. 

Maybe you’ve experienced something different than I have. But over 20 years of vocational ministry experience, I’ve observed that most people just want to sing the standard Christmas carols. You know, the way they’ve known them since they were wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a ma—er…church nursery crib.

But instead, we give them genetically-modified mutant versions of the classics they (used to) love. 

For example, people know The First Noel in 3/4. Most don’t actually know that the time signature is 3/4. But they do know that when their worship leader plays it in 4/4, it doesn’t feel right. And, they stop singing. 

Sure, if you play it enough times, people will catch on. But it’s not the same. And is it really worth it? I get it—it’s more fun for the band to play in ‘four’ and it feels more modern. 

But are we more concerned with our own musical fulfillment than we are accompanying the sung worship of our church? 

And even worse than time-signature changes are full-out melody rewrites.

I get this one, too. Some of those old Advent hymns have great words but are a booger to play on guitar. But a new melody written to familiar words is still a new song. And people stop singing as soon as they discover it’s not actually the song they know.

So, what about the Hybrid Christmas Hymns—those songs that have new choruses and/or bridges along with a modern-sounding arrangement?

Those can be problematic, but there’s a way to make them work. We’ll get to that in a later rule. 

3. DON’T say yes to unnecessary Yuletide stress.

Even if you don’t attempt a big Christmas production at your church, you still don’t want to take on unnecessary commitments. Your December is full enough with school programs, Christmas parties, family engagements, and on and on.

For example, one year, I got invited to participate at a community worship night at the beginning of December. I felt a little bad about saying no when asked in October. But I was bigtime glad when that week came and I didn’t have that on my schedule.

The stress-of-YES can also include unreasonable requests from your senior pastor for a last-minute song addition or special production piece. Saying NO to your senior pastor isn’t easy. But it creates both professional and personal boundaries you need to have as a worship leader.

If you do want to say YES to your senior pastor’s request (or it feels more like a demand than a request), then ask him/her what can be eliminated so you can have the bandwidth to work on this special element.

And the final DON’T?

4. DON’T misuse modern Christmas songs.

If you want to use a modern Christmas song from a popular artist (or something you or your team has written) as part of your congregational singing, that’s great. But just remember to treat it as a new song and introduce it accordingly. 

Plan on using a new Christmas-themed worship song more than one Sunday if you want congregation’s participation. Maybe it’s a song that fits your over-arching Advent theme for this year. It makes sense both for your band and congregation’s sake to repeat it multiple Sundays.

If the modern Christmas worship song going to be a “one-and-done” rotation, then treat it more as a special music number.  

Also, keep in mind that too many of these new Christmas songs in your Advent sets will make your church “No-Sing December.” People can’t process and learn that many new songs in such a short time. They’ll just opt out and stare at the screen.

And finally, if these modern Christmas tunes are crowding out the holiday favorites, your congregation might resent it. Did I mention that people just LOVE to sing their traditional Christmas songs?

(By the way, if you love new Christmas songs, don’t despair. I’ll talk a little more about how to use them in another rule.)

So there are four DON’T rules. Let’s jump into the DOs rules that help us avoid excessive Christmas craziness.

5. DO determine your Christmas songs early.

The sooner you can plan your Christmas repertoire, the better. And when you do get your songs planned, try to get those charts and recordings out to your team by the end of November. Even if you don’t know which weeks you’ll do which songs, your team can start familiarizing themselves by listening to the recordings. 

It might be tempting to think your team will get these songs down quickly, especially if you’ve been using the same songs/arrangements for the last few years. But the truth is, most of your team will need to brush up and relearn these songs. Eleven months is a long time not to play or sing something.

Speaking of using the same songs…

6. DO recycle your songs from last year.

Recycling your songs and arrangements from previous years is just good stewardship.

The last time your church sang Christmas songs was at least 11 months ago. The average person in your congregation will not remember that you used last year’s arrangement.

And if you’re using Hybrid Christmas Hymns, rotating those for multiple years actually helps them to become more familiar to your congregation.

 True story: we used Chris Tomlin’s Joy to the World (Unspeakable Joy) for at least six years straight. My team was sick of it, but the congregation sang the heck out of it. And whether my team was willing to admit it, that was one less “brand new” song they had to learn from scratch.

 7. DO keep songs & arrangements simple.

This DO builds on DON’T #2 (Don’t bastardize the beloved Christmas carols). 

I’ll say it again: most people (even “non-churched” people) want to sing the Christmas carols and traditional Advent hymns with their melodic structure still in place. 

If you’re in a musically contemporary church, look for ways to arrange the songs in a more modern setting while retaining how they’re sung. (Remember, don’t mess with the melody.) 

There’s an added bonus to this: it simplifies the arrangement.

In their traditional settings, many of these old tunes have chord changes on almost every note of the melody. Often you can drop half (or more) of these changes and still retain the integrity of the melody. This makes it easier for the chordal instruments, but doesn’t change the melody. 

Warning: you may have an alto or tenor get their ugly Christmas sweaters in a bunch because their beloved harmonies no longer work. But a modern church band will sound better playing the simplified harmonic structure rather than attempting that myriad of chord changes from the traditional arrangement.

8. DO plan for a smaller band.

Another way to keep things simple is to be prepared to play your Christmas songs with a diminished band—especially for a Christmas Eve service. 

I learned this the hard way. 

Team members travel to see family at Christmas. (Or go to the Bahamas. I was jealous of that guy.) And some just don’t want to play at a Christmas Eve service. They have their own family traditions.    

The first year I tried a big production on Christmas Eve was also the last year I tried a big production on Christmas Eve. 

But once I got over my disappointment (read: bruised ego), I realized that a simple acoustic set with the old familiar songs created the kind of environment that most people want for Christmas Eve. 

And wouldn’t most of us rather see people drawn in by the simplicity and invited to participate, rather than be entertained by the production? I gotta think those people actively participating will be more likely to hear the incarnational and life-changing message of Advent than someone who’s just passively enjoying a show.

9. DO use hybrid hymns and modern Christmas songs purposefully.

It might sound like I’m eschewing anything other than traditional Christmas hymns with conventional melodies. Heck no. I love some of the modern Christmas songs and reimagined hymns.

And there’s a place for these new songs and arrangements. So, where do they fit? Ask yourself the purpose of the song: 

  • Is it for congregational participation?

Then err on the side of simple and familiar.

  • Is it for congregational listening and musical ministry?

Then pull out the stops and perform that complex hymn arrangement or that beautiful new Advent song you’ve heard on Christian radio. But don’t make your congregation stand during this song with the expectation that they’ll sing along. Let them sit and be blessed by the music.

If you want to do a modern Christmas worship song or reimagined hymn for congregational singing, consider adopting it as a theme and use it multiple weeks during Advent.

And finally, here’s something that’s simple, but incredibly moving at the holidays.

10. DO use scripture generously.

The Old Testament prophecies and Gospel narratives of Christ’s incarnation are as well-known as the songs for many people. People get nostalgic when they hear those passages.

That familiarity draws people in. And hopefully, they’ll encounter these scriptures in a new way—in a way that shines a light on the deep theological truth that God…became…human. Don’t forget how profound and mysterious that is. Use scripture to make much of it. 

And reading scripture passages is also a simple way to create meaningful moments along your journeys of worship during Advent. It doesn’t all have to be about songs.

Advent ROI

Now, it sounds like I’m being a bit Scrooge-esque with anything complex or high-production at Christmas. I’m not. But I do think we need to keep in mind our “Advent Return on Investment.” 

Return on investment might sound crass, but ask yourself this: 

Is what you’ll gain from wowing a few extra Chreasters worth over-extending your team, burning out yourself, and frustrating your family?

And so many churches make this spiritually high-sounding argument: “If only one person comes to the Lord, it’ll all be worth it.” 

Really? It took all these man-hours, all this money, all this technology, all this production to win one person to the Lord?

It seems like we should be doing better than that.

Now, if your church has success with reaching unchurched people with high production holidays, that’s great. But if it’s at the expense of your emotional and spiritual health, is it worth it for you? 

And if your church leadership believes all that added stress and anxiety on you is worth it—you might need to reconsider your position there. 

Burning the Advent candle at both ends is fun for a few years. But if you want to be in worship ministry for the long-haul, work to keep Christmas simpler so your flame doesn’t smolder out. 

And your church just might embrace the simpler approach to Advent, too.  

Jon Nicol