Worship Planning for the Christmas Season

by A. Merril Smoak Jr.

"On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a partridge in a pear tree."

Worship Planning for Christmas

If you think about it, the phrase "the first day of Christmas" suggests that there must be a second or third day of Christmas and maybe even more days of Christmas. As worship planners we should think of Christmas as a season of several days that begins on Christmas Eve and ends sometime before New Year's Day.

Modern-day consumerism promotes Christmas as a gift-giving season that begins in early November and concludes with the day after Christmas sales. Historically, Christmas Day is a specific date each year to celebrate the birth of Jesus to Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. Theologically, Christmas teaches us about the incarnation, God Himself becoming human flesh to redeem His creation. Early Western church tradition has Christmas beginning on Dec. 25 and concluding on Jan. 5 - the 12 days of Christmas (begin your counting with Dec. 25). Jan. 6 is Epiphany, the day to celebrate the coming of the magi as recorded in Matthew 2.

For worship leaders, the Christmas season has always demanded our best worship planning. It is a joyous time of Christ-centered celebration. As our society and culture continue to secularize this Christian holiday, we must intensify our December worship plans. For most of us, this will include special worship plans for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day when it falls on a Sunday, and the Sunday after Christmas.

Christmas Eve worship

Christmas Eve worship is prime time to simply tell the nativity story and sing familiar Christmas carols in a setting of awe and mystery. During the past 24 days most churches have elaborately rehearsed the Christmas traditions through children's musicals, Christmas pageants, singing Christmas trees, and even live drive-through nativity scenes. The importance of these performances should not be underestimated. But after the December Christmas rush, maybe we need Christmas Eve worship that is quiet and serene to once again remind us of God's love that came through the Child of Bethlehem.

Simply tell the birth story through Scripture reading. Let one child read the Matthew account and another child read the Luke account. Ask a grandfather to read these Bible stories while sitting in a rocking chair with the children from the congregation seated on the floor around him. Visually enhance the Scripture reading with a nativity scene on a table on the stage, or have several nativity sets displayed around the worship space.

The reading of the Christmas story may seem too simplistic after our Christmas musicals and pageants, but we must reclaim the power of the public reading of Scripture. Paul reminded Timothy to "give attention to the public reading of scripture" (1 Tim. 4:13, NASB). When we publicly read these familiar Scripture verses, we remind our Christmas Eve worshipers that they are a part of God's story of creation, incarnation, and re-creation. Robert Webber reminds us that we must live in God's story, not the world's story: "In the incarnation, God unites with our humanity in Jesus Christ … Reflection on the incarnation and its connection to every aspect of God's story is the missing link in today's theological reflection and worship."

The singing of traditional Christmas carols is another way for individuals to embrace the Christmas narrative on Christmas Eve. Adults must not grow weary of singing these classic carols. These words and melodies must be passed on to our children and grandchildren. Think about it. Do you want your children and grandchildren to think that the only Christmas songs are "Jingle Bells" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"? You must sing the Christmas carols for them and with them. Through singing these carols, the details and theology of the Bethlehem birth become a part of our thinking and our lifestyle.

Consider this verse from the carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem": How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv'n! So God imparts to human hearts the blessing of His heav'n. No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin, Where meek souls will receive Him still the dear Christ enters in. On Christmas Eve enable your people to live in the Christmas story through the singing of traditional Christmas carols. Lead them and sing with them.

The Christmas story is filled with awe and mystery: a miracel pregnancy, a last-minute journey, angels, a guiding star, God in human form. Christmas Eve worship is an opportunity to explore the holy awe of Jesus' birth and the wondrous mystery of the incarnation. The flickering glow of candles can help create this atmosphere of worship. Dim the lights. Expect reverence, silence, and thoughtful reflection. Enable your Christmas Eve worshipers to be still and know that God has come to earth in human flesh.

Gathering around the Lord's table on Christmas Eve can also enhance the truths of awe and mystery. In a few years the Babe of Bethlehem's body would be broken, and His blood would flow from the cross. Paul reminds us that this is "God's mystery, that is, Christ Himself" (Col. 2:2, NASB). Bread and cup are visual reminders of this mystery. Original works of art created by artists in your congregation could also add to the wonder of Christmas Eve worship. Invite these artists to paint, draw, and sculpt their interpretation of the Christmas story.

Through Scripture reading and singing, Christmas Eve worship can proclaim the mystery of Emmanuel, God with us.

Christmas Day worship

Typically and traditionally, December 25 is reserved and protected as a family day for gift giving and eating a sumptuous meal. Most churches do not schedule a time for worship on this day unless it falls on a Sunday. Dec. 25 will be on a Sunday this year, and in 2016. This means you have plenty of time to prepare for your Sunday Christmas Day worship service.

Careful consideration must be given to planning back-to-back worship services for Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. Some churches will choose one or the other. Some will plan both. Some churches will forego their normal Sunday School and have one worship service for everyone on that special Sunday. This is all a matter of scheduling and must be decided by the church staff. Just remember that Christmas Day is the center point of the Christmas season. It is the day we remember and give thanks that Jesus is born!

The Sunday after Christmas Day

The coming of the magi or wise men as recorded in Matthew 2 is an excellent theme for worship on the Sunday after Christmas Day. It is easy to focus on the new year on this Sunday, but please remember that Christmas is a season of 12 days, and it is not yet over. Since most theologians agree that the wise men came to Jerusalem seeking to find the "King of the Jews" (Matt. 2:2) several months after Jesus was born, it is natural to focus on their part of the Christmas story several days after Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The wise men from the east are an important part of the Christmas story, and their coming to Bethlehem conveys two important worship themes.

First, notice the emphasis on international missions. The magi were from the East. They were not Jews. The message is clear. Jesus came for all people, not just the Jews. The story of the wise men leads us to focus on missions. During this worship service, read Matthew 2:1-12 in several different languages by persons from your congregation. Use this worship time to reemphasize a Christmas offering for international missions. Use this Sunday to proclaim the global reality of God's love.

Second, worship is a central theme of this part of the Christmas narrative: "For we saw His star in the east, and have come to worship Him" (Matt. 2:2). "After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him" (Matt. 2:11, NASB). From these verses in Matthew 2 a simple three-point sermon outline on worship can be developed:

  1. True worship is centered on Jesus, the Christ (Matt. 2:2,12).
  2. False worship is centered on selfish motives. (See Herod's motives for worship in Matthew 2:8.)
  3. True worship involves gift giving (Matt. 2:11).

Come, this is the season to worship. Jesus is born! God's Son comes to bring salvation to all people. Brian Doerksen's popular praise and worship song "Come, Now Is the Time to Worship" is an ideal opening song for this Sunday's worship service. The title and opening phrase state that worship is today's theme and the following phrase from the song proclaims that: One day every tongue will confess You are God, One day every knee will bow.

This journey of the magi to Bethlehem provides these two powerful worship themes for the Sunday after Christmas Day. The two verses of another popular praise and worship song, "As We Worship You" written by Tommy Walker, summarizes these themes.

Most of us will not carry Christmas worship themes into January. But we must not conclude Christmas worship on Christmas Eve. Christmas is a season. Invite your congregation to join the "drumming" and lead them in a season of Christcentered worship.

"On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me, twelve drummers drumming ..."

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