Years ago, I’d always be involved with the yearly Christmas cantata (most likely written by Tom Fettke and Camp Kirkland). The choir would start learning the music in September, and by Christmas we’d add a few orchestra instruments and perform a big Sunday night concert in mid-December.
The experience was lots of fun, and some churches still do the yearly cantata. My friend Marty Funderburk just wrote a wonderful cantata (orchestrated by Dave Williamson) and Lifeway published it this year. Check out The Highest Glory—I especially loved Marty’s gorgeous “Come Home”—a great song for visitors who haven’t been to church in awhile.
I recently talked to a typical mid-30s church music director who, while in a more blended church, still receives the choral packets from the major publishers, yet can’t imagine doing a cantata. For today’s contemporary church and worship leader, the Christmas cantata just doesn’t seem to work for many reasons: The music style isn’t contemporary enough, churches these days have praise teams, not choirs, and the targeted young families don’t have time to volunteer for a big production.
As years progressed, the Christmas cantata, in the hands of the megachurches, evolved into a Christmas spectacular complete with dancing gingerbread men and secular classics. I know of several megachurches who have spent big bucks (up to and over $100k) on ticketed Christmas concerts. Even though they’ve made their money back from ticket sales and had sell-out crowds, they’ve noticed something—visitors just didn’t come back. I guess the unchurched wanted to punch their Biannual Church Attendance Card (with the other visit being Easter Sunday), but didn’t hear much that touched their hearts. So these megachurches have pulled the plug on their productions.
How about getting back to basics this year for the holidays? Instead of putting all your effort into a big performance, why not spread your resources and strategically target your Christmas services for maximum impact (that impact being reaching the unsaved and growing your church).
Make every December Sunday special: Back in the cantata days, I’d notice so much time was spent getting ready for the Big Show that Sunday services suffered. Pull out all the stops for every Sunday in December with your best talent and creativity. Prepare special music, readings, videos, advent candles, skits and add unique instruments to your band you wouldn’t normally use (cello, tin whistle, bells, etc.)—anything to make each Sunday service unique.
Sing Christmas carols: This suggestion might sound ridiculous, but you’d be surprised at the contemporary churches who refuse to sing Christmas music at Christmas! Last year, I visited a contemporary church in mid-December that didn’t sing a single Christmas song. The year before, I visited a well-known megachurch the Sunday before Christmas and they didn’t use any Christmas music, either. What’s going on here?
Some hipster worship leaders are simply terrified by Christmas music. I suppose they feel it’s not cool enough, and if they led a Christmas carol they would become less hip by association. One contemporary pastor told me he “hates” Christmas music because he feels their typically cutting-edge worship music comes to a screeching halt during December.
I see his point, but he just needs to do a little searching: He’ll find many cutting-edge worship artists have, by now, released a Christmas recording with both new Christmas worship songs and contemporized carols. I’m sure he can find something to slip into his praise set.
I have some distressing news for you if you’re in this type of church: Your congregation expects to sing and hear Christmas music at Christmas. They, unfortunately, are not as hip as you think you are.
Make Christmas Eve a spiritual event: Christmas can be a hard time for many people—they’re lonely, they’ve lost loved ones or have experienced calamity, and the feelings are somehow magnified during the holidays. If these hurting people make it to your Christmas Eve service, give them hope, not hoopla. Use Scripture, proclaim the good news and pray the Lord leads those who need Him to your service.
Encourage your congregation to invite their friends: Now that you’ve got a game plan for a meaningful December that will touch hearts, sell it to your congregation. Tell them what you’re planning and why, and encourage them to invite their friends. Pundits may argue, “But that doesn’t work these days!” Tell that to the Newsprings, Elevations and the many other gigachurches who weekly encourage their people to invite others. They’re exploding because they invite people to their churches … and those people keep coming back.
Bottom Line: Let’s shift our Christmas perspective from performing to reaching those who need Jesus.