We’re now in the season of Advent, the liturgical season leading up to Christmas. The word Advent means, literally, “coming”—and this season helps us not only remember the expectation for the Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago but to prepare ourselves with expectation for Jesus’ coming again in glory.
If, like me, you lead worship at a church that observes this season in some way, you’re probably wondering what kind of songs work as Advent songs and what you’re supposed to do during this liturgical season. Here are some suggestions for ways you can help your congregation prepare for Jesus’ coming over these next few weeks.
Wait until Christmas to sing Christmas songs
Shopping malls put Christmas decorations up right after Halloween. Radio stations play Christmas music while Thanksgiving turkey is still on your plate. Why in the world would we wait so long to sing Christmas songs at church? Because the waiting makes a point. Making your congregation wait until Christmas to sing Christmas songs is a tangible way of fostering an atmosphere of anticipation and expectation. It might even unsettle some people. But through your intentional leadership, you can help people see that this is a season to prepare for Jesus’ coming. Go crazy on Christmas Eve, Christmas day and the Sunday after Christmas. Hold your horses during Advent.
Sing Advent hymns
“O Come, O Come Emmanuel”
Probably the most well-known Advent hymn. It has eight verses, some of which were meant to be sung on certain days of the week leading up to Christmas. I usually use verses one, four, six and seven. There are lots of different versions of the text of this hymn floating around. I use the text from the 1982 Episcopal hymnal, although I’m sure there are better texts out there.
“Come Thou Long Expected Jesus”
Sometimes I’ll give this hymn a driving 4/4 beat, and in between some of the verses I’ll use the refrain from Brenton Brown’s “All Who Are Thirsy” that says “come, Lord Jesus, come.”
“Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending” (verses one, two, three, five)
Not the most well-known hymn in the world, but one of my favorites. I prefer the tune Helmsley. Don’t rush it and sing it too fast. Let the words really sink in.
“Creator of the Stars of Night”
A simple, tender Advent hymn.
Other hymns that aren’t technically “Advent hymns” but that still have a theme of expectancy for Jesus’ return:
“How Great Thou Art” (lyrics)
Verse three talks about “When Christ shall come…”
“Jesus Shall Reign”
I like the additional/alternate lyrics courtesy of Robert Critchley. Chord chart.
“Come Thou Fount”
The often-omitted fourth verses talks about “…that day when, freed from sinning, I shall see thy lovely face…” and says “come, my Lord, no longer tarry…” A great prayer for Advent. I like the additional/alternate lyrics courtesy of Bob Kauflin.
My friend, Alex Mejias, released a great CD of re-worked Advent hymns. Check it out at his website, http://www.highstreethymns.com.
There are many great traditional hymns that work well during this season. There are also a good number of more contemporary songs that are fitting. Here are some suggestions:
Some new (congregational) Advent songs
“Creation Sings the Father’s Song” Stuart Townend, Keith and Kristyn Getty.
I wrote in detail about why I like this song. You can see that post here. Basically, the song hits on the themes of creation, fall, redemption and consummation in three verses and a chorus. Amazing. The third verse is great for Advent, talking about how “creation longs for His return…”
“Glorious” Paul Baloche and Brenton Brown.
Off of Paul Baloche’s CD of the same name, the last verse sings of how “the hope of his returning fills the universe”.
“Almighty” Paul Baloche and Brenton Brown.
Again, off of the CD Glorious, this song is full of imagery of Jesus’ return. Here’s verse three: “One day You will judge the nations, You’ll reward Your servants, both the great and small. On that day, those who rose against You will finally confess You as the Lord of all.”
“There Is a Higher Throne” Keith and Kristyn Getty.
A song full of the hope of heaven. Very easy to sing, a great and catchy chorus, and rich truth.
“From the Squalor of a Borrowed Stable” Stuart Townend.
Great song. Verse one: Jesus is born. Verse two: Jesus lives among us, is tempted in every way as we are but does not sin. Verse three: Jesus suffers death in our place on the cross, defeating death. Verse four: Jesus reigns victoriously at his Father’s right hand, “interceding for His own beloved, till His Father calls to bring them home.” Wow.
“Glorious and Mighty” Joel Sczebel, Todd Twining and Bob Kauflin.
Verse three says: “Majesty, we’ll sing with creation when You come again in the clouds. Every knee will bow down and worship the one true God.”
“Lord, We Wait” Stuart Townend, Keith and Kristyn Getty.
This isn’t one of Townend/Getty’s most well-know songs, but I think it’s a fantastic song for Advent. It’s short, easy and right on target for this season. Verse one says: “Lord, we wait for the day of your appearing. Lord, we wait for your coming in the clouds.” Verse two: “In that day, death is swallowed up in victory. In that day, sin and death shall be no more.” The chorus declares: “With a shout the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised to life, and we will meet him in the air.” Great Advent song.
“There is a Redeemer” Melody Green
This might be considered a “hymn” in some circles, but in other circles it’s still pretty new. Either way, it’s still a great song. It points us to Jesus “our Redeemer, name above all names,” reminds us that he was slain for sinners, that we “will see his face” when we “stand in glory,” and reminds us that God has given us “His Spirit till the work on earth is done.”
Remember: We aren’t waiting for Jesus to be born. We are waiting for him to return.
Songs that express a longing for the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem might work well for Christmas pageants, but might be confusing in a congregational context. As we say in the communion liturgy in Anglican churches, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” I’m looking for songs that help articulate a longing for the risen and victorious Jesus Christ to return. Sure, it would be easier (and more fun) to crank out “O Come All Ye Faithful” or “Joy to the World” the first Sunday of December. But we wait.
Come, Lord Jesus, come.