Christmas is a special time of year for many Christians as they gather to celebrate the mystery that is the birth of our Savior. However, for many worship leaders, the Christmas season is a mystery, a conundrum, an enigma, for an entirely different reason: Christmas carols.
For many years, a decade or more, I noticed a decline in the singing of Christmas carols in churches across America. Even though I’m beginning to see that trend reverse, there is still a resistance to Christmas carols from some worship leaders.
Here are a few reasons why:
- Christmas Carols are often written in traditional, hymnlike styles and basically sound old. This can be a inward struggle for some worship leaders who strive most of the year to create or maintain a modern style only to feel like they’ve been jerked back hundreds of years by one month every year. Many feel like they are caving into their stylistic principles just because it’s Christmas.
- Christmas Carols are often written in key or time signatures unusual to worship leaders and instrumentalists, therefore making them more difficult to play and forcing preparation times to go longer. Worship leaders are often puzzled as to how to lead people into the presence of God when their team is struggling with figuring out the music.
- Christmas Carols have the dual problem of being wordy and containing antiquated lyrics, making them less relevant to many congregations. To compound the problem, most churches typically only sing them at Christmas, so worship leaders, singers, and congregation members find it easy to forget the words while finding it hard to decipher them. Being tied to the music or a confidence monitor for words often makes it difficult for a worship leader to lead others in worship.
- Christmas Carols change chords often, sometimes containing 3 to 4 chords per measure. This compounds the problem for worship leaders and their teams when they are already struggling with an overabundance of unusual key and time signatures and unusual lyrics. Because of this, worship teams are sometimes frustrated, glued to the music or lead sheet, and completely self-focused, making it extremely difficult to lead people deeper into worship.
- Sometimes, Christmas Carols just don’t appeal to people and they can’t explain why. I asked one worship leader why he never led Christmas Carols and he answered, “Because they’re stupid and I hate them.”
So what are worship leaders to do? Should they just quit singing Christmas carols and ignore the Christmas season altogether? Should they completely cave in and go traditional for one month of every year? Is there anyway to strike a balance with modern worship music and Christmas carols?
I did a quick survey of a few worship leaders I know who are successfully integrating carols into their times of musical worship. Here are a few of their answers:
- “When possible, simplify and rewrite the chord progressions by allowing for less harmonic movement. For example, some hymns and carols may have 3 or 4 chords per measure of music. Try reducing it to 1 or 2 when possible.”
- “Mash them up. Think through how to combine Christmas Carols and worship songs that can be sung in conjunction with each other. This can be done by adding in the chorus of a new or favorite worship song as a tag to a Christmas Carol or vice versa.”
- “Update the carols musically and creatively with production elements, different arrangements, varying instrumentation, modernizing the chords while keeping the melody, mashing them up with current worship songs, and writing extra choruses and bridges with modern words.”
- “Don’t wait until right before the service to prepare. Find an arrangement with a demonstration your team can listen to throughout the week. Provide the music or lead sheets for them in advance and ask them to come to practice prepared to worship.”
- “Use mashups. Every Christmas song we’ve done this year has been a mashup with other songs our congregation already knows well. This way, the song isn’t such a shock to the system for everyone involved, including the musicians onstage. It makes the music easier to play, even familiar in some situations. It’s actually been really exciting for me to find interesting ways to combine new and old songs in a fun way. I the fact that it forces me to think in creative ways…”
- “Have a rehearsal before your pre-service runthrough to prepare your Christmas songs. Taking time to work through songs without the pressure of a service starting in an hour or less gives the worship team time to perfect the songs, allowing them to feel more natural to you.”
To millions of people, the Christmas season, Christmas carols, and Christmas songs provide a reminder that God loved the world so much that He gave us Jesus. In this hectic world, Christmas carols can slow us down, help us forget about our frustrating pace of life, and remind us of the real meaning of Christmas. Hopefully, the suggestions above can help worship leaders and worship teams not be frustrated while preparing to lead people in times of worship utilizing carols in the Christmas season.
(Special thanks to my worship leader friends for their input)