No Santa. No Frosty. No Rudolph. No Olaf--in church Christmas services. Does that make me The Grinch? After this weekend's Independence Day festivities, Worship Leaders will begin to plan Christmas programs and let's face it, we need to have a talk.
A few years ago I attended what is, perhaps, the single largest, most epic, over-the-top Church Christmas production in the nation. In addition to a 300 voice choir, phenomenal orchestra and entertaining script, the first act featured a cast of hundreds, bright, colorful costumes, intricately programmed lighting design, choreographed dances and astonishing sets including moving digital video backdrops. It was the most overwhelming production I have ever experienced full of lively fun and color and happiness, All for the Glory and the Honor and the Praise......of SANTA CLAUS........
Um, yeah....so that happened. I mean, there were pyrotechnics, elves descending upon the platform by cables and zip-lining across the stage. There was a reindeer-drawn Sleigh flying (via helicopter shot digital video or CGI) over the metroplex to the church and then an ACTUAL fully functioning sleigh with live Santa flying over the congregation from the top of the highest balcony on cables down to an actual turn around landing on the stage and then back to the top again---TWICE.
Now, I have seen fictional characters used effectively to portray scenes which address issues of faith and encourage the audience to make decisions, this is not what went on here. This wasn't creative evangelism. It was a purely secular storyline without a hint of God anywhere. I get what they were doing. I understand they were going fishing and the first act was the bait, but I don't believe this is what Jesus was talking about when He promised to make His disciples fishers of men.
After intermission, the 2nd Act featured less from the orchestra, some soloists, the choir was out much of the time, no acting or story, little movement, black and gray clothing, static lighting changes. It was the "Jesus" part of the show. And if you brought children, it could have been the boring part where you might consider leaving if they got restless. Now, they did rally in the 3rd Act by ending with the incredible 20 minute Nativity Symphony. There was a gorgeous live nativity with many animals including a flock of live sheep, flying angels and an impressive parade of kings coming to pay tribute to the newborn King. They did give a clear Gospel presentation and invitation to accept Christ at the end. God did receive WORSHIP during the 2nd half of the show. But I felt like all of the fun, energy and creativity, all of the PRAISE had gone into the Santa part of the show. I think Jesus should get it all.
For many years I did not realize the special honor, privilege and responsibility that I had in getting to plan even a public school Christmas concert. Sometimes I even included non-Christmas music. I wince at the missed opportunities. How much more should we carefully consider what we include in our church Christmas programs?
I have personally experienced, at different churches, similar situations to the one mentioned above. Once, our choir special was cut in order to make room for children to sing songs about Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus in weekend church services. I have stood before a congregation playing music as we led them in singing about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa and Frosty...on a mission trip. I have played music accompanying children singing secular songs about mythical cartoon characters as part of a Night of Christmas event as well. Look, it is simply never appropriate to sing songs about Santa Claus, flying reindeer or other fictional characters in church. When I was a kid, if the music leader or children's choir director had led the church in singing songs about fictional, secular cartoon characters at Christmastime, I can tell you the performance would have been followed by a deafening silence--no applause--and a complete lack of the affirming "Amen" after the music ended. Stern looks would have been given and there would probably have been a deacons meeting, perhaps followed by talk of tar and feathers.
One reason I shared the story of the "big" church production above is that I have been part of productions that followed their lead and even used some of the same music. With all of these performances, there is an attempt to contrast Secular Christmas with Sacred Christmas and to show the secular as being the part for children and the sacred as being for grown-ups. It seems kind of like an excuse for including songs that don't belong in church in the first place. We have supplanted the true Gospel for a cheap psychological trick. Here is what I mean.
The word "Gospel" describes an event from the ancient world. When a mighty, victorious, conquering King, a good King, a King who will bring peace and blessing to your city, comes riding into town, he is to be greeted and welcomed with both praise and worship. The people of the city have a choice, to accept his leadership and receive the benefits of His Kingdom, or to reject it and be destroyed. So the right way to greet Him is to have a parade, to come out into the streets with singing and celebration, shouts of acclamation, playing instruments and dancing to invite His Presence and express gratitude that He has come. This is what we do at church when we sing joyful songs of praise and fanfares. THIS is a major part of the theological foundation for music in the church and especially Christmas music!!! This is what we are supposed to get to do at Christmas. We celebrate the reign of the Prince of Peace. We welcome Him among us and we give Him all the glory, honor and praise. If He were to show up and find us celebrating a fake, mythical figure (which is what the false gods and idols were) in HIS house, that would not be good. Think of the epic celebration that is the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Who is ALWAYS the guest of honor whose presence and special season of celebration is ushered in by the parade with creatively designed floats, marching units, musical performances and dancing all bringing in the one, the only....Santa Claus. This is the type of Gospel event we are supposed to be having for JESUS, especially at Christmas when we celebrate His Birth, HIS coming to bring us the blessings of HIS Kingdom. Church should be a place where we honor and celebrate God. The Hebrew word for Gospel means to show forth. We are meant to show forth what God is really like and we cannot do that effectively if we let Santa steal his thunder in church. To worship means to ascribe worth to something. When we allot rehearsal time, practice and even service time to Santa, we are ascribing worth to him, we are worshipping an idol. All of our worship belongs to Jesus. He is the one we ascribe value to. All of our efforts should be for Him.
Next December I will watch my favorite old Christmas cartoons and enjoy a variety of seasonal specials on TV. I will decorate the tree while drinking Hot Chocolate and watching Elf and The Santa Clause. But church should be a refreshing contrast to the world. It is shocking to think that it was actually a Bishop who created the modern idea of Santa Claus by writing a story for his grandchildren. I have honestly been taken aback at the unequally yoked marriage of sacred and secular Christmas music that I have witnessed going on in churches.
We can have a wonderful time together in our Christmas services and programs. We can have fun. I will smile warmly at seasonal songs that reflect on family gatherings and beloved traditions and we can include a few of them in our celebrations at church. We can laugh together and have joy and share fond memories together as a church family. But the mythical characters have got to go. Precious children singing songs about Jesus will warm and soften hearts more than any cheap, worldly alternative. Our musical programs can be joyful and happy, inspiring and moving, emotional and encouraging, while remaining Christ-centered. There is such a rich tapestry of wonderful Christmas carols and hymns for us to draw from. These beloved melodies carry such deep meaning and bring to mind many wonderful memories. Creating our church Christmas services and programs with them will enrich and enhance the experience for all. Let's not forget that filling our churches with the praises of our Lord and the beautiful sounds of Christmas is not only our sacred responsibility, but our great joy and privilege.
Check out the other posts in my series on Worship Ministry: