Within the first few notes, most people can pinpoint the popular Christmas carols and songs of the season.
But more than just recalling a title and singer, that music brings back more deep-seated memories: gathering around a decorated tree, riding in the car to family get-togethers, and celebrating the birth of Jesus during Christmas worship services.
In churches throughout Johnson County, the Advent season has been accented with hymns and carols designed to properly reflect the importance of Christmas. Some are traditional songs dating back hundreds of years, such as “Silent Night” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
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For the pastors responsible for planning music and other aspects of worship, Christmas carols and hymns have tremendous value in bringing the congregation together.
“I believe music connects with us on a deeper level,” said Jason Wetherholt, worship minister and creative team lead at Greenwood Christian Church. “Music hits us in so many ways. From the enjoyment of listening to the growth that comes through seeing the words to the participatory nature of singing. It hits all learning styles, and when done well, captivates us.”
Throughout the weekend of Dec. 8 to 10, nearly 6,000 worshipers packed into Mount Pleasant Christian Church for a series of music-centric services meant to inspire and prepare for the coming holiday celebration.
Children dressed in festive outfits stood in front of a packed worship space and set the tone with classic carols. The church’s worship band gave stirring renditions of “Joy to the World,” surrounded by decorated trees and atmospheric lighting. Orchestral music accompanied the hymn “When I Think Upon Christmas.”
Though the Christmas services were a special event, the emphasis on music falls in line with creating compelling worship at Mount Pleasant Christian Church, said Brian Tabor, worship and arts pastor.
“We place a high emphasis on our weekend services and creating an atmosphere where people can engage in a dynamic worship experience each weekend,” he said. “During the Christmas season, music is a key component in helping us to create that atmosphere.”
To do so, Tabor and his staff weave in a variety of styles and settings, using music to inspire meaningful moments of reflection as well as high-energy celebrations. At Christmastime, that helps the congregation experience a full range of worship opportunities, Tabor said.
While the centerpiece of every worship is the scripture and message from the Bible, music helps engage people in a way few other things can, Tabor said.
“It is our prayer every single weekend that our congregation will come ready to experience worship. Music is moving and emotional; in our application it sets the table for Pastor Chris (Philbeck) to come and share from the Bible,” he said.
Carols and hymns also delivers a message that sticks with people in a way that spoken words cannot.
“Music not only communicates that which can be said, but also what can only be felt or experienced,” said Drew Worthen, director of music at Greenwood United Methodist Church. “How many people throughout the world know all the words to their favorite Christmas carols or songs without perhaps having ever set foot in a church? How many sermons or lectures can you recite from years past?”
At Greenwood United Methodist Church, Worthen plans out the music based on the substance of the message, not necessarily the style or sound of it. He has utilized everything from ancient plainchant to full choir anthems with orchestra to spirituals and New Orleans Dixieland.
The church’s organist and handbell choir add another dimension to the worship music.
“It is my job to give people what they can’t get anywhere else,” he said. “As the modern church faces declining numbers, it becomes paramount that we understand our place in the world. We are here to offer what cannot be gained anywhere else.”
For Wetherholt, music is part of the foundation of tradition that makes the Christmas season so special, Wetherholt said. Certain aspects of the holiday are so closely tied together that something feels off if he and his family don’t get to experience them.
His wife, for example, loves the Bing Crosby-Danny Kaye film “White Christmas,” while Wetherholt prefers “Die Hard.”
At Greenwood Christian Church, the worship team carefully selects the varying songs that set the mood for the service. At least one-third of the week’s worship is dedicated to singing together.
While traditional favorites, such as “O Holy Night” or “Away in the Manger,” are regular features during services, pastors also include popular music to fit with the message of the week, Wetherholt said.
“We even us a secular song to help establish where we’re headed with the message, such as ‘Blue Christmas’ by Elvis as we talk about the emotions the holidays bring,” he said.
Christmas music in particular has a way of connecting with people in unique ways. Singing songs that people are familiar with brings about a sense of peace, hope and joy, said Adam Ferrell, worship director at Emmanuel Church.
Those familiar songs can be a comfort to those in pain, due to the loss of a loved one or some other point of grief in their lives. At the same time, for those who come to Emmanuel Church for the first time, the music can connect to their past worship experience.
“There is definitely an emotional level of engagement when it comes to Christmas songs,” Ferrell said. “So I think people connect emotionally and spiritually to the songs because of the way in which they inspire the light of hope, peace, and joy in the midst of darkness and despair.”
Jason Wetherholt, worship minister and creative team lead, Greenwood Christian Church
Favorite Christmas song: “O Holy Night”
Why? “I think for many of us, there’s so much tradition wrapped up in Christmas that for the most part, the songs or elements or themes that we do or don’t love are usually wrapped up in the experiences we’ve had throughout our lives. I had an amazing great aunt, Delores, who did so very much for our family over the years. And she had an antique music box that played her favorite Christmas song, O Holy Night. I spent each Christmas season of my childhood struck by the beauty, simplicity, and emotional power of that song.”
Stan Glover, associate pastor and music director for Gracepoint Church
Favorite Christmas song: “Silent Night”
Why? “I believe ‘Silent Night’ is my favorite for two reasons. First, the harmonies are very good and great to sing with a congregation as well as a small group. Secondly, the message is very important because so many will forget about the real Christmas story of how Jesus came, born of a virgin, conceived by the Holy Spirit, all God, yet all man. He came to be Savior, by which that particular grace is the only way to heaven. ‘Silent night, holy night, Son of God, love’s pure light, radiant beams from Thy holy face. With the dawn of redeeming grace. Jesus Lord at Thy birth.’ That’s the real message of Christmas.”
Brian Tabor, worship and arts pastor, Mount Pleasant Christian Church
Favorite Christmas song: “O Holy Night”
Why? “It tells the story of the birth of Jesus in such an amazing way. The lyrics are incredibly poignant and paint a moving picture that explains why Jesus came and why this event is so important and relevant to our personal stories still today. The musical setting is absolutely gorgeous as well. This song really embodies the story of Christmas.”
Steven Sherwood, worship pastor, Grace Assembly of God
Favorite Christmas song: “O Come O Come Emmanuel”
Why? “I think that this song best conveys how people must have felt after waiting hundreds of years for the coming Messiah, and then their response of worship. Through the verses, you are reminded of who they had been waiting for and what He meant to the people.”
Adam Ferrell, worship director, Emmanuel Church
Favorite Christmas song: “O Holy Night”
Why? “I have always found the actual melody to this song very moving, and yet haunting in a way. It’s a melody that sticks. Then there’s the words that speak about the how the world had ‘laid in sin’ until Christ appeared at his birth. I love this because it means that with the birth of Jesus everything changes. There is a ‘new and glorious morn’ when Jesus arrives on the scene for the world’s salvation. I also appreciate how the Choruses beckon us to respond to the mystery of Christ’s birth and life. It invites us to respond by falling to our knees in worship and adoration. I love that.”
Drew Worthen, director of music at Greenwood United Methodist Church
Favorite Christmas song: “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”
Why? “Unfortunately, it is not as well-known as most other hymns/carols, largely due to the fact that it’s probably the oldest Christmas-related hymn that is still — even if only occasionally — used today. The English translation is fairly recent, but the original Latin text comes from around 350 B.C., making it one of the closest hymns we have to the time of Christ’s birth. While the original melody is an ancient plain chant, hauntingly beautiful in its simplicity, it has been beautifully embellished in many forms as music progressed throughout the last 1,670 or so years. It also perfectly encapsulates the entire meaning and significance of Christmas.”