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At Issue

When to 'Fa-la-la'

By Michael Webster

Ministers know things that lay people don’t. We know these things because we are wise beyond imagining. Because we are exquisitely educated. And, oh yeah, because we are much, much closer to God than ordinary people are.

We know, for example, that change is not necessarily bad — it can often be a good thing, in fact, especially if it’s happening to other people.

We know that a church is not a business — and also that churches can learn from the business world about marketing and employment practices and transparent financial reporting.
We know that the church is larger than any one congregation. It breaks our hearts to see a faithful remnant pour their last nickel into a sinking ship, when their resources of money and energy could be put to use furthering the ministry of Jesus in some new and productive way.  

And here is something else that ministers know: the season of Christmas does not end on Dec. 25 — that’s when it begins. The month before Christmas is Advent, and those are the Sundays to sing Advent hymns. And behold! Voices United has 34 lovely Advent hymns. We couldn’t sing them all on the four Sundays of Advent if we tried.

Ministers know that it is wrong to sing carols about the birth of Jesus before we celebrate the birth of Jesus. It would be like singing Easter hymns on Good Friday, like planting tomatoes before Victoria Day, like showing up 20 minutes early for a dentist appointment, like . . . well, you get the idea.

And ministers know — or ought to know — that despite our ability to speak for God, lay people couldn’t give a darned sock about what we think. They love Christmas carols, and they don’t love Advent hymns, many of which — let’s face it — are too dreary to be played at a funeral.

I know it’s heresy, but what if lay people don’t need me to tell them what’s best for them? What if we sang Christmas carols when everybody except the minister wants to sing them and then stopped singing them just when we’re supposed to start? What if we did what we know to be wrong?

It’s the classic dilemma of the servant leader (or the leader servant, if you prefer): when to serve the people’s stated needs and when to tell them what their real needs are. Finding that balance is a constant struggle for me, and I usually err on the servant side of the equation.

For years, though, I insisted on singing three Advent hymns on each of the Sundays leading up to Christmas. I allowed one carol per week as a sop to those recalcitrant pew-sitters who stubbornly refused to sip from the fount of my sagacity. Advent dirges are good for us, I told them. Leaving Christmas music for Christmas builds anticipation and teaches patience, I said. Singing carols in mid-December is like opening your presents before Christmas, I insisted. And even though I knew these things because of my, you know, direct access to the throne of God, nobody cared.

Lately, I have given up the struggle. We sing Christmas carols all December, and I throw in the odd Advent hymn just for old times’ sake. It’s remarkable how much happier people are. It’s enough to make me wonder if maybe lay people know some things that ministers don’t.




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