A lay leader called with a problem I suspect some church leaders are also wrestling with: a likely low attendance on the last Sunday of the year – Christmas Day, Dec. 25.
He asked for some ideas about a “Lessons and Carols” service as a way to have an easier service working with limited numbers and likely weary pastors and organists.
While not necessarily created with smaller churches in mind, the Lessons and Carols service can be adapted to fit.
I realize this may be heresy to some readers, given the elegant origins of the service.
It is, indeed, a sublime service for large choirs, rumbling pipe organs and a great crowd ready to sing boisterously when a popular Christmas carol is offered as a congregational hymn amid great pomp and formalism.
The tradition of the Lessons and Carols service is nearly a century old, first held by Kings’ College in Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
You can read about the history of the service via the college’s website and view what the “mother church” of this tradition has offered in recent years through posted PDFs of worship bulletins (1997 to present).
You can also hear recent BBC recordings. Look particularly at the special carol commissioned in 2015 to offer reflection on the world refugee crisis and the resonance with the Gospel of Matthew’s story of the flight from danger undertaken by the holy family.
Calvin College and its related seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, affiliated with the Christian Reformed Church, offers a great website of worship resources, particularly in the more Reformed tradition.
I suspect that elements of this website might be helpful for you to bookmark for treasure troves to explore for present and future worship planning.
Calvin offers copies of several years’ worth of the college’s own Lessons and Carols services, where there’s a thematic variation each year. It again serves as a touchstone for different ideas around the same concept.
The United Methodist Book of Worship has a Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols available to review online.
I suggest if you explore this with a congregation that you read through the lessons outlined by the form and then spend time looking at your church hymnal to see how your hymnal may or may not lend itself.
I like to spend the first half of these services avoiding anything that’s too much like a traditional “Christmas carol” (overly familiar) and give honor to the more pensive “Advent hymns.”
I have worked in churches where the hymnal’s editorial decisions limited the Advent hymns and stressed a higher number of the “usual suspect” Christmas carols, so it may be a choice to bring in a hymn from another source (with due copyright clearances obtained if not in public domain).
For some smaller churches, trying to sort out the Christmas Day service when numbers may be fewer, this could help provide a different way to do a “Christmas Day hymn sing.”
You could add in the elements of a pastoral prayer, an offering and perhaps forgo a sermon for the morning, focusing on the lessons to share the abundant good news of Christ.
Jerrod H. Hugenot is the associate executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of New York State. His writings can also be found on his blog, Preaching and Pondering, where a version of this article first appeared. It is used with permission.