It can be tempting, this time of year, to sing songs in our church services that are well-beloved and widely-known but many of which lack any Gospel-truth. We’ve grown up with them, heard them every Christmas, shopped for presents with them in the background, and sung them countless times. It’s not that they’re evil – they’re just fluffy. They’re nice and comfortable and sweet (i.e. syrupy), make an innocuous reference to a baby once in a while, have a catchy melody, and don’t bother anyone. They can be sung in church or used as background music to a commercial about a Ford Taurus.
There’s nothing wrong with syrup… on pancakes. There is a problem with syrup in church. It tastes sweet and it makes people feel happy, but it has no nutritional value. Half an hour after the service is over they’re hungry again. You’ve missed your chance to feed them eternal truth and you can’t get it back. Oh the deceptive allure of syrup.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when choosing songs for your Christmas services to help you discern whether you’re feeding your congregation syrup or not:
Is Jesus presented as the glorious Savior or as a cuddly little baby?
Yes, he was wrapped “in swaddling cloths” (Luke 2:7), but “the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from this time forth and evermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this” (Isaiah 9:6-7). Yes, he was laid “in a manger” (Luke 2:7), but he would one day bear “our griefs and (carry) our sorrows”, we would esteem “him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted”, he would be “wounded for our transgressions… crushed for our iniquities”, and upon him would be the “chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4-5). The songs we sing at Christmas should celebrate the fact that “the word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14a) and that “we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14b).
Do I have to lower my theological standards in order to use this song?
“It’s really not that big of a deal to just sing this song once a year.” “Loosen up a little bit – it’s Christmas – we’re going to have a lot of visitors.” “It won’t hurt anybody.” “People just want to sing Christmas carols this time of year.” “We’ve sung that song at the end of our services for 25 years. Relax.”
It is a travesty whenever churches justify watering down the Gospel for any reason, and through any medium. Upholding biblical truth either matters supremely or it doesn’t matter at all. Singing bible-saturated and God-centered songs either matters at every single service or it doesn’t matter at all. Don’t take a vacation from safe-guarding the theology of your songs just because it’s Christmas. Encourage, explain, and defend intentional and careful song selection all year round.
Will this song present the Gospel to a potential non-believer who is visiting with his family?
Put yourself in the shoes of a 21-year-old college student who is being dragged to church by his Mom on Christmas Eve. Will he hear predictable, fluffy, Ford Taurus commercial background music – or will he hear the good news of the Gospel?
Songs teach. Syrup leaves you hungry.
Does the song reference there being snow on the ground?
There isn’t a single biblical reference to there being snow on the ground when Jesus was born. There may have been, but there may not have been. It does seem highly unlikely that there would have been “shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8) if it was snowing. The more likely scenario is that our image of snowy Bethlehem is more influenced by Charles Dickens than scripture. A song referencing snow might indicate a theological sloppiness and blurriness.
Does it “beat around the ‘gospel bush’”?
Bob Kauflin just posted on his blog some suggestions for new Christmas songs. This quote struck me: “From my experience, Christmas carols are a mixed bag. Some beat around the ‘gospel bush’ and hint at a universal brotherhood, while others clearly proclaim the good news that a Savior has been born to rescue rebellious sinners. I lean towards the second.”
Say no to syrup in your Christmas songs. Lean firmly towards the “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10).