A Contemporary Service of Lessons and Carols

UPDATED: 11.27.12. This post details the songs I chose for this service in 2010. I’ve added the changes I made in 2011.

This past weekend at my church, our weekend worship services were services of Lessons and Carols. These might be my favorite services of the year when we hear the story of redemption all the way from the fall of Adam in Genesis 3 to the Word made flesh in John 1. After each reading we either sing a traditional carol or sing a special (not congregational) song.

Here’s how we described this service to our congregation in the leaflet:

The Service of Lessons and Carols had its origin at Truro Cathedral (England) on Christmas Eve, 1880, when the Bishop of Truro, F.W. Benson, developed a service of scripture readings and supporting carols.

Some 38 years later in 1918, this format was adapted for Christmas at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, England. The BBC broadcast from King’s College helped to popularize the Service of Lessons and Carols, which Cathedrals and small churches throughout the world quickly duplicated.

The heart of the service continues to this day – that is, the retelling of the Christians’ story of faith from the fall of Adam to the coming of the Word Incarnate.

I thought you might find it helpful/interesting to see the order of this service (we’ve adapted it a bit) and what songs we sang:

Once in Royal David’s City
Traditional carol. There are a lot of versions of the wording of this hymn out there. Some good, some not so good. For instance, in some versions, the closing line of the hymn says that one day in heaven, “all in white shall wait around”. Since I don’t think that captures the wonder of heaven, I opted for a different version. I also wrote a middle verse that talks about what Jesus accomplished on the cross. If you want to see the text I used, click here.


Bidding Prayer

Dear People of God: In the season of Advent, it is our responsibility and joy to prepare ourselves to hear once more the message of the Angels, to go to Bethlehem and see the Son of God lying in a manger. Let us hear and heed in Holy Scripture the story of God’s loving purpose from the time of our rebellion against him until the glorious redemption brought to us by his holy Child Jesus, and let us look forward to the  early remembrance of his birth with hymns and songs of praise. But first, let us pray for the needs of his whole world, for peace and justice on earth, for the unity and mission of the Church for which he died, and especially for his Church in our country and in this city. And because he particularly loves them, let us 
remember in his name the poor and helpless, the cold, the hungry and the oppressed, the sick and those who mourn, the lonely and unloved, the aged and little children, as well as all those who do not know and love the Lord Jesus Christ. Finally, let us remember before God his pure and lowly Mother, and that whole multitude which no one can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom, in Jesus, we are one for evermore. And now, to sum up all these petitions, let us pray in the words which Christ himself has taught us, saying:

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

Leader: The Almighty God bless us with his grace; Christ give us the joys of everlasting life; and to the fellowship of the citizens above may the King of Angels bring us all. Amen.

The First Lesson: Genesis 3:1-19. Adam and Eve rebel against God

Song (2010): So Long Moses
In order to fill in the gaps between the Genesis reading and the next (Isaiah 9) reading, I thought singing Andrew Peterson’s song “So Long Moses” would help. This song masterfully tells the story of Israel’s longing for a king, the joy of a good king in David, their longing for another king who would rule with the sword, and the prophecies that told them their true King would actually be “rejected, despised” and be pierced for his people. This is a challenging song with several time signature changes and an alternate tuning on the acoustic guitar. But we practiced, had the help of a click track in our ear monitors that was in time with a video one of our volunteers made to help illustrate the lyrics, and was an effective way of using a non-congregational song to point people to Jesus. You can purchase the song here.

In 2011 I used another song from Andrew Peterson’s CD called “Passover Us”. It fills in the blank between the Genesis reading and the Isaiah reading. Before the song I introduced it by saying that this is a song that helps us hear how even in the next book of Exodus, God was preparing his people for their Messiah, by saving his chosen people through the shed blood of an innocent lamb.

The Second Lesson: Isaiah 9:2-7. Christ’s birth and role of peace and justice are foretold by Isaiah

Song (2010): O Come, O Come Emmanuel
I wrote a new arrangement for this familiar carol that had the first two verses/refrains in a driving 6/8 feel, the third verse in the traditional 4/4 feel, and the final verse and refrains back in 6/8. It seemed to work (it took the congregation about half a verse to get used to it) and was a nice change from how we’ve done this song for years and years.

In 2011 we sang the hymn “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”. We gave it a good groove, pretty percussive, with majestic organ at the end, and it really seemed to work. You can see my chord chart for it here. 

The Third Lesson: Isaiah 11:1-9. The peace that Christ will bring is foreshown

Song (2010): Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending
I love this hymn. You can read the text I used for this hymn by clicking here, and you can listen to a recording of how we played it below.

In 2011 we sang “O Come O Come Emmanuel” in this spot.

The Fourth Lesson: Micah 5:2-4. The prophet Micah foretells the glory of little Bethlehem

Song (2010): O Little Town of Bethlehem
We sang verses 1, 3, and 5 of this hymn and you can hear a bit of the feel we gave it below.

In 2011 we sang “Lo He Comes with Clouds Descending” in this spot.

Then right to another song, as the service transitions from the Old Testament to the New.

Song (2010): Matthew’s Begats
To help transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament, I sang Andrew Peterson’s musical adaptation of Matthew chapter 1. I gave a short introduction to help people understand why this song could be helpful. I memorized this song a few years ago and have sung it a couple of years at our Lessons and Carols services and it’s actually seemed to be helpful for people. This is the same album, “Behold the Lamb”, that “So Long Moses” is on. Great CD.

In 2011 I wrote an instrumental of “We Three Kings” that we did here. Looking back, it wasn’t the best choice, since that song is more of an Epiphany theme.

The Fifth Lesson: Luke 2:1-7. Saint Luke tells of the birth of Jesus

Song (2010): Beautiful Baby Boy
We sang a special song here that I wrote last year about how the beautiful baby boy, Jesus, would one day be nailed to a tree and crucified in our place. You can listen to it below (or see this post for a chord chart).

In 2011 we used Andrew Peterson’s “Labor of Love” here. This is one of the most beautiful modern Christmas songs ever written.

The Sixth Lesson: Luke 2:8-20. The shepherds go to Bethlehem

Song: Angels We Have Heard on High
We used the same king of feel that Chris Tomlin gave this song on his Christmas album, but sang it much lower than him, using the key of E.

The Seventh Lesson: John 1:1-14. The Word became flesh

In 2011 we sang “O Come All Ye Faithful” here. I think we did 3 verses.


Song (2010): Hark the Herald Angels Sing
Maybe the best Christmas carol ever written. Such amazing truth captured in three verses: “…mild He lays His glory by, born that man no more may die. Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth”.

In 2011, since we inserted “O Come All Ye Faithful” before the message, we omitted this carol here and went straight into the prayers.

The Prayers
We had a short time of corporate prayer, thanking God the Father for giving his Son, and praying for those who need to hear this good news.

The Offering (2010): My Soul Magnifies the Lord
During the offering we learned this great song from Chris Tomlin’s album and the congregation stood and joined in at the end.

In 2011 we used Bob Kauflin’s “In the First Light”. I took Travis Cottrell’s version of it and made an arrangement that was slightly less complicated.

The Blessing

Song: Joy to the World
We were again inspired this year by Chris Tomlin’s arrangement. We didn’t do the chorus he’s written, and took it down several steps.

In 2011 we sang “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” here.

One reason why I like this service so much is because it’s a challenge each year. How do we help people hear this familiar story like it was the first time? How can we use congregational songs, carols, and special music to underline, fill in, and help people respond to the good news of the Gospel? This is our challenge every week, but particularly at Christmas. Hopefully some of these ideas are helpful to you – and if you’ve ever done services like this, I’d love your ideas too.

11 thoughts on “A Contemporary Service of Lessons and Carols”

  1. Thanks for these – I’ll bookmark this for future reference. Do you have the chord chart/sheet music available/for sale for “Beautiful Baby Boy” somewhere?

  2. I was so touched by the song Beautiful Baby Boy when I heard it at your church last Sunday. I have been googling all week to find out who sang this song and lyrics. I couldn’t find anything and today thankfully, I just stumbled onto your blog!

    That song is amazing! Can you publish the lyrics in your blog? What a beautiful and powerful song. Maybe you can post on YouTube somehow too!

  3. Jamie: this was a fantastic service.
    I’ve also been looking for the beautiful
    Baby boy song but could not find it anywhere.
    I would love to be able to find a recorded version!

  4. I’m planning our Carol service for this year and came upon your site. Loved your song beautiful baby boy are the chords/sheet music available any where. God bless

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