Though worship music preferences tend to vary among age groups, the music of Christmas has a much different effect.
Throughout the season churches generally choose beloved traditional Christmas hymns over less spiritual contemporary odes to the holiday, said Mike Harland, director of LifeWay Worship. The music unifies those who sing and those who listen regardless of generational preferences.
“Christmas is when churches are singing familiar music more than any time of year,” Harland said. “That should provide some lessons but I don’t know if we always connect the dots.”
Harland said time-honored Christmas hymns are a highlight of the season, which is why it’s common to see social media posts of congregations singing “Silent Night” at candlelight services, for example. The familiarity factor is a big part of that but so is the simplicity.
“We sometimes overproduce our music, and the congregation feels the option to watch and not participate,” Harland said. “When a church goes a cappella, everyone sings. It’s usually a song they know well and they know it’s all about what they’re singing.”
Participation in singing is valuable for worshippers at all stages of faith, Harland believes.
“It is important for people to sing to and over each other because of the impact singing has on our souls,” he said. “Singing has a far greater impact on the singer than listening does on the listener.”
Worship leaders can learn from music at Christmas time and use that knowledge to plan how they do worship throughout the year, Harland said, and he should know.
Music tells the story
He has thought a great deal about worship music preferences and shares some of what he’s learned in a new book, “Worship Essentials: Growing a Healthy Worship Ministry Without Starting a War!” The book was released in November by B&H Publishing.
“A lot of churches and leaders don’t have a sense of what they’re trying to accomplish with music,” he said. “The aim of ‘Worship Essentials’ is to help them understand how music fits into the overall strategy of the church. This is for leaders of all stripes.”
Harland identifies four key values he says transcends preferences, generational gaps and other issues that can affect a church’s worship ministry:
- Tell the story.
- Make true disciples.
- Engage the body.
- Aspire with purpose.
Because the lyrics of songs stay in the minds of those who sing them, worship music has an impact long after a worship service, which is why Harland advises worship leaders to consider how the gospel is shared in music selections.
“Think about the songs that are sung in your church week after week,” he writes. “Imagine that someone started attending your church that had never read the Bible, never heard a sermon and had never heard the name of Jesus in his or her life. … How much of the gospel story would they hear in the songs you sing?”
Because Christmas is such a big part of the culture churches could choose songs based on many factors other than theological ones. However, the traditional hymns of Christmas, those that tell the story of the birth of Christ, continue to be sung and cherished.
‘Connect with culture’
The message communicated through music focuses on who God is and what He’s done for us through Jesus, but Christmas worship music doesn’t have to stop with the birth of Christ, Harland said.
“Christmas music is a beautiful way to connect with culture,” he said. “But to go further than that and all the way with the gospel — what a beautiful opportunity we have to do that at Christmas as musicians.”
Finding public domain Christmas songs
The melodies of beloved Christmas hymns seem to be everywhere during the holiday season, but just because the songs are familiar doesn’t mean churches and performers have unrestricted permission to sing them.
“Many of the great Christmas standards are in the public domain,” said Mike Harland, director of LifeWay Worship. That means the songs are not copyrighted and belong to the community rather than the creator.
Most traditional Christmas hymns fall into this category and can be used freely in any setting (see sidebar, below). For example, public performances of Franz Gruber’s “Silent Night,” composed in 1818, or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” written in 1863, are fine, whether sung during a Sunday morning service streamed live online, a public performance in the town square or a recording made available for sale.
However, modern arrangements of those familiar songs are a different story.
A good example is Casting Crowns’ rendition of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” released in 2008, a copyrighted musical arrangement requiring appropriate licensing.
Though songs may not seem tangible like houses or other personal property, they are intellectual property for the songwriters who depend on royalties for their livelihood, said Christian Copyright Solution’s (CCS) Sheila Crocker.
“Almost every person who writes a song here in the United States belongs to a performance rights organization, so if the song is used in any public performance, they (the songwriters) collect the royalties,” Crocker said. “That’s how they get paid.”
Singing a copyrighted song during a worship service may be permissible under the Religious Service Exemption of U.S. copyright law. But streaming services that include copyrighted music, making copies of CDs for rehearsals, distributing recordings, printing a program, posting a song to the internet, recording a service for shut-ins or selling a DVD of a performance are not covered by the exemption, which is why churches should be careful when it comes to copyright, Harland said.
Two companies, CCS and Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI), provide blanket licenses that cover the “majority” of copyright coverage needed by churches. CCS offers blanket performance licenses, while CCLI offers a blanket copyright license to reproduce, distribute and, to a limited extent, make audio reproductions or derivative works.
Christmas music is included in these blanket performance licenses. But if money is changing hands, churches and performers should assume a license is needed and take steps to get the right one, Harland said.
His advice? Call the publisher directly to ask.
“Publishers appreciate someone taking due diligence if they’re unsure what permissions they have,” he said. (Carrie Brown McWhorter)
Songs in the public domain
- Angels We Have Heard on High
- Away in a Manger
- Go Tell It on the Mountain
- Hallelujah Chorus
- Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
- Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring
- Joy to the World
- O Come, All Ye Faithful
- O Come, O Come Emmanuel
- O Holy Night
- O Little Town of Bethlehem
- The First Noel
Songs not in the public domain
- Carol of the Bells
- Do You Hear What I Hear?
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
- Little Drummer Boy
- The Christmas Song
- White Christmas
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