Four Unique Advent Traditions for Your Worship Services

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The first Sunday in Advent is only seven weeks away!

Advent is a journey; that season of waiting and preparation leading up to Christmas. It’s the beginning of a new liturgical year, a time when we gather in darkness and wait for the Light of the World to come again. 

We re-read the ancient prophecies, we hold on to hope, we remind ourselves what it means to trust in God’s promises and receive God’s peace. We celebrate the gift of joy to the world and the light God shines into the dark places.

Traditionally, each Sunday in Advent has a theme, often: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. Your church may use these themes in a different order or choose different themes based on the selected Scripture readings for those Sundays. Regardless, there is often some sort of progression through the four weeks of Advent, marked by the four candles in the Advent wreath, culminating in a service on Christmas Eve, where we light the Christ Candle in the middle.

Like the holiday season, in general, your church likely has a set of traditions tied to Advent - things you always do. Traditions are wonderful, but sometimes, doing the same things, the same way, in the same order, year after year can begin to feel a bit stale. You may feel like you’re going through the motions without pausing to reflect and experience the journey anymore. If you can relate, perhaps it’s time to consider a few new things you can do in worship to help bring this season to life once more.

Ready to start planning? Here are four unique Advent traditions to consider including your worship services this year:

Four Unique Advent Traditions for Your Worship Services

No. 1: Add underscoring to the Advent Wreath liturgy

Most of you probably include a moment in worship to light the Advent wreath. This is usually accompanied with some sort of spoken liturgy - a reminder about what each candle signifies and a prayer for it to be so in our lives. Some liturgy may be short and sweet, no more than a few sentences. Others may include a passage of Scripture and a prayer, and still others may include a responsive element to be spoken by the congregation. 

Adding a musical underscore to this part of the service is a simple and meaningful way to make this moment stand out, to help everyone focus on the words being read, the prayers being offered, the light being shared. Start the underscore as the reading begins and continue through the lighting of the candle(s).

Use the singing bell technique with a few handbells or a simple keyboard chord progression. 

A few pointers:

  • Keep it very simple and unhurried. Leave lots of space.

  • Choose a key and meter for your underscore that connects to whatever music came before or a piece that will come after.

  • Choose a register that will complement (not compete with) the voice of the person reading.

For more suggestions and ideas, see Creating Unique Musical Underscores for Worship: My Step-By-Step Process.

No. 2: Sing a congregational response each week 

One of my favorite responses to sing during Advent is the Taize hymn, "Gloria, Gloria” (UMH #72). Side note: If you choose to incorporate no. 1 above into your worship services, this is a great way to prepare the congregation for the response they’re about to sing. Be sure to create a musical underscore in the same key and meter as the response. 

There are lots of ways to sing “Gloria, Gloria,” so consider mixing it up each week to make each time feel special. Here are a few ideas:

  • sing it as written, in unison, with keyboard accompaniment (great for the first week, when you’re teaching it to the congregation)

  • sing it with flute descant (#576 in the Presbyterian Hymnal: psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs)

  • sing it with handbells playing the accompanying chords (or use four handbells to play the roots of the chords) and consider an alternate keyboard accompaniment

  • sing as a 2-part canon (divide the congregation in half), or, with the help of the choir, a 3- or 4-part canon

You can do something similar with a hymn like, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Add handbells, flute, or another solo instrument; sing a different verse with the chorus each week; and play it in a different style (and perhaps, with different harmonizations).

Related post: Creative and Practical Hymn Harmonization Resources for Church Musicians

No. 3: Illustrate the journey throughout the season

As I mentioned, I think of Advent as a journey. How can you illustrate this for your congregation in worship? Here are three ideas:

  1. Use the three wise men from the nativity set and have them travel through the sanctuary, moving a little closer to the stable and the Christ Child (presumably at the front of the church) each week. Draw attention to the wise men’s journey during children’s time each week and talk about times when we’ve had to travel a long distance or wait a long time for something special. Tie this in to the Advent themes: hope, peace, joy, and love, or whatever your church is choosing to focus on this season.

  2. Use a simple handbell acclamation or processional (like Glorioso - available for free in the Resource Library!), each week getting closer to the front of the sanctuary. For instance, the first week, you might play the acclamation from the narthex. The second week, you might play from the back of the church. The third week, you might play standing in the center aisle. The fourth week, you might play processing in all the way to the front, and on Christmas Eve, you might play standing in a semicircle in the chancel.

  3. Weave reminders into the liturgy each week about the parts of the journey you’ve experienced together during this season. Remind the congregation what it means to hold on to hope and live in peace, experience joy and walk in love.

Reflecting on where you’ve come from and what you’ve learned along the way brings new purpose and understanding to where you’re going.

No. 4: Follow along with an Advent calendar

Advent calendars are a great way to mark each day of this special season. Build anticipation for the season to come, when we’ll celebrate God’s gift of love, light, and redemption for the world.

A few years ago, I wrote a post featuring eight festive Advent calendars in all shapes and sizes - all tangible ways to experience and share the journey of Advent.

Last year, I designed one myself - a simple, printable Advent Hymn Calendar based on your favorite Advent hymns and Christmas carols. Each set includes 25 double-sided cards and four mini art prints that match the themes from the Sundays in Advent: Hope, Peace, Joy, Love.

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Printable Advent Hymn Calendar

A simple, printable Advent calendar to help you celebrate the
season of hope and anticipation leading up to Christmas.

Print and display it at home, in your choir room, your church office, or in a central location in the church for all to see and experience together. Use it in children’s choir or Sunday School as a way to talk about the season of Advent and what it means.

How does your church celebrate Advent? What special traditions do you have as a congregation?