Advent season — the four weeks preceding Christmas — is the launch of the Christian year.  It is a significant time of preparation and anticipation.  It frames the coming of the Messiah and reminds us how desperately God’s chosen people sought a savior.  Everyone knows that, right?  Well, not the majority of United Methodists anyway.  From the following four statements, 2-in-5 UMs (42%) select the correct one as the definition of Advent:

  1. the coming of Jesus foretold by an angel (18%)
  2. the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem prior to his death (22%)
  3. the correct phrase describing the second coming of Jesus (18%)
  4. the four Sundays prior to Christmas preparing for Christ coming into the world (42%)

The number drops to 1-in-3 when it comes to “What is the liturgical color of the Advent season?”

  1. Gold (16%)
  2. Red (24%)
  3. Blue/Purple (32%)
  4. Green (17%)
  5. White (11%)

Lastly, a survey of favorite “Advent” hymns yields that the top five are:

  1. Joy to the World
  2. Silent Night
  3. Hark, the Herald Angels Sing
  4. O Little Town of Bethlehem
  5. Away in a Manger

All great carols, none of them Advent songs.  Over 95% of UM churches sing Christmas songs during Advent.

One-in-nine (11%) of UMs know that the lighting of the Advent candles symbolize something, but only one-in-forty-five (2%) remember that they symbolize “Hope, Peace, Love, Joy, and the Birth.”  While Methodists — both north and south — connected the four Sundays and Christmas Eve to Hope, Peace, Love, Joy and the Birth from 1865-1975, the tradition seems to have died away with the most recent generation.  No one in the survey, including pastors, could say where the tradition of lighting the Advent wreath candles comes from.  (Germany, mid-19th century in an orphanage)

The average increase in attendance at UM Christmas Eve worship services = 212%.  Therefore, the majority of people don’t attend church during Advent, and thus aren’t exposed to the theological preparation for the coming of the Messiah.

On a related note, 84% of UMs believe that the “3 Kings of Orient R” arrived on Christmas Eve to worship the Christ-child in the manger.  Only ten percent know what a “manger” is.  Even fewer know what “swaddling cloths” are.  Over half (55%) of UMs believe that the Christmas story occurs in all four gospels.

Not all of this reflects ignorance about the faith.  In some cases it is intentional.  One pastor told me, “Christmas isn’t an event, it’s a feeling.  The church has the opportunity to fill the entire season with the hope and joy of Christmas.  It is a waste only to sing the Christmas carols on Christmas Eve.  There is no advantage in waiting.  People love Christmas and we fill our sanctuary with the Christmas miracle from Thanksgiving through New Year’s.”  (However, everything is always cleared out prior to Epiphany…)

Our lack of knowledge about Advent is a little sad.   Advent is part of our story.  There is advantage in waiting.  Anticipation is vitally important to receiving the true gift that is Jesus the Christ.  We may be missing a wonderful opportunity by not helping people fully understand and appreciate the Advent season.

(This survey was conducted in 2005 of almost 2,000 United Methodists in Iowa, New Jersey, Florida, and Texas.)

23 replies

  1. I grew up in KY; my grandfather was a Methodist Protestant circuit rider, and I never celebrated Advent or Lent till I moved to Mass. and entered seminary. While I appreciate celebrating both, especially Lent, they have never been “in my blood.” Last year I followed the Advent lectionary. This year I am using the suggestions on Rumors, along with their rationale that by postponing our church celebration of Christmas we are allowing secular culture to define it since that is how most people “learn” about Christmas. It has always seemed rushed to celebrate Mary’s pregnancy only one week before Jesus’ birth! I appreciate having more time this year to focus on the women-central part of the story, with the annunciation on the first Sunday and the visit to Elizabeth on the second Sunday. The Waiting of the Advent season has been more meaningful to me in the context of the waiting of pregnancy — and all the changes that requires.

  2. Larry:

    Your friend’s reasoning is correct but off by 50 years or so. The class meeting were mostly artifacts before the US Civil War, already dying by the 1830’s at least in the “white” churches.

  3. Dear Dan and those who post in response, thank you so much for your contributions. Each day I read them, several of them many times. I asked a friend to estimate the time that the downturn (a word not fully defined or explored in our conversation) in the UMC started. He did not hesitate. He said it began with the move away from class leaders in the late 1800’s/ early 1900’s. I just heard this and thought I would pass it along. I have no basis for knowing if he is accurate. What I do know is that he and you are working in a very helpful way. Many thanks! Peace,larry in Matamoros

  4. Dan,

    Advent is a lost cause at this time of the year in the UMC.


    And for that matter, so is Christmastide.

    That’s why I’ve offered a semi-radical alternative– at least in terms of the timing of things– in an article called ReThink Christmastide on the GBOD Worship Website (http://www.gbod.org/worship).

    I don’t offer this as THE one right solution.

    But I do offer it as a real alternative– or at least a conversation starter, so that there is some opportunity for pastors and worship planners to:

    a) recognize facts as facts– Advent isn’t happening or going to happen, really past the first week or two of December and Christmastide– that is the intentional and significant time of commemorating and pondering the meaning of the mystery of the Incarnation– isn’t actually happening at all

    b) recognize the formational necessity of both Advent and Christmastide as significant for the life of the church and

    c) thereby consider ways to plan that b) can happen in light of the facts of a)

    Who knows if anything will change.

    But we’ve got to stop playing “pretend” and ‘dress up” with the biblically rich, disturbing and compelling messages of these seasons. And right now, that’s about the best we’re doing, anywhere.

  5. I’m with you all the way, (and totally agree on the Advent carol faves), but I do have to say there isn’t a specific meaning attached to the Advent candles…other popular meanings include prophets, shepherds, angels, Mary/Bethlehem, and Christ.

    One of our own denominational websites (http://archives.umc.org/interior.asp?ptid=1&mid=2879) says expectation, hope, joy, purity…and Jesus of course. There really isn’t a consensus, historically or ecumenically, as to what they mean.

    Okay, I’ll turn in my liturgical police uniform now. Great thoughts, Dan.

    • I take my “facts” from Gunter Koehler’s excellent dissertation (I was his advisor, so all his information must have been “true”…) on Christmas practices. The original German Advent wreath was designed around the four advent themes of hope, peace, love, and joy, and added the Christ candle to the center. The Methodists picked up lighting advent candles arranged in a wreath the very next year, and it became widespread within a few years, following the four themes. These four themes predate the advent wreath by a couple centuries, and they were thematically woven into Methodist advent materials for over a century. I do know that they were at least acknowleged in part ion the 1960s — since I still have the Cokesbury Advent candle box that explains the symbolism of the five candles right on the box!

      • I seem to remember that, in the 1960s, Passion and Palm Sunday were separate. It’s not only the Advent Sunday themes that have changed in recent decades.

        I’m willing to give the 98% a pass on not knowing what the candles used to symbolize, so long as they’re willing to sing a few of my favorite Advent hymns while we’re lighting them.

      • Ok, you learn something new every day! What I’ve heard–even from liturgical scholars–has been that the candles/Sundays exist to mark off the 4 Sundays. Hence the proliferation of meaning around them (and I think the lectionary is also a destabilizing influence on their meaning, since they follow no particular theme). Wonder why we don’t remember that as well as other tidbits?

      • You know? A big deal is made in the Roman Catholic Church of Vatican II and the “loss” of the Latin Mass, but I think the sixties were a descontructive time for Protestants as well. There has been an overall degradation (for worse or better, I’m not sure) of many symbols and meanings. United Methodism is no longer a Creedal faith — many of our churches have done away with creeds and affirmations of faith wholesale. The Passing of the Peace is less a ritual of faith fellowship than a glad-hand greeting… if it is done at all. “Prayer” is a generic function, with little or no distinction between confession, petition, intercession, etc. I rarely experience a unison prayer of confession anymore. Silence, once a big part of Methodist worship, is on the endangered species list — where it hasn’t already been killed and mounted on the wall. Most United Methodist “silence” has an organ or piano soundtrack playing in the background. And invitation to discipleship? Forget about it. At one point, Wesley wrote in a letter that a sermon should never be preached uless it was followed by an invitation to respond — and not just plopping an envelope in a collection plate. Personal testimony is gone. There are a ton of tidbits that have just drifted off over the years — some of them grounded in theological integrity, some of them simple creations (like the advent themes) that we somehow institutionalized.

      • You might well be right when speaking of the church as a whole. In one sense I don’t think we were ever were a creedal church—we are not and never were required to subscribe to the Articles of Religion or the Confession of Faith. I’m certain that in a good number of UM churches you will find at least some of the things you mentioned. In the UM church I attend we say one of the affirmations of faith, usually the Apostles Creed, and have every Sunday for years, although there have been times when that part of the service was dropped. Occassionally we have a personal testimony. Once in a great while there will be an altar call, but quite often there will be a call to participate in some mission work. I would have to agree with the rest.

      • Dan,

        I make a point in my articles on Advent wreaths of noting that the “four themes” were essentially generated as part of the “aesthetic movement” in North American worship (with the exception of Joy for Advent 3, which has a longer history in the Roman Church), and then that this got perpetuated by the religious suppliers who provided these things.

        That is, these themes have never had a compelling biblical context in the established lectionaries for these Sundays (again, except for Advent 3). They were artificial constructs imposed on the day. And often, they have been and continue to be at serious odds with the actual lectionary texts (before and after Vatican II).

        At issue is what gets to define how worship proceeds– scripture in the light of the lived tradition of the church and the realities of the missional setting of the local community, or the purveyors or religious doo-dads.

        My vote is with the former. Others may find their mileage varies.

      • Oh, I don’t mean to imply there was ever a biblical context for the four themes. I think they were developed as a mneumonic device that tied in with popular themes of carols and services, got institutionalized, usurped by the religious suppliers, and faded when they didn’t fit any longer. But they did become a part of the landscape as “normal” just as passing the offering plate and communion in croutons and shot glasses became “normal.”

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