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. For awhile I was fairly strict about not singing Christmas songs until Christmas. But I have gotten away from that for a few reasons. One is that the people really want to sing them and find it a bit priggish to hold out. Second, they are good hymns that communicate solid theology about the Incarnation. Third, there are other ways to highlight the sense of preparation that Advent has while still anticipating its arrival through the singing of Christmas carols. The lighting of the Advent wreath and sermons based on the lectionary both do an adequate job of underlining the penetential and preparatory nature of Advent.

  2. Dan, excellent post

    Living and serving in one of the survey states I share your dismay. That being said, I believe that clergy are totally to blame…we abdicate teaching moments for therapeutic sermons and wonder why folks in the pews don’t ‘get’ or even care what the season is all about.

    The other issue is the old ‘liturgical’ vs ‘non-liturgical’ posturing. I serve as an associate pastor in a church that had absolutely no mention of Christ the King Sunday – our senior instead preached his Thanksgiving message. sigh…

    We have no one to blame but ourselves – and one day I pray (and fear) that we will be held accountable.

  3. I join you in lamenting the lack of theological understanding let alone time for preparation and reflection, aside from Christmas shopping and party planning, during the Advent season.

    I have to think the blame goes squarely on the shoulders of the clergy. Too many of our brothers and sisters are “non-liturgical” and therefore don’t do much in teaching up the ways of the seasons of the church.

    I am serving as an associate in a church whose senior pastor totally skipped Christ the King Sunday – in preference for a Thanksgiving message – not even a reference to the day.

    We get what we deserve…

  4. People Look East… but my congrgations always complain about not knowing it–“we’ve never sung that before.” I say, “Sure we did… last year.”

    • I love that one, too, David. It gets to be a bit like O Holy Night, though. A beautiful song that gets so much play on radio and other forums that I get a bit tired of it.

  5. Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus is far and away one of my favorite Chuck Wesley hymns. I’d sing it every Sunday in Advent if I could get away with it.

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