Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Singing Christmas Trees

GetReligion has a story about the 1980s and the rise of the singing Christmas tree as a fixture of this holiday season.  Living next door to one that puts on a great show every year, three performances, to a packed house every time, I can attest to the popularity of this strange phenomenon.

GetReligionAcross the country, churches will soon be groaning at full capacity as millions of Americans, from the deeply devout to the twice-a-year attendees, pack their local congregations to participate in a Christmas Eve service. But this month, some of those churches will also present what has become a tradition in the modern evangelical megachurch: the Singing Christmas Tree. In these productions, church choirs perform a musical celebration while standing inside an enormous Christmas tree platform that reaches to the ceiling, often accompanied by extravagant light shows, dancing church members, and sometimes even fireworks. Displaying all the kitsch and some of the camp of your favorite Broadway musical, Singing Christmas Tree pageants represent the quintessence of the modern megachurch experience: oversized, ostentatious, and a strange blend of the sacred and the secular.

I tuned across the stations the other night and caught a portion of the local singing tree.  It was full of kitsch, odd costumes, flashing lights (that almost gave me a migraine), lots of slapstick humor, and some amateurish singing (soloists with back up choir and orchestra band).  Most of what I caught were secular tunes though I did not last much more than 15 minutes or so.  And I caught sight of a few Lutherans there, too.

From Slate.comChurches, most often Baptist congregations, got in on the act in the 1960s and ‘70s, setting up Christmas tree platforms inside their congregations and inviting community members to their productions. Most of these productions were simple affairs—the church choir was arranged on a tiered structure draped in garland boughs and red ribbons. There it would sing through a medley of Christmas hymns. The pastor would read the account of Jesus’ birth from the Gospel of Luke while a handful of church members re-enacted the nativity scene. Nativity plays have always figured prominently in American churches’ holiday celebrations. But the Singing Christmas Tree pageants that became popular in evangelical circles in the late 20th century inadvertently brought the season’s secular trappings directly into churches’ Christmas observances in a way that dramatic recreations of the first Christmas in Bethlehem had previously avoided.

Bellevue Baptist in Memphis reigned as King of the singing tree -- to which other Baptists were green with envy -- until First Baptist in Orlando doubled up the pleasure with not one but two giant singing trees.  Ostensibly the purpose of these extravaganzas is to save souls -- that is the claim of the late Adrian Rodgers of the Memphis congregation -- but in all honesty this is about entertainment more than message.  I am not sure what a person would be saved to from the odd combination of comedy and song that supposedly introduces people to their Savior -- and what kind of Savior?  A happy Jesus, full of humor and good fun who makes sure a good time was had by all?

If you ask me, and no one has, it would be better if those who put on such glitzy shows would simply own up to their entertainment value and leave it at that.  It is a poor substitute for Christmas worship services (unless the church's worship is on par with the singing tree shows).  It is not a show I want to see but, as entertainment goes, we have different choices.  Clearly there is a great difference between a choir singing a Benjamin Britten's Ceremony of Carols or Paul Manz's E'en So Lord Jesus Quickly Come and a hootenanny version of The Twelve Days of Christmas and it has nothing to do classical vs pop music and everything to do with text and message.  But, if that is your cup of tea, go and have a good time.  Just don't call it worship and don't tell me it is an evangelistic enterprise.  Jesus does not give a hoot if you have America's tallest or biggest singing Christmas tree.


Paul said...

something about national youth gatherings flashed through the cobwebs of memory...definitely NOT Higher Things:)

Anonymous said...

I always thought the Reformed and the Evangelicals were traditionally obsessed with removing all things from the sanctuary that might look "Catholic". Have the pastor dress informally. Gid rid of glitzy ornamentation. The plainer the inside of the church looks, the better.

What happened? The founders of the Baptist church must be rolling in their graves.


Cafeteria Lutheran

Pastor J. Sollberger said...

Good point. Apparently, though, it's okay for the Reformed and Evangelicals to be ornamental - just as long as the ornamentation doesn't point anyone to Christ...

Anonymous said...

Some of the Living Christmas Tree
Concerts in the Mid-West use all
Christian Christmas Carols. They
are usually presented on week nights
as an evangelism tool for those who
are unchurched. IT WORKS.