In my experience, church-goers at Christmastime love to sing traditional Christmas carols. And this is great, because so many of our well-loved Christmas carols are full of rich theology and beautiful imagery!
However, in churches that make an effort to be “contemporary,” this poses a bit of a problem for those who plan the services and choose the music. Should we sing traditional settings of carols, causing a temporary change to the feel and character of our worship services? Or should we sing traditional carols that have been reworked into contemporary settings? Should we introduce new season-specific songs, knowing that we will only sing them at Christmastime?
For my part, I like to give congregations the opportunity to sing as many traditional Christmas carols as possible throughout the season. (We only get to sing them during one month out of the year!) An advantage of singing traditional carols is that they are part of our collective memory and traditions—even visitors and newcomers are likely to know them!
If you desire to sing traditional carols, but your church setting is such that all of the songs need to maintain a contemporary or band-led feel, there are some decent newer settings. Of the contemporary settings, my preference is songs that keep the original melody of the carol (aiding in familiarity and learnability), but perhaps add a simple refrain that the congregation can learn easily. A couple of standouts are He Has Come for Us (God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen) (Jason Ingram, Meredith Andrews) and Chris Tomlin’s Joy to the World (Unspeakable Joy).
Of course, there are also some wonderful options of Christmas-specific worship songs that have been written in the last few years. One has to go no farther than the Keith and Kristyn Getty Christmas albums for stellar examples. But I personally prefer to choose only one or two “new” carols, remembering that the congregation will only sing them at Christmastime, and probably have to relearn them the following year.
To supplement the various carol options, I’ve found that another great way to keep the worship experience “contemporary” at Christmas is to choose songs that work all year, but can be seen in a new light in this season. Used in conjunction with traditional and contemporary Christmas carols, these every-season songs can enhance our celebration by being both familiar and fresh in the Christmas context.
To this end, I give you my…
TOP 10 Non-Christmas Christmas Worship Songs:
#10 – Your Grace Is Enough (Matt Maher, 2003)
For some reason, this song is one of my go-to non-Christmas Christmas worship songs. To me, the references to God’s faithfulness, the “God of Jacob,” and “heaven [reaching] out to us” have special significance in the Christmas season. And even though it’s a bit older, the song seems to have some staying power. *An added bonus: The prayer for God (in the pre-chorus) to “remember your people, remember your promise” can have meaning for those churches who emphasize the season of Advent. We long for Christ’s second coming, even as the people of Israel longed for the Messiah. You can listen to it here: Your Grace Is Enough
#9 – Uncreated One (Chris Tomlin, J.D. Walt, 2006)
This is another song that I return to time and again in the Christmas season. I feel that it’s a lesser-known Tomlin song, but one deserving of a place in our churches’ repertoires. In this song, we worship Christ as begotten, not made; the Sustainer of the Universe who set aside his place and prestige “to wear the sinner’s crown.” Uncreated One
#8 – Living Hope (Brain Johnson, Phil Wickham, 2017)
This song is number 5 on CCLI’s current Top 100 list, so I know many churches are adopting it as part of their repertoire. The lyrics are wonderful for speaking to the message of Christmas, while being appropriate all year long, in particular “The God of ages stepped down from glory | To wear my sin and bear my shame.” However, one little word in the first verse throws me off: “Then.” I believe that God’s loving-kindness precedes and predicates our calling on him for our salvation. Or, to put it another way, “even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:5). You may call me picky, but I would prefer to fix this lyrical/theological confusion by replacing “then” with “and.” Problem solved!, and another great non-Christmas song for Christmas! Living Hope
#7 – Psalm 46 (Lord of Hosts) (Jennie Lee Riddle, Josh Miller, Josiah Warneking, Shane Bernard, 2015)
At Christmas, this song reminds me of the prophecies of the coming Messiah; and I can hear them as quoted in Handel’s Messiah from the King James Version: “For thus saith the Lord of Hosts; Yet once, it is a little while and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land; and I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come” (Haggai 2:6-7). “The Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: Behold, He shall come, saith the Lord of Hosts” (Malachi 3:1). At Christmas we celebrate that the Lord of Hosts is “God with us.” I like Misty Edwards’ version: Lord of Hosts
#6 – I’m Forever Grateful (Matt Altrogge, 1985)
“You did not wait for me | To draw near to you | But you clothed yourself | With frail humanity.” This is an older song, but I think it deserves to stay in our repertoire! The lyrics speak beautifully of God’s powerful initiative in sending Jesus to save us. You’ll need to update the feel: I’m Forever Grateful
#5 – Jesus Messiah (Chris Tomlin, Daniel Carson, Ed Cash, Jesse Reeves, 2008)
If you’re looking for a song to use in connection with the Lord’s Supper in this season, Jesus Messiah reminds us that Jesus came to earth for our redemption: “Jesus Messiah, Name above all names | Blessed Redeemer, Emmanuel | Rescue for sinners | Ransom from heaven | Jesus Messiah, Lord of all!” Jesus Messiah
#4 – Yet Not I But through Christ In Me (Jonny Robinson, Michael Farren, Rich Thompson, 2018)
At a church at which we were serving, we introduced this song in the fall and repeated it on Christmas Eve! I think the song works at Christmastime because the lyrics are so Christocentric. Also, “What gift of grace is Jesus my Redeemer | There is no more for heaven now to give” has special significance at the holiday on which we give gifts in honor of the greatest Gift. Yet Not I But through Christ In Me
#3 – We Are Listening (Jeremy Quillo, 2006)
This one’s a little “outside the box,” but we have found it to be a favorite in our churches. It’s a good choice from the folk genre of worship music, and includes a nice play on “word/Word,” which is especially potent in the Christmas season. Sojourn Music: We Are Listening
#2 – In Christ Alone (Keith Getty, Stuart Townend, 2001)
Yes, this song was written in 2001, but it’s proved itself to be a standard. The second verse starts by focusing on the birth of Christ: “In Christ alone who took on flesh | Fullness of God in helpless babe.” But the beauty of using this song at Christmastime is that it puts the birth of Jesus in the context of the entire gospel narrative. My first and favorite version, from New Irish Hymns: In Christ Alone
#1 – Come, Behold the Wondrous Mystery (Matt Boswell, Matt Papa, Michael Bleecker, 2012)
Like In Christ Alone, this song recounts the story of Christ from his incarnation through his resurrection. This song could be introduced in the Christmas season and then enjoyed throughout the year! It also contains some wonderful phrases which are profound at Christmas and beyond, like “See the true and better Adam.” Come, Behold the Wondrous Mystery
Honorable Mention (a few more that deserve a mention):
My Savior, My God (Aaron Shust, Dorothy Greenwell, 2005) – “That he would leave his place on high | And come for sinful man to die”
Your Name (Glenn Packiam, Paul Baloche, 2006) – This song came to my mind as I was thinking about songs to fit with our church’s Christmas sermon series, “Blessed Be Your Name,” which focuses on the names of Christ in Isaiah 9:6. Though there’s nothing especially Christmassy about the lyrics of Your Name, Paul Baloche must have also thought the song had a place in the season—because he wrote some alternate Christmas words for it!
What a Beautiful Name (Ben Fielding, Brooke Ligertwood, 2016) – Words like “You were the Word at the beginning | One with God the Lord Most High | Your hidden glory in creation | Now revealed in You our Christ” are perfect at Christmastime! One caveat: In my opinion, the lyrics of the second verse imply that God was incomplete in some way, and “needed” us in order to fill some lack in himself. When I have used this song congregationally, we have changed the opening lyrics of verse two to: “You are the One and only Holy | Lord Most High but you came down.”
Marvelous Light (Ellie Holcomb, Rusty Varenkamp, 2014) – This song could be used in the Christmas season because of its emphasis on the Light of Christ.
Worthy, Worthy (Jacob Sooter, Mia Fieldes, 2013) – This may be a bit of a stretch, but I think the lyrics could take on new meaning in light of the mystery of the incarnation and God revealing himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ.
The Word of God Has Spoken (David Moffitt, Jonathan Lee, Travis Cottrell, 2011) – “In the beginning was the Word | And the Word was God | And the Word became flesh | And dwelt among us | And we have seen Your glory | Like the rising of the sun”
Jesus (Chris Tomlin, Ed Cash, 2016) – “There is a truth older than the ages | There is a promise of things yet to come | There is One born for our salvation | Jesus | There is a light that overwhelms the darkness”
King of Kings (Brooke Ligertwood, Jason Ingram, Scott Ligertwood, 2019) – Some of the lyrics in this song give me a bit of reservation, so I’ve given it merely an “honorable mention.” But King of Kings is a popular new song with Christmas-appropriate lyrics.
Some of these older songs also bear repeating in the Christmas season, if you still have them in rotation: Lamb of God (Twila Paris), Jesus, Name Above All Names (Naida Hearn), All Hail King Jesus (Dave Moody), Meekness and Majesty (Graham Kendrick), Lord, I Lift Your Name on High (Rick Founds), Because We Believe (Jamie Harvill, Nancy Gordon), Beautiful Savior (Stuart Townend), Emmanuel (Bob McGee)
A number of songs could also qualify as “Non-Advent Advent Songs,” especially those that emphasize waiting and hope: By Faith (Keith Getty, Kristyn Getty, Stuart Townend), We Will Feast in the House of Zion (Joshua Moore, Sandra McCracken), Blessed Be Your Name (Beth Redman, Matt Redman), Let Your Kingdom Come (Bob Kauflin), I Will Wait for You (Psalm 130) (Jordan Kauflin, Keith Getty, Matthew Merker, Stuart Townend), Almighty God (David Leonard, Leslie Jordan, Sandra McCracken), I Shall Not Want (Audrey Assad, Bryan Brown)
Of course, Jesus is the reason for the season, so a great many songs that have Jesus as the central theme will work, paired with more explicit Christmas music: Revelation Song (Jennie Lee Riddle), All I Have Is Christ (Jordan Kauflin), This Is Amazing Grace (Jeremy Riddle, Josh Farro, Phil Wickham), How Great Is Our God (Chris Tomlin, Ed Cash, Jesse Reeves)
Finally, in honor of the OG “Non-Christmas Christmas Hymn,” Joy to the World, here are a few hymns that are beautiful additions to the Christmas season: Love Divine, All Loves Excelling (Charles Wesley), God Has Spoken By His Prophets (George Wallace Briggs), and Fairest Lord Jesus (August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, Joseph August Seiss)
I hope some of these songs grab your attention and get your juices flowing as you prepare to worship God with his people in this season. Merry Christmas!