Preaching and the Pentatonix Disease

By Bob Hiller

I don’t know about you other preachers out there, but I find myself stressing out more than usual this time of year. I’m not just talking about the shopping and wrapping and the extra work we have. I’m talking about the stress the comes from preparing the Christmas Eve sermon. We all know that Christmas Eve is not just one of the “high holy days” on the liturgical calendar. It is also one of those rare days when it is culturally acceptable, perhaps even expected, for folks to be in church. This Sunday, will see a larger number of church attendees than almost any other day of the year. This Sunday will present a wonderful opportunity for us as the church to give true hope and mercy to folks who don’t typically hear it. We have a chance to play the angels and sing Jesus into the ears of those lost in this world. I mean, it’s the most wonderful time of the year!

And it stresses me out.

Why? Because I feel like I have to perform. Instead of praying, “Lord, let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight,” I find myself saying instead, “Don’t you screw this one up, Hiller!” I spend December trying to find some gimmick, some great angle on the Christmas story. One that will amaze and impress. I want member and visitor alike to say, “I’ve never thought of it like that before! How creative! I’d come back to hear that guy again!” So, I figure, I’ve got to make this sermon count. I’ve got to make it pop and sizzle! In order to get folks to come back for more, I need to sell them on Jesus. So I’d better impress them with my preaching! I’d better perform!

I’ve begun to think this is rather misguided—no, that’s not strong enough. I’ve begun to think this is diseased. And this year, I’ve come up with a name for this sickness from which I man other pastors suffer. We are struck with the Pentatonix disease. And it is ruining Christmas.

For those of you who don’t know, Pentatonix is an a capella band…err, group…um, cohort. Well, whatever you call a group of a capella singers, that’s what Pentatonix is. December is their big money time, as their Christmas albums are wildly popular. It’s not hard to understand why. They have wonderful voices and are quite adept at using their voices to present fresh versions of some very popular Christmas carols, hymns, and so on. But there is something about their songs that doesn’t sit quite right with me. I’ve begun to feel like a Scrooge with my frustration towards them. I’ve been trying to nail down what I find so humbug about this team’s Christmas music. Then, I heard two songs by them that opened my eyes to the problem.

First, I heard Pentatonix perform Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on an all Christmas song station. I thought, “Wait…that’s not a Christmas carol at all! I mean, for heaven’s sake, my kids will not play any secret cord to please the Lord around the manger in this year’s pageant!” I mean, why would they put that song on a Christmas album? Then, I heard them perform the ever popular “Mary, Did You Know?” Now, this song has its own issues, but that’s for another blog. As I listened to these five perform, it struck me: I’m not sure they care about what Mary knew at all! I’m not sure they care about the song whatsoever. What they care about is their performance. They care more about their singing than the song. The message of the song doesn’t matter to them. What matters to them is their creativity, their performance. That’s why they have no qualms putting a Cohen song that has nothing to do with the Nativity of our Lord on a Christmas album. Who cares what it says, it’s the performance that counts. The song only serves as a platform for the singers to sell their talent. Pentatonix cares more about their performance than Christmas! They’re Grinches that can carry a tune!

Okay, maybe that was a bit harsh. But nonetheless, something is amiss when the performance matters more than the song. You hear Pentatonix sing “Mary, Did You Know?” and your first response is not, “What a burden for the dear mother of our Lord,” but rather, “Those cats can sing!” Something is lost when the song doesn’t matter nearly as much as the singer.

The remedy for this? Not to go all Ron Swanson on you, but Willie Nelson’s 1979 classic “Pretty Paper” will cure what ails you. Nelson doesn’t set out to do anything fancy or revolutionary with the Christmas carols he sings. He just sings them. To be sure, it is classic Willie Nelson, but he leaves you with the proper sense of nostalgia and joy that Christmas should bring. Even his version of “Silent Night” leaves you with a sense of reverence and peace. You don’t leave thinking, “Man, Willie’s got pipes!” The message, the songs, outshine the singer. Or perhaps better said, the singer delivers the songs. He doesn’t deliver himself.

Anyhow, back to my jagged point. This time of year, I develop the Pentatonix illness where I feel the need to perform. I need to spruce up the Christmas story, recount the Nativity in a way that is provocative and engaging. I need people to leave thinking, “Man, that guy was the sort of preacher I’d come back to hear.” I need people to see how I can shine in the pulpit! And, my needs, in this case, are my sins, my Pentatonix disease. I don’t think the song is good enough to stick, so I need to enhance it. I need to perform the life out of it! Which, if I work hard enough, is the very thing I’ll do. Every year, it seems, I focus more on the singing than I do the song.

But this is, of course, absurd! Because the song the angels sing needs no enhancement! The doctrine, as Dorothy Sayers is wont to say, is the drama! The Son of God, the king of the angels, putting on the flesh of an infant in a virgin’s womb and being born in a nowhere town? Angels appearing to shepherds, speaking in dreams, guiding pagan foreigners to this divine baby, while the kings and powers-that-be either ignore or violently fear this child? God coming to us in Jesus to be our King, and God, and Sacrifice, as the old carol has it? Well, that is quite a story. It practically sings itself. Turns out, it doesn’t need my help at all!

No, dear preachers, the Christmas story doesn’t need our enhancing, our performing. Let us repent of our Pentatonix penchant and follow Willie Nelson: Just let the song sing itself. Don’t perform for your congregations this Sunday night. Just tell them the story, deliver it to them. Tell them what God has done. Promise He’s done it for sinners, for the very sinners hearing that night. Jesus came humbly to save this glory-addicted, proud world. So, you can preach humbly, set aside your pride, and give them Jesus. Get out of the way, dear preacher, and let the song sing itself. Merry Christmas!