It’s never wise to choose between your children as to which is your favorite, but we are frequently asked to make such a distinction in other areas of our lives. What is your favorite book (other than the Bible, the Baptist will always respond first). Or what is your favorite destination (Santa Fe, New Mexico) … or meal (a Thanksgiving turkey … with my wife’s dressing … which I smoke on the back porch every year).
So, I’m going way out on a limb by going into print with what is my favorite Christmas season tradition, realizing I am placing myself at considerable peril with those who disagree.
My favorite is the Festival of Lessons and Carols at Avondale Estates First Baptist Church. I build my December around the date as soon as it is posted on the church website. Last night my wife, Jan, and I enjoyed it after a long 364 day drought from last December.
Programs come in all shapes and sizes but all with the same commitment. The folks at small and very rural Sardis Baptist Church near Palmetto weathered the cold this weekend to present a living Nativity which they called “Journey to Bethlehem.” About 70 people from the community turned out for the two-night presentation, which had been rescheduled from the previous weekend’s snow and sleet storm.
On a larger scale, good friend Celeste Pennington texted me from Fayetteville to share how her church, New Hope Baptist, had 8,777 attend last week’s “Family Reunion” presentation with 398 professions of faith. And that’s with one night’s performance cancelled due to the same weather that hampered the Sardis church’s community outreach. Those two examples show the breadth and depth of how Georgia Baptists share the everlasting Good News with friends and neighbors.
My earliest memory of Christmas in Atlanta dates back to 1984 when I moved here from Memphis from an editor’s position at the now-defunct Baptist Brotherhood Commission. I lived 21 floors above Peachtree Street and worked down the street at the now-defunct Baptist Home Mission Board.
In those days as a single man I found a date and we rode MARTA from the Peachtree Center Station to the Arts Center Station. We then walked the block to the symphony hall to enjoy “Christmas with Robert Shaw” featuring the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus. It was an incredible cultural introduction to the city that I will long cherish, hobnobbing with those dressed in their finest and enjoying the best event of the season.
In many ways Christmas at Avondale fills that void, though I have enjoyed the programs from many other congregations. Their version of the Festival of Lessons and Carols, deeply rooted in English history, is a gorgeous presentation of the gospel story beginning with the first Messianic prophecy in Genesis 3 and continuing throughout scripture. It is a wonderful blending of both the Old and New Testaments into one seamless thread.
For several years conductor Mark Green – associate pastor as well as minister of music and education – ended the program with the Hallelujah Chorus, but such was not the case this year. But change is good, even for a traditionalist like myself.
Green, an occasional member of the Sons of Jubal when his schedule allows, assembles a stellar choir from the community and weds them to a likewise excellent 23-member orchestra. In late summer he places the first audition call to the community to supplement those singers from the congregation and uses that as on outreach. While he has been at the church for a dozen years, he has only used the Lessons and Carols format for the past 10. But during that decade the value of opening it to the community has born fruit; some of the singers have chosen to become involved in the congregation and later joined, while others have professed Christ and been baptized.
Green likes the historic English approach to a Christmas program, which had its earliest beginnings in Cornwall in 1878. Kings College in Cambridge then performed it in 1918 and brought it to a far greater audience; the BBC began its first broadcast from Kings College Chapel a decade later. It has since become a worldwide tradition.
In Atlanta the live broadcast can be heard on Christmas Eve on FM stations 88.5 or 90.1 National Public Radio, and is produced by American Public Media. More than 300 stations throughout the United States carry the program, including the Public Television stations here in Georgia.
But as good as the live radio and television programs are, there is nothing like listening to it in person in a church like Avondale Estates. Check the church website next year and put it on your calendar for mid-December.
The Christmas performance is just one way this church, in a transitional neighborhood, uses music to reach its community..
Music has always been a defining characteristic of the church and Green has extended that to founding the Avondale Children’s Choir which had 124 students this past semester. It was launched with only 27 students in 2009, and now 75% have either an Avondale Estates or Decatur ZIP Code.
Green directs three different age-level choirs which have gained recognition and serve as a feeder to the DeKalb School of the Arts. The children study and perform a variety of music ranging from the sacred to the secular, from classical to show tunes.
“Our church sees it as a considerable outreach into the community, to the children as well as their families,” Green explains.
“It’s our Upward Basketball outreach. We just find out what the kids are doing in their spare time and build a ministry out of their field of interest.”
Avondale Estates First Baptist Church is located at 47 Covington Road in Avondale Estates, just a stone’s throw inside the Perimeter in North East Atlanta. Kris Mullis has served as pastor since August 2014. He is a former chaplain with the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Atlanta and served two deployments in Iraq as a U.S. Army chaplain.