Christmas music is on the radio, trees are being decorated across the country, it’s time for pastors to start planning that Christmas Eve Service – if they haven’t already! Christmas Eve brings new faces into our churches. Family members from out of town, non-attendees who come by invitation, and those who value the tradition of religious worship on the high holy days.
It’s easy to be annoyed at those folks, as if they are not your “real” congregation. But take the 30,000 foot view and notice something: at least twice every year, those folks are probably dependably going to be in your community. Their needs and interests are different, but longitudinally, they are valuable participants in the life of your church.
In his excellent article in The Atlantic Monthly, entitled “In defense of Christmas-and-Easter Christians", Jacob Lupfer noted that there are three reasons why most Christians from across America’s spectrum of churches have become disaffected: they feel hurt by the church, they are angry at their former tradition, or they are bored. He notes that “churches have often failed to offer a compelling vision of lifelong Christian spiritual community, and they often don’t acknowledge their own fault in driving people away.”
So, as your church prepares for Christmas Eve, maybe it’s time to think about those Christmas/Easter folks (aka ChrEasters) in a new light. Here are five things to consider:
Visitors to your Christmas Eve service are hoping for:
1. BREVITY – to really engage non-church people, consider offering a couple of shorter services specifically targeted for the irregular attenders; or at the very least make sure you don’t sing all 5 verses of O Come All Ye Faithful!
2. MEANING - contextualize and make relevant the holiday in your sermon. This is the time to go for the heart and imagination, put your intellectual sermon aside for next Sunday.
3. NOSTALGIC FULFILLMENT – most everyone loves candles and greenery, the solemn singing of Silent Night. Christmas and Easter are the times to invest in beautifying the sanctuary and making it shine!
4. VALUE FOR THE CHILDREN – parents bring children to church because they were brought to church. They want their children to experience something of value and to be valued by those in attendance. Easy wins: children’s choir, gifts for children before or after the service, a targeted children’s sermon without asking children to come forward.
5. FAMILIARITY – even if they’ve been away for years, it’s comforting to say a prayer they memorized in childhood or sing familiar songs. Don’t do Lessons & Carols without familiar carols!
It’s imperative that we as churches cultivate and widen our communities. That we articulate and embody the love and welcome that are ours. Most ChrEasters are not going to attend our churches regularly and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean that they are un-Christian or damned. It means they do spirituality in different ways. But we can invite them in to more regular community by doing the following:
1. Have festive events throughout the year. What if Pentecost became a carnival and samba dance party? How about a saintly costume party around Halloween? You get the idea!
2. Make your sermons and worship contextually relevant. Boredom should not be the second thing that newcomers experience, right after bewilderment.
3. Counter the “commodification” of spirituality – name that regular attendance is a way of deepening relationship – with God and other. Prove that this is true by modeling Jesus’-style love and welcome for each other.
4. Claim your identity as an intentional community. We don’t emphasize enough the power of our social capital as churches. People are longing to belong.
Finally, here are some very practical tips for enjoying that special Christmas Eve service and widening the welcome in your parish:
1. Create a holiday playlist to have on in the lobby/narthex, and in the sanctuary prior to the service
2. Spray a festive holiday smell throughout your space prior to service. Bake cookies in the church kitchen and serve them afterward. Don’t make many – most people will skedaddle – just let that aroma be a part of the welcome!
3. Create a holiday photo booth with props and a cardboard sign that has the church name. Collect the photos of possible for your website and social media.
For unto us, a child is born, unto us a son is given. The wonder of Christmas is the arrival of the unexpected. Love became incarnate in Jesus. Let’s participate in that celebration with welcome for all – the expected folks, the surprises, and the ones we haven’t seen since Easter. They are all a part of the family even when it feels a little awkward!
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