Several years ago, Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente wrote about how much she enjoyed attending Christmas Eve worship. She was raised an Anglican.
She also said she didn’t believe a word of what was said.
What struck me was not that she didn’t believe the Christmas story, but that she still attended church on Christmas Eve. In fact, she even received communion.
There are lots of people like Margaret Wente in Canada today. They still have an emotional bond to the church, even if they don’t accept the church’s message. The question is: how do we connect with these people during the one season of the year when many are open to attending church?
Christmas is an opportunity for churches to seize upon the folk lore, myths and glitter of the season to do some effective evangelism. Special holiday services that offer a wide variety of worship styles and music will attract people who would ordinarily ignore your church, if they are effectively publicized.
Here is a list of suggestions on what your church can do.
Offer a variety of services and music. Advent and Christmas lessons and carols, plays, musicals and concerts that include both popular and traditional music are all ways to reach people who do not regularly attend church. This Christmas Eve at my parish, we plan to offer a 4:00 pm Christmas Pageant and Communion Service, a 7:00 pm Christmas Jazz Mass and an 11:00 pm Solemn Choral Eucharist. Your Christmas Eve worship may be different. The important thing is to know the people you want to reach and then develop the worship services that will build bridges between their world and yours.
Limit your services to an hour. People today have short attention spans, thanks to television and computers. Long, wordy services are tedious; your worship needs to flow and move quickly. In divinity school, I was taught the value of an “economy of words”- succinct language that avoids unnecessary verbiage. The Prayers of the People, for example, should be concise and to the point. Resist the temptation to pray for every conceivable need in the world and instead focus on four or five key petitions. Similarly, choose Eucharistic Prayer 2 in the BAS or some other that is not overly long. The rule for Christmas Eve worship: Keep it short, keep it simple, and make the main point the only point of the service.
Think outside the box in scheduling services.
Increasingly, churches are holding Christmas Eve services at 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon to accommodate older people who do not want to drive in the evening. Afternoon worship also meets the needs of families and singles who will be away on Christmas Eve and unable to attend worship. In my former parish, our 2:00 pm Christmas Eve Eucharist had close to 300 in attendance. Another parish had over 200 at its 3:00 pm service. An early afternoon service is a nice complement to a 5:00 pm Family Service and the late night Christmas Choral Eucharist. Incidentally, attendance continues to decline at late night services. Churches would be wiser to put their resources into offering a high quality 7:00 or 8:00 pm service. If a late night service is still preferred, hold it no later than 10:00 pm.
Market your services aggressively.
Place the times and description of your services on the parish web site. Know the people you want to reach and then target those people in your advertising. If your budget allows, advertise on the radio or cable TV. Colorful banners and visible signs hung from the church or on the grounds also help to get out the word. Don’t let your holiday services be the best kept secret in town!
Fully print out the worship service in the bulletin.
If you don’t have overhead screens, you need to print out the entire service. Yes, it takes a lot of work and may cost some money, but this is the one time of year you want to spend lavishly on producing an attractive, user-friendly worship bulletin. One of the most frustrating things for non-Anglicans attending our worship is to constantly flip pages in the Book of Alternative Services. Let’s face it: the BAS is not user-friendly. However, if ever there was a time for churches to have user-friendly worship it is during the holidays. Computer technology makes printing the entire service feasible for even a small church.
Be warm and welcoming to visitors. Greeters and ushers should smile, put visitors at ease and communicate the message: “We are glad you are here!” The worship bulletin should reinforce that message. On the front cover of every worship bulletin in my parish are these words: “Whoever you are and wherever you are on your journey of faith, you are welcome. Our one message is that God’s unconditional love is extended to you right now through Jesus Christ. Here in this church God says, ‘I will bless you. You belong. This is my family, and you have a place in it.”
Be sensitive to the non-baptized. There is nothing worse than attending a Eucharist and being told you cannot receive communion. Especially if you are a non-baptized seeker, the prohibition on receiving the sacramental elements may be profoundly hurtful. This is a sensitive issue theologically, and the church is still finding its way on the issue. As a pastoral matter, it is best not to use any exclusionary language in the worship bulletin and allow participants to make their own judgments about whether or not to receive communion. In my parish, we print these words in the bulletin: “All who seek God are welcome to the Lord’s Table to receive the Bread and Wine of Christ’s Body and Blood. Even if you do not seek God, you are still welcome because God seeks you. Come and hold in your hand and taste on your lips the love which we cannot comprehend.”
8. Never talk about money at a holiday service. There is a time to speak about the financial needs of the parish. Christmas is not that time. Too many non-churchgoers think of the church as only interested in their money. To address that concern, I recommend that in the worship bulletin you include this announcement: “If you are a visitor, please do not feel obligated to participate in the offering. We ask only that you fill out the Visitor’s Card located in the pew back and place it in the offering plate.”
Consider offering open baptism. Studies indicate that people are most open to a significant change in their lives during the holiday season from December through January. Take advantage of that by holding a special baptism service on the Sunday before or after Christmas, advertising in the community and encouraging people to come and be baptized or to have their children baptized. Don’t worry about teaching them all the details of the Christian faith-baptize them first, catechize them afterwards.
The sermon needs to be joyful, positive-and brief. Unless the parish is blessed with an exceptionally gifted preacher, no sermon should be more than 12 minutes-and 10 is preferable. Christmas is not the time to give a theological exposition of the Incarnation. It is a time to share the good news of God’s love for every human being, to assure people of their precious worth as children of God, to speak of God among us even in the tough times of our existence, and to declare that at the heart of the universe is not a black hole but the light and life of Eternal Love.
A Merry Christmas to you all!
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at Saint James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.