Let it Go: What Church Can and Can’t Be at Christmas

Here’s what I did NOT need to see: that article from “Christianity Today” about how many Americans will go to church for Christmas.

The answer? Everybody. ALL THE PEOPLE. They will come from the city and country, from hill and holler; the believing and the skeptical, and happy and the heartbroken, the long-lost and the never-known… It’s Christmas and THEY ARE COMING. Prepare the overflow seating…

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These publications hit us all year long with the depressing ‘mainline decline’ statistics and then, the holidays roll around and they’re like “JUST KIDDING –they are all coming next week to find baby Jesus, so you’d better have him there and dressed up for company. Oh, and this might be the only time they come to church all year or maybe EVER so you’d better make it good!”

As if we didn’t already know that next week is a BIG DEAL.

Isn’t this good news? Of course it is. But then, me and my anxiety disorder start chatting about how many of these people coming for Christmas will be first time visitors. New to us, maybe even new to the IDEA of church. And this service–this sermon, this communion table, this worship bulletin, this well-prepared crew of greeters, this cup of coffee–will be the one to decide whether or not they come back. It might even determine the future of their whole life of faith for ever and ever, no pressure!

 I know what nonsense this is. Truly, I do. But, there it is–a glimpse into a pastor’s brain in the days leading up to high holy days. Ask any minister you know, and they will back me up.

Here’s an exercise I find helpful around church holidays–acknowledge what is and is not within our control. Holy days are an all-hands-on-deck situation, and it takes many good leaders and volunteers to make church “happen.” Even so–for all our best human efforts, some things can be planned and organized and foreseen… and others can’t. Let’s begin with what CAN be managed:

1.  Engagement: Seems like a no-brainer but–do people know when to come? Getting signage up early, notes in the bulletin, radio and newspaper spots purchased, signs up at your neighborhood haunts, etc…All that needs to be somebody’s job, whether staff person or committee. We also try to get fliers and postcards around to our members early in the season and encourage them to invite friends and neighbors.

2. HospitalityHave childcare available; have extra greeters and print extra bulletins; put out all the chairs; make sure you have enough candles and that they FIT IN THE HOLDERS (learned this one the hard way). Will the parking lot fill up? If so, is there a plan b? Plan ahead and encourage folks to carpool if possible, or ‘park and walk’ from nearby empty businesses. And for the love, remind your folks not to save seats. At least, not to save whole rows of seats. Nothing is less welcoming than walking into a strange place and finding that the seemingly empty chairs are actually being “held” by purses, jackets and other inanimate objects. Large families should arrive early and together if they want to claim a whole section. Also, have ‘what’s next’ things to advertise at big day services. A bulletin insert promoting the January sermon series, the new member class, or the next opportunity for community service… accessible points of engagement for those who *really might* come back again after Christmas.

3. Message: We know that most people do not come to Christmas Eve service to hear a sermon. They come for the candles, the music, the greens, the feelings of belonging and warmth, a familiar story and maybe a bit of nostalgia… But we also know that people need good news. Maybe that happens in the context of a communion meditation, a thoughtful pastoral prayer, or a well-crafted liturgy. Whatever it is, it’s the job of the pastor(s) and worship leader(s) to prepare it. Sometimes that means hours of labor over a computer or a note pad. Sometimes it means trusting the message to present itself, and focusing instead on preparing our spirit to receive it.

What I do know is that if I am not in that receptive place, spiritually, then the whole service will feel as rushed and frantic as I do. (Also learned that one the hard way). It’s better to be centered and focused and winging it than to read a perfectly crafted manuscript while battling inner chaos.

The discipline of cultivating that Advent-ready spirit has a lot to do with naming the unknown things that might make us anxious–but which we cannot control. To that end, here are some things we can just let go, or otherwise trust to something far bigger than ourselves or any worship committee:

1. Other people’s expectations. 

2. Other people’s experience of the Holy. 

3. The actual birth of Christ. 

We need to remind ourselves that any time we stress the details, these are really the things we are worried about. And when you get right down to it–these things are not our job. We are not the boss of that.

It is not vanity to plan pageantry and drama and extravagant welcome. It is hospitality. We want the Church to be at its best. We want to create a grand display of “What It Could Be Like” if all y’all would just show up like this every Sunday! That little glimpse of the kingdom is there all the time…we just want it on grand display a couple times of year when company comes over to see it.

But man, it makes us tired.  What if this year, we all commit to do our part, whatever that may be–and then just show up and be the Church?

In fact–what most people really come seeking is more apparent on ordinary occasions than it is in all the drama and hyped up expectation of Christmas. Maybe what we really need to show people is “church as usual.” Its blessed everyday self. With typos in the bulletin, wine in the cracked cup, an alto that comes in two bars early, and a toddler screaming in the alcove… Maybe that is the Body we are called to be, in every time and place. Ready to show our neighbors that sacred imperfection has a place at our table. And so do they.

At least, that’s what I tell myself, some sleepless December nights.

The child is enough.

Emmanuel.

 

 

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