By Kelly Carr
’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through church houses,
every creature was stirring, all the staff and some spouses.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
but peek inside the church building—you’ll find everyone there.
While others are restful, sugar-plums in their heads,
on Christmas Eve church leaders are busy instead.
Ministers across the country confirm what you already know: Christmas Eve is one of the best attended services of the year. Large and small congregations, suburban, rural, and city locations all welcome folks who rarely darken the doorway of a church building other weeks of the year, drawn by family, by tradition, by some sense deep within to be at a church service on Christmas Eve.
But church staff members can lack the proper enthusiasm for this special season. After many Christmases in ministry, leaders may be at creative dead-ends. How can we present this well-known biblical narrative in a new way? What should change and what should stay the same? How can we minister to the congregation, while also doing something magnanimous to draw visitors to the love of Christ and to the church? These things roll through the minds of ministers (admit it), while they also sneak peeks at the calendar to see on what day of the week Christmas falls and do mental calculation about its impact on work schedules vs. family plans. Sigh . . .
Despite occasional trepidation, many ministers experience joy as they prepare the annual celebration of Jesus’ arrival on earth. Because when the heart of the holiday comes to light, church leaders and the church body recognize it as a great opportunity to reach people with God’s great love. The mission is laid out before them.
If your heart feels two sizes too small this year or if you simply want to hear some ideas to make you smile (because smiling’s your favorite!), then read on—ministers from across the country describe how this can truly be the most wonderful time of the year.
O Come, All Ye Faithful
What memories does Christmas evoke? Many of us enjoy annual traditions—favorite songs, favorite movies, favorite decorations. That’s why attending church services on December 24 each year is a custom, even for uninitiated churchgoers—tradition draws them back.
Since members and visitors alike arrive in nostalgic moods, many churches strive to build that into their holiday worship services.
People love tradition this time of year, said John Kelley, executive and worship minister at Catalyst Christian Church in Lexington, Kentucky. Catalyst typically is a nontraditional worship setting, but their people and the many who visit with them come seeking tradition on Christmas Eve.
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” said Kelley. “We actually really enjoy it because it’s such a departure from the norm for us. It helps people connect. They’re not trying to learn the songs—they already know the songs. They know the story. There’s something familiar, and it prepares them for Christmas Day.”
What the Gladsome Tidings Be?
Christmas music is one of the most meaningful traditions for many.
“They’re songs many people are familiar with, even people who have never been to church,” said Bo Chancey, senior pastor of Manchester Christian Church in New Hampshire. “It’s such a high participatory thing. With us, creating a worship service where people can come in and experience the presence of God and respond—I love it at Christmas because these are songs they’re familiar with.”
Chancey said he’s not a rules guy, but he tells Manchester’s worship teams to use Christmas songs in their original arrangements so that people feel comfortable joining in. Chancey said that, growing up, Christmas was the only time he saw people participate much at church. “It was the only thing we ever really connected with. So I really try to use this to connect with people.”
Yet Christmas hymns reach beyond one worship service of the year. A few years ago Sarah Lynn Grubb, worship and programming director of Discovery Church in Simi Valley, California, created a churchwide journal called “Thrill of Hope,” pulling from hymns to prepare people’s hearts in the Advent season. Sermons, children’s services, action steps, and outreach ideas were all incorporated with lyrics from carols woven throughout.
In Thy Dark Streets Shineth the Everlasting Light
Candlelight is another popular Christmas Eve tradition. Most churches still incorporate candles into their service because the message is so powerful.
“It should move you to come, not just because you want warm fuzzies around a candlelight service, but [to] take this light into the world and be this light,” said Alex Robinson, creative arts pastor of Vibrant—A Christian Church (formerly Capital Area Church) in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.
North Point Christian Church maintained their traditional candlelight service last year—despite a blizzard. The church is one of only two evangelical churches in Spearfish, South Dakota, that continues to hold annual Christmas Eve services. Matt Branum, lead pastor, said faithful worshippers braved the snowstorm to worship that night.
Dan Shields, lead pastor of Valley Real Life in Spokane Valley, Washington, recalled a candlelight conundrum he experienced when he ministered in Arizona. The church plant was meeting in a school, and the fire marshal wouldn’t allow open flames. The church improvised and used glow sticks instead. Shields loved the visual of all the little lights leaving the church, going out into the darkness. He enjoyed it so much that he brought the idea to Valley Real Life, and now for two of the eight Christmas-week services, they will use glow sticks rather than candles and gear those services toward families with young children.
Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room
When Nikki Hunt, executive minister of First Christian Church in Johnson City, Tennessee, reflected on her favorite Christmas Eve services, she noted, “I love the candlelight, the family togetherness feel of the service. But I began to wonder—how do outsiders receive such a service?” She wants to make sure First Christian incorporates elements that are inclusive, not exclusive. She isn’t the only one considering the visitors who will attend.
“There is something in the atmosphere at Christmas,” Shields said. “There are good vibes whether you believe in Jesus or not. There is an openness for unconnected people; they are OK with going to church on Christmas Eve.”
All these ministers note that Christmas doesn’t just draw one of the highest attendances of the year—it brings many unreached people into the church. Attendance can double on Christmas Eve—and every person represents a life designed to connect to the creator.
“People’s hearts are softer at Christmas,” Grubb observed. “Even people who are broken are tender, and God can use that.”
“We’re trying to show people that what we do this one night matters to the world they inhabit on a daily basis,” Robinson said.
A Thrill of Hope, the Weary World Rejoices
One way to connect to the unconnected is to host community events throughout the Christmas season.
Jeff Jansen, music director, and the rest of the team at Willamette Christian Church in West Linn, Oregon, wanted to encourage their members to go out into the community, get on the ground level, and love people well. So they decided to begin the Christmas season early. Starting from Halloween, the idea is to “Share the Season.” Whether they are reaching single moms or families in need or offering a concert to the whole community, the church focuses on serving for these last months of the year.
Branum and the crew at North Point have monthly outreach events throughout the year that continue to grow. Bingo night has become especially popular, bringing in many people who don’t normally attend church. So this Christmas the church plans to host a family fun night bingo gathering with a Christmas spin, complete with wrapped gifts as prizes (candy or possibly an ugly Christmas sweater).
Miguel Lara, Hispanic pastor at White River Christian Church in Noblesville, Indiana, ministers to people from eight countries in his Spanish services. His weekly attendance of 60 will balloon to 300 on Christmas Eve, as many from the surrounding communities come during the holidays, seeking the meal, the gifts, and the family fun that White River offers. However, most will not return. Like his colleagues, Lara is praying about how to retain more of those who come at Christmastime.
Bless All the Dear Children in Thy Tender Care
While families often go their separate ways in weekly worship so that every age group worships and learns on their own level, on Christmas Eve everyone comes together. That means having elements of the service that minister to all ages of worshippers and gets them involved.
Kelley enjoys Catalyst’s special story time each year. Children are invited up front and the “grandpa” of the church reads the Christmas story in an interactive way with the kids. “It just feels like Christmas when he reads,” he said.
“Children do something to our hearts,” Grubb said. In past Christmases at Discovery, a local Christian school’s choir has performed and kids have participated in nativity dramas through dance and have helped read the Christmas story.
Lara loves seeing entire families participating together. In past ministries he’s watched families, young and old, work together to put on a Christmas drama. From making the costumes to planning the set, generations spend time together for weeks on end and share in the worship experience.
Join the Triumph of the Skies
As we know, Christmas isn’t exclusively serious and solemn. There’s also fun to be had!
Discovery tries to make the opening of their December services fun and funny. Grubb said they’ve had present-wrapping competitions and Christmas songs played on toy instruments in the style of Jimmy Fallon.
Throughout the year and especially at Christmas, Robinson said his goal is to help people have three types of responses: awe moments recognizing the majesty of God, aha moments in which the Bible becomes revelatory, and ha-ha moments when people laugh, let down their guard, and become comfortable enough to hear deeper truths. One year Vibrant combined creativity and fun by asking volunteers to decorate trees in the lobby in the style of Beatles songs, while also connecting to Christ’s birth.
Chancey realized that churches often make people feel guilty about gift-giving. Instead, he wants to help people see that the reason we love to give and receive gifts is because we were made by a creator who is a generous giver. So Manchester hands out gift boxes as people enter Christmas services. The program for the service is printed on the boxes, and inside are flyers about coming events, individual Communion, and a gift. Last year the gift was a flashlight keychain that was used during a special moment in the service.
All Is Calm, All Is Bright
Finally, Christmas is about caring for those doing the serving as well as those they serve. Hunt noted that First Christian has been in a season of coming together as a staff, building one another up so that they can pour out to others.
Jansen mentioned that same kind of intentionality at Willamette. “A lot of ministers hate the holidays. They’re overworked, overstretched, and everyone is critical.” To prevent that, their team is trying to prepare ahead of time. “This removes panic and stress. By creating margin in our schedules, it allows us to love people well.”
So how’s your Christmas spirit right now? Whether you’re filled to overflowing or in need of a visit by Clarence the angel from It’s a Wonderful Life, remember that you’re not alone. Fellow church leaders near and far are experiencing the same questions, the same stresses, and the same joys this holiday season.
May you find new wonder and hope this December. May God’s Spirit grant you wisdom and peace as you minister in your context. May you be able to say, ere this season drives out of sight, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”
Kelly Carr, former editor of The Lookout, is a writing and editing consultant in Cincinnati, Ohio (EditorOfLife.com).