This year marks our 15th celebration of Christmas Eve at the Maryland State Fairgrounds. Each year has looked a little different but, over time, a true tradition has emerged from what was once an audacious experiment. A tradition that many of our parishioners have grown to cherish.
There are many dedicated devotees out there who have celebrated with us every one of those years. But, for many of our guests, this will mark the first time they will experience Mass in the aptly named “Cow Palace.” As they cross the threshold of our adopted warehouse, the question might arise: “Why?” Why hold Christmas Eve Mass in an empty warehouse? Why invest thousands of volunteer hours, staff time, and money in one evening of the year? Why not just offer more Masses at church?
The tradition of going off-campus for Christmas Eve could be seemingly attributed to two very practical factors: a lack of parking and a lack of seats at optimal times. However, each of those practical factors reveals something deeper about the culture we were trying to build.
So, what do seats and parking on Christmas Eve have to say about your culture?
Insiders know how to work the system to get what they want. They know how early to show up to get good seats, where to take their kids, and the fastest way out. Outsiders, on the other hand, tend to get played by the system. They arrive late (because they were busy frantically trying to find parking) and end up having to stand in the back of church, if they get in at all. This leaves them not only uncomfortable but also embarrassed, trying to corral kids who don’t want to stand in one place. They are definitely treated like second class citizens. Moving off-campus put everyone on a level playing field.
Getting outsiders into better seats can even change your preaching. Craft a homily that is distinctly not for insiders. Carefully remove all insider language and insider references. Consider even forgoing announcements, which usually include references to programs that are not recognizable to outsiders.
My friend Rick Warren says that the availability of parking – not seats – is the true determinant of the maximum amount of people you can fit in your church. If your church is anything like ours used to be, you probably have more seats than you do parking spaces. Most days of the year, you don’t notice. Until Christmas comes.
And it’s not just available spaces. How is your inflow and outflow? If people can’t get into and out of your lot without hassle, they probably won’t come back (or they will just turn around).
If you don’t have access to more parking or a larger facility, there are still things you can do to make Christmas Eve more accessible to outsiders. Set up a parking team for your busiest Masses who can facilitate traffic flow and make sure every space is used. Ask your regular attenders to park off-campus. Even better, enable your parking team to set aside the best spots for newcomers.
Why Christmas Eve at the Cow Palace? Because at Church of the Nativity, Christmas Eve is not all about us, it’s all about our guests and visitors. Join us.