Despite what you may have heard, Christmas still matters to most people, including the unchurched. The reasons many people come to church on Christmas Eve may be nothing more than to please a family member or sing carols. But it’s the church’s job to transform that experience and use it as an opportunity for evangelization.
At Nativity, we’ve been hosting Christmas Eve services at the nearby state fairgrounds, in a facility affectionately called the “Cow Palace,” for ten years, and each year we learn a little more about what is (and isn’t) most effective for making a truly impactful community celebration.
What would the Christmas season be without the music, both sacred and secular? Even for nonreligious people, Christmas music holds a special magic. Christmas standards like “O Come All Yea Faithful” and “Joy to the World” are still a common point of interest for the unchurched with little knowledge of Christian music. Many of your guests will come for the music alone, viewing church as a type of seasonal concert experience, but your parish can use that as an opportunity to draw someone into meaningful worship. Choose your music wisely, and challenge your music ministers to really lead worship and not just perform.
The number one question an unchurched person has coming into your service is, “how long is this going to take?”
Our two Christmas Eve Masses, which host about 4,500 people each, last sixty minutes- no more, no less. A beautiful, effective liturgy and a time limit are not mutually exclusive. You’re not compromising Christmas by respecting your guests’ schedule.
The key here is preparation. Preparation leads to effectiveness. But when it comes to preparation, here are a few items you many not have considered that are essential for a timely service:
- An effective parking ministry to keep the traffic moving
- Greeters holding doors to keep people moving
- Ushers ready to lead people into their seats
- An intentional length for the hymns homily.
Every family celebrates Christmas traditions and our church family is no different. One of our favorite traditions is our candle lighting ceremony after Communion while signing “Silent Night.” It is a very powerful and moving moment.
Traditions foster a sense of continuity year to year and can actually help your members extend invitations and tell others about what to look forward to.
If you don’t have any parish traditions, start one this year.
What was lacking at the first Christmas ever? Space. There was no room for Mary and Joseph at the Inn. (Luke 2:7). Many churches have the same problem on Christmas Eve. Regulars and insiders get to church early and take all the prime seats. With no room left for the visitors and guests. This year, why not challenge your regulars to give up their seats and make room for newcomers?
But, creating an attractive environment is more than just space- it’s about an all-around atmosphere of worship and excitement truly worthy of the celebration. What do your decorations say about your church? Are your announcements relevant to newcomers? Is there a place for kids? In everything you should be asking: is this relevant and accessible to the unchurched?
Ultimately, what is an effective service? It is one that leads an unchurched person to come back to church in the new year.