It’s that time of year when the church sanctuary is transformed into downtown Bethlehem circa first century AD, and the parking lot may or may not host some sheep, a donkey, or even a camel.
Kids in bathrobes, the Hallelujah Chorus, live Nativity scenes, lighting an Advent wreath—these are just a few of the special activities and traditions congregations practice to celebrate the birth of Jesus. But before we take the plunge into another Advent and Christmas, it’s worth pausing and asking ourselves, “Who is all of this is for?”
How we answer that question will guide our planning and expectations. It can also help us avoid the problem of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Here are a few audiences that churches typically aim to reach with their Christmas programming:
Community. For churches caught up in the escalating arms race of Christmas pageants and live Nativity dramas, there can be a “Great Christmas Light Fight”-type expansion of resources, both financial and human. When this happens, it’s most often defended by saying “We need to reach out to our community.”
This may or not be the true motive. The quickest way to tell if it’s an honest attempt at outreach is to see if you are communicating about these activities to your community. If you are not inviting them, realistically it can’t be for them. It’s also telling to see who actually shows up. If no one from the community is coming, is it really for them?
Many churches have traditional services, performances, and activities that have become staples in their community’s holiday calendar. They have spent resources over the years to attract and keep people outside of their congregation coming back year after year. It takes time—and money—to get something like this going. I’m all in favor of such an approach, just be honest with yourself about what’s really happening. If the community isn’t invited and isn’t showing up, then your real audience might be….
Church. It’s okay for some services and functions to be just for your church folks. Again, just name this truth from the outset. Our church does an annual cookie swap. It’s just for us. I can see a version of the event that includes guests, but I think it’s absolutely okay for some traditions to be just for the “family.” The goal of these church-focused events are more for uplifting members, supporting each other through prayer and fellowship, and in the case of services, offering worship together. Churches need genuine fellowship.
Children. Some traditions try hard to keep secular depictions of a more commercialized Christmas out of the church. Others try to incorporate them but give them a spiritual meaning. In those cases, the audience is typically children. Because of the way Christians in America celebrate Christmas, some of our strongest childhood memories are often of Christmas. Receiving gifts creates powerful memories.
My hope is that your church does include activities that center on children at this time of year. Dressing as characters from the story of the Nativity drives home the Biblical narrative, and lighting candles, decorating the church, and including special crafts helps children make a deeper connection than just getting presents.
Unchurched. It’s been my experience that churches have a harder time than ever inviting unchurched people to their services. The reasons for this are the subject of another article, but suffice it to say, one audience for churches is those who are not committed church attenders. If you want the unchurched to show up, whatever the event or performance, providing context and meaning for what you’re doing is important. You can’t take for granted that someone who didn’t grow up in the church knows what a shepherd, or for that matter a wise man, has to do with Jesus.
It’s also essential that invitations be personal and include follow up. Most people avoid walking into unfamiliar experiences. Help people know what to expect with clear explanations in your promotional materials and on your website. Having pre-printed invitations for members to hand out to neighbors is a tactic I’ve seen work in the past.
God. It’s all too often that we forget to focus on God in what we do at church. This season offers us opportunities to be mindful that we ultimately do what we do at church to and for God. If we take this motivation to heart, it might just make our season profoundly more enriching. Offering sincere worship to God is transformational and can give meaning to our most frequently repeated traditions.
Perhaps the healthiest churches include holiday activities for each of these audiences. May you and your church experience hope, peace, joy, and love this Advent and Christmas.