A Christmas Eve Church Fantasy… or Not

October 15, 2011

Several years ago, I wrote the following Christmas Eve fantasy account. It was a compilation of some of the Christmas Eve hospitality practices that I’ve experienced in churches I’ve led as well as some things that I’ve seen in other churches. Since it was published, I’ve heard of several churches who have taken on bits and pieces of this vision. Indeed, I was in the presence of a planning committee member who was excited about their adaptation of the Christmas Magi visitation that’s mentioned later in this account. I’m still waiting to find the full vision in any one place, but each year I’m still hopeful.

As you read through the vision, I invite you to put yourself in the minds of a visiting family in your church. What kind of an impression would be left once the Magi mysteriously disappeared down your driveway? May the following inspire you and your church to feats of hospitality previously unheard of in your community.

It was Christmas Eve and we were new to town. Our family’s tradition is to attend an early Christmas Eve worship service with our children and return home for a late dinner. We’d seen a likely church a couple of miles away. Although it was further than we really liked, their sign gave us all the Christmas services information we needed. Many other churches used their sign to remind us that Jesus is the reason for the season or to wish us a Christmas filled with peace.

The “Family Friendly” service was scheduled at six o’clock, which was earlier than our usual experience, but we were excited that we would able to start our kids to bed at a reasonable hour for a change. Even though it was early, it was getting dark when we pulled into the parking lot. At each entrance we could see a shepherd in full regalia with an orange safety flashlight waving us in and directing us to an open parking space near the front of the church. I noticed other cars being directed to the “back parking lot.” I later learned that as church members entered the lot they would dip their headlights in order to be directed to the membership lot – at the farthest reaches of the property so that guests could park in the “best” parking places.

As we got out of the car, we heard caroling and noticed a strolling quartet of carolers in Victorian costume singing nearby. A young woman wearing a green elf hat was with them and as they continued to sing, she welcomed us conversationally and asked if we needed any help getting our children to the worship center. We didn’t need help, so she pointed out the open doors to the church and let us know there were light refreshments just inside the doors. We couldn’t help but notice that there were other elf-hatted greeters both in the parking lot and at the doors.

We went inside the entry hall and were well greeted and directed to the refreshment table, where there were healthy snacks of apple slices and carrots, as well as warm apple cider, cold apple juice, and of course coffee and tea. One of the door greeters handed me a sealed envelope that was labeled For Parents’ Eyes Only. On the back was a cryptic message saying the envelope should be opened before the service ended and without child-presence. While my wife took the children to the refreshment table and then to check out the Make an Ornament station (where the kids had their digital picture taken and printed and they pasted it in a frame they’d decorated with felt pens, glue, and baubles), I opened the envelope.

Inside was a contact card that asked for our name, address, number in the household, as well as an instruction card. The instructions said that within an hour following the service, Christmas Magi would stop by the house and drop off a Christmas gift for the family. It said the Magi would leave the gift at the front of the door and ring the doorbell. They would then make a hasty retreat so the children could find the gift on the doorsteps from the Christmas Magi. The card let us know the gift would include home-baked bread and a pot of local honey. I filled out the contact card and handed it to one of the elf hatted greeters (per the instructions) and we made our way to the worship center.

A cheery usher met us at the door and asked if we had a seating preference. Like most guests, I suppose, we preferred as far back as possible and we were escorted to a row in the back third of the church and were given a glossy, four-color program as we were seated. I noticed the front of the church was filling up, which in my experience was strange. Again, I learned later that members had opted to sit in the front of the church so guests could sit in the “premium” seats.

Before the service began, we were greeted by one of the members who introduced himself as Robert. We chatted for a couple of minutes and he asked about our family, careers, and interests. He shared just a bit about the church and a small group that was starting in the new year that matched our interests. Then he excused himself and I noticed him having a conversation with another couple across the aisle. That made me look around and I saw a number of these conversations going on across the room as members left their seats to chat with folks that they’d just met.

As the service began, all of the children between two and twelve were invited to be a part of an impromptu Christmas Pageant if they wanted to. Shepherd costumed youth wandered the aisles and invited the children to follow them, but there was no pressure. No cajoling. Our younger children were game and followed like a flock of lambs.

The service began with a round of Christmas carols and was followed by a hearty welcome from the pastor. Barely ten minutes had passed from the opening of the service, but as the pastor finished his welcome, he introduced the impromptu children’s pageant. The kids were wearing very basic costumes. Some wore oversized robes with a towel tied around their heads like scarves. Some wore robes and crowns from a local burger place. Others wore headbands with sheep ears, donkey ears, piggy noses, and so on. The Christmas story was read from the Bible from the Message version (with Luke’s and Matthew’s versions strung together), and the children acted it out while being shepherded by youth.

There were a couple of digital photographers snapping photos and the program told us we would receive photos of the kids in action in the mail in a week or two (we got an 8×10 of each of our children posed in front of a manger scene that must have been in the costuming area) and a group photo of the kids in action at the front of the church.

After the Christmas Pageant, the kids rushed back to their seats while the pastor told us about their upcoming children’s worship themes. It turns out their Children Worship Too program has multiple-week series that correspond with the adult worship themes.

The congregation was led through a couple more Christmas carols and then, using a clip from A Charlie Brown Christmas, Linus recited the Christmas story from Luke. This led to a very short sermon that even the children could follow. The title was Making Memories, which was really an introduction to the upcoming sermon series they called Putting Fun Into Dysfunctional Families: Making the Best of Reality that was to begin the following week (rather than the first week of the new year). They ran a faux reality show video clip to introduce the series and bring the sermon to an end. All total, the sermon time must have been no longer than ten minutes and the children stayed with the pastor’s words from start to finish. Then we sang a couple more carols and one of the Shepherds prayed for us to have a memory-filled and Christ-focused Christmas.

We’re typically the first ones out the door when we visit a church in a new town, and generally we “escape” without so much as a good-bye, but every elf-hatted greeter we met coming in was apparently in place before the closing prayer and we were bid merry Christmas, thanks for coming, and hope to see you next Sunday. In the parking lot, the strolling Victorian carolers were making their rounds and the flashlight bearing shepherds were out in force to point the way out. Again, we found out later than members had been asked to hang back so that visitors could exit the parking lot first.

That evening, as promised, within an hour of returning home the doorbell rang and our children sprang to the door, as children often do. When they opened the door, there was a wrapped gift sitting on the steps and with great delight the children spied two Magi disappearing down our driveway. The gift box had a loaf of homemade bread, honey in a jar, and a small honey pot that had the logo and contact information for the church imprinted on it. There was also a brochure about the ministries of the church, a commercial CD with Christmas carols on it, and a Christmas card hand-signed by the pastor with a church information magnet enclosed.

A Christmas dream of fantasy sugar plums? Hardly. Every part of this vision is being acted out in churches we’ve attended, worked with, or were associated with over the years. Put it all together and you have a service that will move, touch, and inspire your guests – and I’ll go out on a limb and predict that a pretty good number of them would show up again over the following weeks.

Question: What is the most effective Christmas service you’ve attended? What elements would you like to incorporate into your church’s Christmas service? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

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