It’s the most wonderful time of the year. At least for the church it is … or should be. This is the one time of the year when the word Christ, though well disguised, is on the lips of pretty much everyone regardless of their beliefs. This is the one season of the year when a cubical-neighbor can announce to the office he’s going to church and no one is likely to give him a hard time – and if it happens to be a Christmas Eve service, someone might even ask to come along. During Advent, spiritual “stuff” fairly drips from everything we see and hear (the season of Advent starts two weeks before Halloween … that’s a not for those who still believe the church calendar somehow trumps the cultural calendar). If ever there was an open season of opportunity for gospel-sharing, it’s the Christmas Holydays. And though every year I get my hopes up that churches everywhere will carpe diem, every year my buoyancy is dashed because every year so many churches make the same mistakes. Mistakes that hinder the gospel from reaching the ears, hearts, hands, and heads of our neighbors.
Here are three of them. Please, don’t let your church be guilty of these this year.
1. Late Planning. The fact is, if you haven’t already pretty much wrapped up your Christmas worship planning, you’re behind by at least three months. At this point, your sermon series both during and the new one that launches the week following Christmas should already be planned, basically outlined, and the worship arts/tech team should be at work putting together supporting materials. Your marketing campaign should not only be planned, but the paid-portions should be in the hands of the media and your guerilla marketing, including press releases, etc., should be written and scheduled for release. As you read the rest of these catastrophes, make a note for your holiday planning.
2. Embracing Tradition Over Effectiveness. There’s something about Christmas that screams “Tradition.” Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with tradition … except when it gets in the way of sharing the gospel. The majority of non-growing churches seem pretty rut-stuck when it comes to holiday season services. In these churches, the choir will usurp one Advent service for their cantata – and though cantatas are lovely, those who are thoroughly unchurched are unlikely to be attracted to a cantata, and if they come, rarely return. In some churches, another service will be given over to the “hanging of the greens” or some other ritualized, “let’s get everyone to help decorate the church” event. And in far too many of these churches, the sermon series will be either be another retelling of the Christmas story or a venture into the apocalypse (thanks to the Lectionary). Thus we either get infantine saccharine or try-and-scare-the-hell (literally) out of the unredeemed (and a couple of the redeemed too, if possible).
Of course, the biggest catastrophe is what happens on Christmas Eve. First, the service will be held “when it’s always been held.” So, 7 o’clock services are the norm, never mind that research suggests that the earlier the service (within reason), the higher the attendance, particularly by the unchurched. Some of you may remember that last year 21st Century Strategies did a survey of our member churches asking about the correlation between attendance, style, and timing of their Christmas Eve services. The sampling wasn’t high enough to be conclusive, but far and away, the churches that held services starting between 5 and 6 saw increases in attendance over services that started at 7 or later. There were a few that saw high attendance at their 11 o’clock services, but many pointed out that they were one of only a few churches offering the late night services … and that most of the attendees were thoroughly churched.
Then there’s the content of the Christmas Eve service. Here’s a typical rundown of a service that couldn’t be any more ineffective for growing a church. Opening Christmas carols – either all verses of a few, or only the first verse of a bunch. The choir sings a selection (or two or three) from their cantata. Some soloist sings O Holy Night. Someone reads the Christmas story from Luke (often while some prominent family in the church lights the Christ Candle), typically from the King James Bible. The pastor offers a few, typically very few, comments about the passage. Candles are dispensed and then lit one by one (often while standing in a big friendship circle) and then the carol Silent Night is sung (in a pitch that second sopranos squeak at) from memory … and someone will invariably try to lead through the virtually unknown second and third and fourth verses. Then everyone goes home.
And the gospel was … where? And a guest should return sometime besides to next year’s Christmas Eve, why? And you’re going to follow-up with them, how?
Measure your effectiveness of past holiday services. How many new members do you have who made their first visit during last year’s holiday season? If those numbers are unacceptable, then change some things this year.
3. Members Don’t Invite. I know, it’s hard to get members to invite their friends, relatives, acquaintances, neighbors, or co-workers to church any time, but in many ways, this is the season Jesus would likely be pointing at and saying to his disciples, “Look, the fields are white [or silver and gold, red and green] for harvest.” There are more opportunities to invite and expect people to respond to those invitations than at any other time of the year. “But we’ve already invited everyone we know.” Generally, in my experience, that excuse is at best a misperception and at worst a gross revision of the truth. To “fix” this problem, make it easy for your members to invite anyone and everyone … even the bus driver, the barista, and the bus boy. Here are a couple of ways to make it easy to invite:
- Create business cards for use as Invite Cards. The one pictured above is one I designed using VistaPrint.com … and would cost less than $15, including shipping, to supply an average sized church in the US with enough cards for every member to have several to give out.
- Punch a hole in some invite cards and use thin ribbon to tie them to candy canes. Give each member five candy canes a week to give out to those they meet.
- Get some media attention for something the church is doing … and play it up big in the community so members can naturally evoke the story with their friends (and leave them with an invitation).
For more ideas, see the Church-Talk episodes on Getting Ready for the Holidays and Christmas Eve at www.Church-Talk.com.