by Eddie Pipkin
We’ve been sampling the wide range of local Christmas events that our metro area has to offer, from formal orchestral performances to school holiday concerts, and it’s been a blast so far. From fancy synchronized light presentations to neighborhood decorating contests, carefully curated Festivals of Trees to corner seasonal craft markets, there has been much to enjoy. I love it all. But I confess, as much as I do appreciate a high-tech, meticulously choreographed, professionally produced Christmas production, I’m a sucker for something that feels homemade, lovingly created by dedicated amateurs in the time-honored spirit of “let’s put on a show.” If it’s a little rag-tag and has a flaw or two, all the better: that feels to me like the Spirit of Christmas.
I certainly appreciate a well-produced and carefully assembled Christmas extravaganza, things that feel like (or often are) a professional-level production. These are great platforms to highlight the talents of your congregation and showcase the best of your efforts. However, these types of events tend to be limited to larger congregations with larger budgets.
Every size congregation with any size budget, or not budget at all, can make an offering of song, drama, hospitality and meaningful expressions of this sacred season.
What we do and how we do it, in terms of the special events by which we will worship, celebrate, and welcome the community, say a lot about who we are and what we are offering to those who wish to partner with us in relationships. One the one hand, we might be the kind of place that attracts top notch artists and performers, empowers them, and gives attendees ample opportunities to be inspired by the work of those artists and performers. Of course, in that setting, it’s often clear that only the most accomplished of singers, musicians, and actors will have a recurring role, and only the most confident of artists will command the performance space. So, for people who think of themselves as “audience,” to be blessed by those performances (or in the preferred parlance of many folks, who are coming for the express purpose of being “spiritually fed” by those performances), they will be drawn to this setting. Week after week, and especially in special, sacred seasons, they are getting what they feel they need to grow.
Others, who have talents of their own to share, no matter how modest, may not thrive in this environment. Their gifts may be less flashy or less developed than those of the featured superstars. The voices may not be worthy of command-performance solos, or their instrumental skills distinguished enough to grace a concert hall. But their creative gifts are sincerely expressed and central to their experience of their faith. Such gifts require an outlet for their expression, and it is in our sacred seasons, particularly those steeped in the narrative of the beauty of offering up such humble and heartfelt gifts, that provide an opportunity for such sincere and holy expressions.
We should give everyone a chance to share what they would offer, and we should joyfully celebrate their willingness to do so.
Participation is a key to relational community. Among the potent themes of the Christmas story is the idea that everyone has an important role to play. Even supporting roles can have enormous impact. Everyone gets a moment to be special.
This is also a central tenet of our faith. Our Christmas celebrations are an avenue for such celebrations of the faithful where the spotlight shines on everyone, so to speak. If everyone is involved in our sacred seasonal offerings, everyone has a chance to build precious Christmas memories of their own belonging and mattering – the more expansive and inclusive we can make the events we are hosting, the more the good feelings of Christmas community will resonate among all.
Some will argue that because we are blessed with so many visitors during the Christmas season, it’s a time when we should “put our best foot forward,” offering up excellence in presentation and lots of special touches as a way to entice people to stick with us in January. It’s a reasonable and noble thought, but it comes with a couple of important caveats:
- A presentation that is far beyond our normal efforts is impossible to sustain going forward into the new year. It sets unreasonable expectations. People may be disappointed to return and find our more run-of-the-mill normal routine. There is a difference with highlighting the true members of our church family and bringing in “ringers,” for instance, to upgrade our presentation.
- It can create distance between those visitors and their ability to identify with ways active ways in which they might connect with our ministry (beyond the passive ways they will be edified by observing our stellar ‘performances.’) There is power and potential in their being sable to see themselves in what they see us doing.
Christmas, among the seasonal opportunities, lends itself to getting a diverse mix of people involved:
- The lonely. Many people are blue during Advent and Christmas and would welcome the chance to assuage their sadness with a chance to throw themselves into a task that serves others or embraces the holiday spirit.
- The kids. Christmas always presents a special time when kids can take on leadership. It’s a season when they are expected to play a big role. It doesn’t have to be a one-off Christmas pageant. You can work them into every event you host in significant ways.
- The people who are paying attention only because it’s Christmas. It’s a great time to engage those who are impervious to engagement at any other time of year. We are sometimes dismissive of the “Chreaster” crowd, who only show up for Christmas and Easter, but what a great opportunity. We should embrace it!
- Those gifted in the visual arts. We should be letting those gifted in visual arts shower us with their gifts in every season, but they really have a special knack for all of the visual glory that Christmas lends itself to. Let them do their thing.
- Those whose generosity is tweaked by the unique spirit of the season. We should provide plenty of opportunities for people to give to help others, as well as opportunities for them to serve others in a hands-on manner. People are seeking this kind of involvement this time of year, and we can get them involved now and make it a point to provide continuity of involvement as the new year begins.
- The nostalgic. It is the most nostalgic season as well, and we should give people a chance to indulge those gauzy impulses; let them embrace those memories. We can show them how to think back fondly as a springboard for thinking ahead.
- The introverted. As we plan all these very public events, let’s not forget to provide resources to those who like the quiet and reserved, more private approach. It is also true, though, that for people who don’t enjoy all this public spectacle, it’s the one time of the year they are susceptible more than any other to coming out and joining the crowd. Let’s be sure and make a point of inviting them to do so.
The less obsessed we are with perfection, the more of these options we will be able to pursue.
I made the point earlier in this blog that some of the minor mistakes, miscues, gaffs, and glitches that can occur during our special seasonal programming are actually some of the charming memories that persist. I have many fond memories of sets falling over, costume malfunctions, and misplaced lines in Christmas pageants and programs. Angels’ wings that came unglued, song cues egregiously mistimed, and technical mistakes comic and tragic that marred everyone’s best efforts. To me, these human errors have only added to the charm of the season. They remind us that we are imperfect people in an imperfect world and that the cast of the original nativity was largely composed of imperfect people, too. It was they that the Christ child appeared to redeem.
It is, of course, not just likely but inevitable that most people who turn out to be part of our Christmas events are themselves imperfect and flawed. It’s one of the reasons they join us in the first place, to be reassured that there is beauty and hope in the messiness of life. They come to see themselves as part of a story of grace and possibility. When we show them how regular people, just like them, can offer the best of themselves to honor God and their fellow human beings, we give them a way to see how they, too, can serve joyfully. Warts and all.
What are some of your favorite memories of Christmas events gone awry? And how did those moments reassert the joy of imperfect humanity doing its best to honor God? (It’s the whole plot of such wonderful stories as The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.) Do you and your ministry do a good job of getting everybody involved and engaged, the mega-talented and the more humbly gifted but equally sincere? How do you get the maximum number of people involved in that “let’s put on a show” spirit for the glory of God? How do you help visitors get engaged, too? How do you give them a chance to respond in the moment and create an instant vision of their own involvement and value?