By Eddie Pipkin

Advent and Christmas are upon us – one of those “Superbowl seasons” in the life of the local congregation.  We are caught up in a flurry of events and activities which mirrors the societal chaos of the holidays.  On the one hand, there is a natural hunger for reconnection to the church this time of year, a perfect platform for inviting people in and giving them opportunities to engage.  On the other hand, we can end the season exhausted and unfulfilled (a counterproductive result of overfilling the tank).  We can even be just one more part of the overextension that distracts people from the impact of a thoughtful, restorative Advent (for which the season was originally purposed).  it’s classically comical that this sacred interlude of anticipation and waiting collides with our cultural imperative of hectic everythingism.

So, as we as ministry leaders contemplate the best way to commemorate Advent and Christmas, let me offer this Yuletide advice: Keep it simple.  In our quest to be hip, relevant, cutting edge, and fresh, we have a strong urge to keep reinventing the season with ALL NEW pageants, and FRESH TAKES on musical extravaganzas, nativity scenes, and Christmas worship.  It’s a lot of pressure.  And it’s not what people are looking for.

As fewer people routinely attend worship services or get involved in local congregations, Christmas is one of those times of the year – arguably the singular most prominent time of the year – during which people reconnect, if only temporarily.  What they are feeling is nostalgia (and that’s not a bad thing).  The trappings and rituals of the season trigger a deep pull towards the values of the Christmas story and the connections of community and faith which were once part of their lives – or even a sense of values that have been missing from their lives but seen in others through the hazy snow globe of possibility: “I’d like to be a part of that – peace, love, hope, joy, and wonder.”

So, keep it simple.  Give them the greeting card.  Welcome them to the cozy fireside of your hospitality.  Sing the familiar carols.  Host the candlelight service.  Let the kids be adorable in sheep costumes and angel wings.  People are longing for the comfort of the familiar, especially in these times of uncertainty, trouble, and violence.  (There is hard science behind the positive effect that the seasonal lights and decorations can have on our mood.)

Here are the values they are seeking out when they wander into your event or worship service – and they aren’t any different than what has always keeps people wandering in, just intensified this time of year:

  • A need to belong.
  • A need to have value.
  • A need to feel loved.
  • A need to find peace.
  • A need to live a life of purpose.

The rituals of Advent and Christmas connect to each of these basic needs in meaningful ways.  Be mindful in your planning and preparation that the point of our seasonal gatherings is not the events and activities themselves, but the meeting of these soul-felt needs.  Tune your interactions with the seekers to emphasizing the ways in which everything you are doing reassures them of the power of the nativity narrative (and of the Gospel it launches) to meet those needs.  Use the familiar to lead participants more deeply into the sacred by overtly stressing those connections and giving them opportunities for response.

This can be done by fully embracing traditions.  It can be done by tweaking those traditions.  And if you’re not forcing the issue just to be “relevant” but are truly reflecting creative ideas and insights that spring organically from your current context, they can be provocative reimaginings.  There are many resources available to help you think through new ideas and reimagine old traditions.  I really like Debbie Kolacki’s lengthy exploration of “New Ways of Doing the Christmas Pageant”; here’s a link to “23 Creative Ideas for Your Christmas Eve Service”; and I was inspired by some of the suggestions from re:think worship’s brainstorming article on this topic.  Two of my favorite:

  • Awkward Waiting: As part of the run-up to lighting the Advent candle during worship – before you light the candle, or sing the candle lighting carol, or read the associated Scripture, or however you do it at your church – just tuck two minutes of awkward silence in there.  It is an awesome illustration of just how uncomfortable it is to wait!  Especially in these days of micro-produced worship services.  It gives you a great experiential platform from which to discuss the season of holy anticipation.
  • The Little Drummer Boy-a-palooza: (That’s my name for it.) Using the “Little Drummer Boy” song as a focus – and by the way, “The Little Drummer Boy” is a pop-culture composition, not a traditional carol, but it is rich in Gospel resonance – play the song as you have everyone who’s ever been a percussionist play along on a drum of some kind.

The key is to give people active ways to participate in whatever it is that you are doing.

Another important strategy is to lean into the natural feelings that people are experiencing in this special season, whether they think of themselves as religious or not.  Many churches acknowledge the difficulty of the season for some through “Blue Christmas” services.  Here’s a great resource for designing a “Blue Christmas” emphasis.   People are also looking for ways to give, so all churches should be providing opportunities for people to exercise that impulse.  It is a perfect season to impact the community – setting forth a public face as an institution that loves the neighborhood and giving people (who are feeling that urge in a way that they may not at any other time of the year) an outlet for being a part of that love.  They are going to find a way to give – it’s an unavoidable impulse at Christmas – why not help them partner with you in their giving?  It may well be a partnership that lasts beyond December.  Similarly, even if they aren’t “church people,” if they have kids, they are going to be looking for fun, family-oriented, seasonal celebrations.  Make them welcome and do it in a way that shows them who you are in spirit.  Fun photo booths, faux snowball fights, camel meet-and-greets, and gingerbread house decorating contests can all be whimsical pathways to a deeper connection to the Gospel.

Here are some of my other thoughts for the season:

  • Get outside. An outside service during the season is evocative of the nativity story.  Firelight is powerful, and s’mores and hot chocolate are fun.  An outside worship experience lends itself to acoustic simplicity and feels nostalgic in a low-tech way that is increasingly hard to find.
  • Build a worship service or event around a classic Christmas movie. Sure, you can’t go wrong with How The Grinch Stole Christmas or A Charlie Brown Christmas.  They both have deep insights into true meaning of the season that can be leveraged for Gospel connections, and they both have easy tie-ins to fun activities.  But if you want to really mix it up and bridge the gap to popular culture, you might even try something less obvious like Home Alone or National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, or A Christmas Story.
  • Hit the Road. The Christmas season is an excellent time to get out beyond the walls of your church campus and into the surrounding community.  From free gift-wrapping stations outside local stores to hosting Christmas parties at the local nursing home or sponsoring a float in the local Christmas parade, you should definitely be extending yourself into the neighborhood.
  • Do not underestimate the power of caroling. It is the karaoke of religious hymns.  Even if people have never attended church, they know the words and tune to some of the classic faith-based Christmas songs.  People love to carol, and people love to have carolers show up at their doorsteps.  So, host a community carol-sing, do an impromptu sing-along at the local mall, or send carolers out into the immediate neighborhood – you might even include some yummy baked cookies!  One of my favorite versions of caroling is a youth group that combines the Christmas caroling with a hayride as they cruise through subdivisions adjacent to their campus.
  • Themed Sundays. Don’t miss an opportunity to let people have seasonal fun even as they are joining you for worship.  I mentioned gingerbread house decorating earlier, but how about an ugly sweater Sunday?  Or a cookie baking Sunday?  Or a make your own nativity set Sunday?  Give people the meat of the Gospel message, but don’t forget the dessert of fun fellowship.

Many of you reading this will note that it’s a little late to be giving advice for 2018.  You have, of course, already planned all your events for this Advent and Christmas.  True, but now is the time when we think about these things, and if you can’t work in some of these ideas for this year, they might be helpful for thinking a year ahead.  That is really what we should always be doing as leaders and planners: making notes about what we are seeing and reserving them for the next season, and we should be doing that kind of brainstorming and observation far, far in advance of crunch time.

What are some of your favorite ideas for keeping Advent and Christmas simple, connecting people to the deep emotions they feel during this season, and mixing it up to put a new spin on old traditions?  Please share your own stories.