On December 24th, almost every church in my little town will hold an evening service—and it’s not even Sunday. What draws the faithful back to their pews only two days after being at regular sabbath worship? Obviously, it is Christmas Eve, a time when the Christian Church celebrates the birth of Jesus. More interesting however, is to speculate why so many others, with no current faith practice or ongoing church attendance, will join these congregations on this one occasion.
Over my many years of leading Christmas Eve gatherings, I have always recognized the importance of this special time for church members. I worked with the choir and lay leadership to design a worship service to meet that need but, each year, we would also genuinely welcome our guests, those whom we don’t see the rest of the year. As we celebrated this special day in the church calendar, our visitors were warmly invited to join us in the beautiful candle-lit liturgy of that celebration.
This Tuesday, Christmas Eve, I am taking a different approach. While I will always be happy to greet the “regulars” who arrive, my focus will be primarily on the newcomers. These new faces belong to people, young and old, whose motives for attending vary widely. From past Christmas Eve services, and as we chatted briefly afterward, here are some of the stories they have shared with me:
*** Some come because they were visiting relatives in town, usually parents or grandparents, who invited them to attend this service with them. They came as a courtesy and out of respect for the older generation.
*** Others are family members, typically husbands or older children who have watched wife/mother go off to church every Sunday all year. On this one special occasion, she has asked them to join her. As an act of love and support, they readily agreed. Some are curious. Some are understandably a bit anxious.
*** A university student told me she came once a year to sit in the very same pew her grandparents, now dead, once occupied for forty years. This she did to honour their memory.
*** Some non-church parents brought their children to learn about the ancient ritual of Christian Christmas with its themes of love and giving, good values to teach the kids. They will no longer find the creche story presented in most schools.
*** Other adults came to recall and relive for that hour, long-ago Sunday School experiences when they believed the Story.
*** One tired-looking mid-life woman confided that she just needed to find that one quiet, peaceful hour of rest after last minute shopping and food preparation and before ten in-laws arrived tomorrow.
How can we adapt a service to help our guests feel welcome and included, not merely polite spectators? I can start by replacing “church language” with common speak. A “scripture” reading can become a “Bible reading.” An “anthem” can be introduced as “choir.” The “Benediction” is the “Blessing” and the dreaded “sermon” is replaced by a “reflection.” There will be no awkward mid-service offering to collect. If they desire, guests can make a free-will donation to the Salvation Army as they leave.
For this night, my primary goal is to take way the distinction between them and us. No matter how each one views Christianity and its Christmas story, everyone can enjoy the familiar carols in the setting for which they were created, not as background noise in a shopping mall. All of us can respond to the visual beauty of a lovingly-decorated sanctuary (our place of worship.) The story of Jesus … myth, man or son of God … still offers a universal appeal to the fulfillment of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love, the message of this Advent season. I hope you will come and find out. You will be most welcome.