This article first appeared in the November/December issue of Faith Today.
For years, a little church in the Blue Mountain region of Ontario ran an annual pancake supper. Pancakes were flipped, sausages sizzled and the maple syrup flowed as the congregation enjoyed spending time together, indulging in this annual Shrove Tuesday feast before the more disciplined season of Lent set in.
Then, one year, they decided to turn this lovely tradition inside-out in the hope it could help them form new relationships with people in their neighbourhood. Recognizing many unchurched people are wary of entering a church building, they held the supper offsite at their local community centre, partnering with the Blue Mountain Fire Department. Instead of it being mostly an event for church members, it became a fundraiser the whole community was invited to get involved in. A tidy sum of money was raised to help victims of bushfires, the profile of the church was raised in the community and new relationships were fostered; relationships that had the potential to be rich soil for planting gospel seeds.
When I first heard this story about St. George’s Anglican Church, it made me wonder, “What if churches turned more of what they did inside-out?” What other lovely, cherished traditions that have long focused on churches’ own members could be tweaked so they could become a bridge to new relationships with unchurched and dechurched people? To be honest, I also wondered if there actually were unchurched people open to having a relationship with Christians.
In the spring of 2017, Angus Reid conducted a public opinion poll that examined the spiritual practices and beliefs of Canadians. It suggested a full 30 per cent of Canadians fit into a category described as privately faithful–people who have no connection to a faith community, but believe there is a God, pray to God and (perhaps most astonishingly) want their kids to be taught about God by a recognized faith community (https://angusreid.org/religion-in-canada-150). This equates to roughly ten million people across our country. How might churches reach these folks? One thing is for certain. Churches will not reach them by focusing on themselves. We need to begin to think and pray seriously, and plan creatively, so we can better reach people with the gospel.
We have so much to offer, but like beautifully wrapped presents stacked in a shop window, what we have can be just beyond the reach of the unchurched and dechurched person.
What would it look like for churches to rethink and tweak our lovely, cherished traditions of Christmas so people beyond our churches could enjoy them too as a first seed of the gospel? It would be amazing if Christians across Canada actively unwrapped their churches for their neighbourhood this Christmas.
Here are some practical ways churches can tweak what they already do at Christmas to help cultivate the new relationships that can be seedbeds for sharing the faith with the privately faithful, as well as explorers and seekers.
While these two words have the power to strike fear in the hearts of pastors and children’s ministry leaders everywhere, in the end all the volunteer recruiting, costume making, kid herding and dress rehearsalling are worth it. After all, who doesn’t love to watch the ancient story of Christmas be acted out by kids in dishtowels, bathrobes and shaggy sheep costumes?
Pageants may be the ideal event to invite unchurched neighbours, friends, colleagues and family to since we already know from the Angus Reid poll that many of them want their kids to learn about the original Christmas story.
So, with them in mind, plan to hold your pageant on a day and time when they are most likely to be able to attend with their kids–for instance a Saturday or Sunday afternoon or early evening, just before Christmas. If you need to host two to accommodate everyone according to pandemic guidelines, do it.
Plan both your greeting and some follow-up hospitality (hot chocolate on the lawn?) specifically with your unchurched guests in mind. But whatever you do, keep it simple and be intentional about advertising your pageant to the neighbourhood, using language and references that will help all your visitors feel welcome.
At the event itself be sure to provide info on other ways you can help their kids learn about God. For example, you could provide a cheat sheet on How to Talk to Your Kids About God, or Answers to Questions Kids Ask About God. Build a relationship with the whole family by assuming their best intentions to help their kids explore faith. And above all, have fun together.
Many churches across Canada host a delicious Christmas dinner for those in their community who would otherwise be alone at Christmas. As such this is already an outward-focused event. But how might you tweak this dinner so genuine relationships form among those who make it happen and those who attend?
Since many unchurched people recognize the emptiness of a purely consumer-driven Christmas, invite people in your neighbourhood to join your volunteer prep, set-up and serving teams. Set aside at least half your team roles for such folk and advertise early in the fall to begin to form a relationship with them.
On the day of the dinner itself, make sure there’s at least one church member sitting, chatting and eating with every three guests attending. Get to know the folk who come and invite them out to a Christmas service, a post-Christmas Alpha course, a parents’ and tots group or the seniors craft group. Build in a way for them to give you their contact info so you can follow up with them as a church. Again, it’s all about forming authentic relationships.
Neighbourhood block parties
If there is something the pandemic has taught us, it is that loneliness is endemic in our society. Christmas gives us a golden opportunity to host a get to know your neighbour gathering. Whether an inside wine and cheese, or outside hot choc and s’mores, Christmas can give Christians the ideal reason to invite our neighbours over.
Meeting in small numbers over food, we get to know people in a whole different way, fostering relationships that grow deeper over time. It is out of such relationships Christians can best share with their neighbours the reason for the hope that is in them.
Live Nativity plays
I know of one church on the outskirts of the Greater Toronto Area that hosted a live Nativity play on their sizable front lawn for many years. A microphoned narrator simply told the Christmas story while visually Joseph could be seen leading Mary on a live donkey down the suburban sidewalk, arriving at the enclosed sheep pen housing several sheep and their bath-robed shepherds.
The first year it was mostly church people who came out, but by the second year the neighbourhood started to participate. And by year three there were so many attending that the mayor of the city showed up to press the flesh. Again, if you do this sort of event, give your visitors something to take away such as a Christmas card with the church website on it.
The prepandemic rise of community choirs showed us many people love to sing, but the pandemic has largely robbed us all of this. However, outside singing is still allowed! So why not encourage the musical members in your church to host a neighbourhood carol sing with the people on their street?
Be sure to include some Christmas songs unchurched people are likely to be familiar with, as well as the wonderful traditional Christmas carols that speak of our faith. By providing lyric sheets, and some handheld triangles, mini-tambourines and even kazoos, you can help even the nonmusical people on your street join in the fun.
Again, follow up by getting to know them better over some hot chocolate after the carolling. While the voices raised in song may be sublime, or not, the real goal is relationship building. A shared love of music may be the perfect vehicle.
Blue Christmas service
Christmas is traditionally a time for people to be with their loved ones. But this may only serve as salt in the wound for the many people who have had someone they love die in the past year. Grief is a heartbreaking part of the human condition, something unchurched and dechurched people face just as we do.
Additionally, together we are also all mourning for the more than 27,000 Canadians who have lost their lives to Covid-19 and for the children who died in the many residential schools that dotted our country.
Why not hold a short outdoor service to remember and honour the lives of those who have died, inviting the whole neighbourhood to participate? Invite people to gather, reflect and light a tea light in memory of their loved one, as some of your church musicians play an instrumental piece of music. Invite them to whisper the first names of someone they know who has died as you lead short prayers of thanksgiving and prayers for comfort.
Once again, have some follow-up material to help them make a deeper connection — perhaps the dates and times for a new grief support group starting up, or perhaps copies of simple pamphlets on grieving the death of a loved one. Put yourself in the shoes of someone in our society who, due to the pandemic, may have been forced to largely grieve their loved one alone.
Christmas hampers/gift bags
Food banks are reporting that use of their services has increased significantly during the pandemic. Many of the working poor (elderly workers, single parents, low-paid service workers) have lost their jobs and are struggling more than ever.
Christmas is a time when many churches provide hampers of food and Christmas gifts to such people and their families. If your church does this, invite others in your neighbourhood to join in the project.
Many unchurched people feel a bit threatened by the idea of joining a Bible study, attending a church program or coming to worship on a Sunday, but they’re only too happy to join in some form of community service. Let your advertising be clear that you need their help!
For those that respond with offers of help, be sure to pair them with church members so they can feel comfortable with what they’re supposed to be doing, but also to give them the opportunity to be known by someone in the church family.
These are just a few ideas of how you might unwrap your church for your neighbourhood this Christmas. Perhaps you’ve thought of some other tweaks to make and new experiments to try. Whatever you do, may you do it with the hope of introducing those who are privately faithful to the God who calls them by name, and was born as a human baby so that they might call Him by name too.