The days of the neighbourhood dropping in for Church just because it’s Christmas are over. Here’s how your church can move into the neighbourhood instead.
For centuries, the Advent/Christmas seasons have been a time for folks to automatically come into Church, perhaps for the only time in a year. However, in this post-Christendom, and some would argue post-Christian age, all bets are off. The days of expectation that people will naturally come into events in our churches simply because it is Christmas, are rapidly dwindling. This is not an urban, suburban, or rural issue. This is not a church size or denominational issue. This is the new normal of every local church in our increasingly secularized age.
It is not a time for despair. In fact, it is an exciting season of opportunity and hope for those in Christian leadership who are willing to fully engage the challenges of our day. In Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the magisterial Prologue in John’s gospel that is read every Christmas, we get a glimpse into the missional heart of the Incarnation:
The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish. (Jn. 1:14, The Message by Eugene Peterson)
God moves into our neighbourhood. We have an opportunity to step back and re-think all we intend, practice and believe about our engagement with Advent/Christmas and with our culture. In whatever way your Church makes decisions, I am going to suggest that we gather, and consider six fundamentals of Advent/Christmas planning, before we look at some practical applications.
Ditch the complaining about the hyper-consumerism of our culture or the lack of religious practice in our society. We follow the One who not only is the Word made flesh, but also the One who breaks the back of death, evil and our sin by his atoning work on the Cross. Our world needs the good news of the Gospel as we share our hope that is grounded in the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — the Gospel imperative.
Who needs to be part of this conversation? How can the conversation be expanded to include those not typically in the decision-making process? Engage those who only come at Christmas. Talk to those in your community who do not attend at all. Ask your youth and young adults about their expectations and experiences of what the Church can be and do at Christmastide.
Consider every aspect of your Advent and Christmas practices. Ask yourself the simple but exceptionally difficult question—why? Why do we do what we do during Advent and Christmas? Are these events aligned with the gospel imperatives of the Incarnation?
Consider what it will mean to engage your community this Christmas, versus expecting your community to engage your church events.
Think through when your Advent and Christmas events are held. Are attendance patterns changing? Do we need to change our event times to engage more people more effectively?
Where is the best expression of the Advent and Christmas season? Would it be more beneficial to change locales, to actually ‘move into the neighbourhood’ instead of offering events at our local church building?
These six elements of re-thinking and re-framing our understanding and practices of Advent/Christmas in our churches is the hard work of Christian leadership. You will find very quickly that “Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous patience.” (Hyman Rickover)
Historic methodologies and practices feel good to us, but do they connect the Gospel and our culture? If we have done our homework, and prayerfully thought through these six fundamentals, then we might be surprised by the need for the church’s historic gospel tradition, versus our own local traditionalism. In the context of your local community, remember theologian Jaroslav Pelikan’s famous dictum: “Traditionalism is the dead religion of the living. Tradition is the living religion of the dead.”
At St. Paul’s, as we have sought to consider these Advent/Christmas planning fundamentals, we have discovered some simple and effective things to engage and connect with the communities we serve. We are a work in progress, always trying to pray and think through what, why and how we are doing and being the Church.
Here are some things to think about for the Advent/Christmas seasons:
Advertise early and widely with the message that you want to engage with your community, not simply get them into church at this time of year.
Use social media to get the message out. Even if you have no experience or are personally wary – seek out those who regularly use Facebook or Twitter and learn. The cost of your usual advertising -—newspaper, flyers etc. – is increasing while their effectiveness is diminishing.
Undertake a prayer ministry to pray for your visitors, for your events, for gospel proclamation.
Ensure one clear theme in the music, preaching, and prayers so that your message is coherent, concise and consistent.
Through the Advent/Christmas seasons, place the incarnation in the context of the whole of salvation history. For example, a traditional Lessons and Carols service embodies the great sweep of Creation, Rebellion, Israel, Jesus, Still Being Written and The End.
In preaching, beware of the urge to bury people in scriptural volume. Do not overestimate the biblical literacy of our culture or our church communities. Just because you know the implications of the incarnation, do not assume everyone does.
Beware of the urge to find new meaning in the old text. Allow the Gospel and the text to shape your preaching.
But do preach! Please do not offer a Christmas devotional or read someone else’ thoughts. This is a prime opportunity for you to connect the biblical story with your community in an authentic and meaningful way.
Offer an evangelistic, relationship-based program that people can sign up for immediately, on the spot that will begin right after Christmas. Use Alpha or Christianity Explored. We use Christianity 101 (C101), which for us starts first thing in the New Year.
Put your best foot forward with preaching, liturgy, music, and hospitality. Think of the famous title of Oswald Chamber’s daily devotional book—My Utmost for His Highest. To offer your best to the Lord Jesus is to do just that, offer your best. Whether we like it or not, people are used to high quality production values and they expect your practice to be aligned with our message that the Gospel is the most important good news in the world.
Consider giving your visitors a small and inexpensive gift that explains Christmas, such as Nicky Gumbel’s “Why Christmas?”
Work to reframe your understanding of Advent as much more than a liturgical season. Be a community that truly seeks to reshape yourselves and society’s worldview from one of consumption to one of compassion. The Advent Conspiracy (adventconspiracy.org) is a brilliant resource to highlight, particularly at this time of year, that you are blessed solely to be a blessing to others.
Offer opportunities to serve at Christmastide. Perhaps you might offer a Christmas dinner to those who are alone at this time of year. You might encourage everyone in your church to offer one hour to your local food bank or one hour to visit a nursing home. Even the smallest churches will have an impact. To engage your community means to serve your community in some capacity, particularly at this time of year.
Throw a party. If you have a children’s or family service, build a festive venue with cupcakes and balloons. Visitors and their children relate to a birthday party for Jesus. For your Christmas services, provide opportunities to build relationships (not just a coffee hour), where your faith community can genuinely engage the community by not only serving, but also simply having fun.
We live in a changing world and this time of year can be a season of challenge and over-extension. With Advent and Christmas—we have been given an opportunity to connect with our world. As Christopher Wright wrote in The Mission of God:
It is not so much the case that God has a mission for his church in the world, as that God has a church for his mission in the world. Mission was not made for the church; the church was made for mission—God’s mission.
As church, we are made for such a time as this. We are made for God’s mission, which is to proclaim in word and deed the reality that “the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood.
Barry Parker is rector of St.Paul’s Anglican Church, Bloor St., Toronto. Check out their website —and how St.Paul’s is presenting Christmas to their community— at www.stpaulsbloor.org