As a local church minister Christmas haunted me. Not because I don’t like Christmas, I do, but because it is one of the most strategic missional opportunities in the year and at the same time one of the most stressful. I would dread the moment when that ‘well intended’ person would ask the most terrifying of questions, “What are we going to do for Christmas?” and believe me some years it came in February! I kid you not!
Putting stress to one side, Christmas must be recognised and grasped as a fruitful season for mission. It can play a seasonal strategic role in the annual rhythm of a churches mission and there is an array of opportunities to connect deeper into our communities. So here are just a few lessons I have learnt about making the most of this precious season.
1. Make space for mission
Christmas is one of those moments in the year when people are more willing and open to respond to an invitation and engage with Christ’s story but to make the most of this opportunity we probably need to look at what we are already doing. One of the reasons that Christmas is so stressful within church life of is because it is already full of internal church activities. If we are going to create capacity to do something missional we may need to change the mindset of repeating traditions that are designed only to meet the needs of church members. Something probably needs to be sacrificed to make way for something more missional!
2. Understand and appreciate who you are reaching
Christmas is certainly not the ‘be all and end all’ of mission but it can have a role in reaching a a certain elements of the population. It is an opportunity to reach the occasional or even annual church attender. It is easy to be cynical about these people but the fact that they have returned year after year is a good sign and a wonderful opportunity. They are most likely to be people with an historic church background or some past faith experience. There is also another part of the population, which I call the ‘hidden crowd’, that our Christmas mission can connect with. These are people who, for whatever reason, have begun relating to God’s people but do not yet attend. Christmas is a season when the Church can connect with these people and it is an real opportunity to help them hear about the grace of God.
3. Invite people into the mystery of Christmas
The birth narrative is one of the most mysterious stories ever told. It is full of prophetic messages, angelic visitations, unexpected births, mute priests, crazy dreams, shepherds on hillsides, unexplained stars, exotic visitors with gifts from distant lands and a jealous King. It leaves even those of us most familiar with its content wondering what on earth is taking place. There is something deep within its message that captivates the soul. For me, effective mission at Christmas somehow captures the ‘mystery’ of Jesus’ birth and enables others to spend time wondering at the story. Be it by song, drama, art or old-fashioned carols work hard at communicating this mystery well.
4. Be courageous
At Christmas you can often be punching above your weight. My first Christmas as a baptist minister was at Harlow Baptist Church. I had been called, by a membership of 22 people in the October, to be their minister. We averaged 25 people on a Sunday but we decided on our first Christmas together to pray that the 300 seater chapel might be full. We leafleted the local community with an old picture of the chapel in the snow and with an invitation to a traditional carol service on Christmas Eve. Having placed candlelit lanterns along the drive we then waited to see who might turn up. For the first time in many years the chapel was full! Christmas has momentum of its own which means that potential and opportunity is higher than normal. Be courageous and grab the moment!
5. Be adventurous
As a minister I have used all kinds of methods to offer people the opportunity to encounter the mystery of Christ’s birth, from the most tradition forms of singing carols to new and creative ideas. I have seen both work well. One new idea, which was really effective, was a huge pile of wrapped parcels in the middle of Eastleigh High Street. People were offered the opportunity to carry a parcel to the church in order to visit our Christmas labyrinth called the “Nativity Experience” where they would exchange their empty wrapped box for a real gift. It worked like a dream! Over the years I have been involved with gift wrapping, carol singing, taking nativity characters onto the street, Victorian street parties, dramas, delivering hampers of food and toys, carol services, school events and building labyrinths that tell the Christmas story. The list seems endless. You can’t do all of them but don’t be afraid to be adventurous and try something new.
6. Value the role Christmas plays in the annual rhythm of mission
Churches that are most effective in mission recognise that Christmas has a strategic role within the seasons of the year. When I first became a minister I attempted to journey people into faith in just one event. I soon realised that just because someone comes to a carol service doesn’t mean that they will fully appreciate the fullness of salvation in just one moment. I needed to allow people to start their journey into faith at Christmas not end it. Instead, of preaching the full gospel I majored on the mystery of the birth trusting that the beginning of Christ’s entry into our world would disturb people enough for them to want to know the next chapter.
7. Invite the listener to continue further into the story
Those Christmases that have been most effective in helping people to come to faith were those when a clear invitation was offered to find out more. It seems obvious but the busyness of sorting out Christmas often means that there is little thought and planning about what comes next. What comes next is vital. Hearts that have been captivated by the mystery of Jesus birth need to know ‘what came next’.
8. Remember that Christmas comes every year
Although Christmas is only once a year (thank goodness!) it does soon come around again. Therefore, there is a opportunity to build on previous years. In both the churches I have pastored our Christmas outreach opportunities grew year on year. Relationship with schools went deeper, the expectation of community higher, numbers increased and people began the journey into the mystery of Christ’s salvation. Realise that you can’t do it all but as year passes year allow missional building blocks to gradually be put in place which will deepen your relationship with your surrounding community.
However daunted or haunted you feel about Christmas try to put your fears to one side. Instead, grasp this precious season with both hands in prayer. Rally your church. Put those who don’t know Jesus first on the agenda. Be courageous and adventurous. Invite people into the mystery of Christ’s birth and keep post-Christmas as a time to invite people to find out more about the one they call Immanuel.
Here are a few clips to inspire you:
Have you seen The Skit Guys videos? These can be a little expensive and American but they have a variety of advent and Christmas video that can work really well. It is worth looking through their backlog:
Have a happy Christmas!