Every year as a pastor Christmas Eve comes around. Ministry teams work hard knowing that they will have guests coming to church. It is a great opportunity to connect with people who traditionally only come to church on Christmas and Easter. It is also a great opportunity to share the message of Jesus and invite people to respond, by surrendering their lives to Him.
As a church, how do we do this in a way that is creative, compelling, and special? Those are many of the questions that run through our heads, as we prepare.
Awhile back, I was a worship pastor at a megachurch. On Easter, our senior pastor was very sick. We also had a creative element at the end of the service to capture the imagination of people in a way that hopefully would encourage them to see God in their story and respond.
When it was all said and done, there were about 50 fewer people who chose to give their lives to Jesus than on other Christmas and Easter services. I remember asking our senior pastor, “what do you attribute this to?” He responded that he believed that his sickness caused him to not deliver as great of a message, and the creative element was less than par.
I will never forget this because at that moment I realized that we (both our current team and other churches I have been a part of previously) have put so much pressure on ourselves to “wow” people and to deliver life-changing excellence.
This past Christmas I have had my eyes and ears open to how churches are communicating and promoting what will happen at their Christmas Eve services. I am hearing things like, “you will hear one of the most powerful Christmas messages”, “this will be one of our best Christmas services we have ever had”, “you won’t want to miss it”.
I am starting the book “A Theology of the Ordinary” by Julie Canlis. She and her husband Matt are a part of my Anglican diocese. They moved to Scotland years ago to be trained in theology and ministry (watch Matt’s story here as a free documentary: https://www.livegodspeed.org/watchgodspeed-cover). God taught them that to slow down and be present in the ordinary with people is where you find God and you see God connect with people.
Julie starts her book like this:
Three years ago, my husband and I moved our family back to America after living 17 years abroad. Upon our return, our then eight-year-old daughter who had been born and raised in Scotland asked, “mom, why do all the signs in America say, ‘the best,’ or ‘the biggest,’ or ‘the greatest in the world?’” I, American that I am, had not even noticed.
What is it about us as church leaders feeling the need to communicate like this, as if what we are offering is a product to consume? What is it about the pressure that we put on ourselves to “wow” people to come in our doors and make a decision? Much of this in evangelicalism practice ties back to the evangelism tactics of Charles Finney and the second great awakening (1800’s), but it has just run downhill to become quicker, bigger, and more.
A few years ago, I went to a conference with church communications teams from around the nation. A prominent business coach was speaking the first night. He kept telling us, “you need to get to more, and you need to get to more before anyone else!” Church leaders were taking it all in and applauding him. “Join the hamster wheel! Stress out your teams! Make them feel that it is on them to “wow” people!” This is what was being felt in the room. This is what I have felt in ministry over the years.
I have worked for leaders where around creative elements (Christmas and Easter), they have driven their staff to resign after a holiday service. I have seen leaders make their teams of grown adults cry in how they drive them. Often it is under the pragmatic notion that, “it is all worth it if one person comes to Christ.” I ask, “is this a response of humility or a response of arrogance as if we have the power to save people”?
What if we see God in the ordinary? What if we reshape what is excellent and life-changing, based on the Biblical account of Jesus’s birth.
Remember that excellence and awe come from the presence of God and not from worldly prestige. Jesus was born in stables and placed in a tub that the animal fed from. How much more ordinary do you get than that! The king of kings and savior of the world wasn’t born in the palace in Jerusalem. Not only does this show humility, but it shows that God’s presence is what matters and not the environment, building, light show, etc. I am not against creativity. Creativity births imagination and wonder, but healthy creativity is a natural outpouring of gifts and efforts that flow from a place finding joy in the presence of Christ.
If you want to be excellent as a church staff team, how much time are you spending praying for the spaces where people will be walking and sitting, as opposed to stressing about the “wow” factor? Praying that God would, like in Bethlehem, meet them in the ordinary of their lives in places least expected?
The miracle of the message isn’t in our ability to deliver verbally and/or creatively. The miracle is in the story of a God who took on human form, was born of a virgin, and was born in humble stables!
God chose outcast shepherds to be the first to hear the news. Again, that is God’s presence in the ordinary!
Luke 2:17- 19
“17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”
Notice the word “amazed” in verse 18. That is what we often want people to sense and feel when we are preparing for Christmas Eve. Allow yourself to step back and ask God to meet people in the ordinary and “amaze” them.
When I think about the shepherds, I realize that they were uneducated outcasts. Intellectually and verbally, when they shared the message of Jesus, they probably were not as articulate as teachers, rabbis, and the educated, but it says, “all who heard it were amazed”.
I hope and pray that we are seeking the presence of God in our lives, our spaces of worship, our online services, and in the ordinary lives of people that we interact with this Christmas Eve. I pray that though we work hard to steward the gifts of our teams, the message He has given to us in the times He has been present with us, the technical and facility resources that we have, and the connections with people that we will meet, that God gives us peace that His presence is what is truly excellent and life-changing.