At most of the churches I have served, the annual Christmas Eve service is a treasured gathering in the life of the church. And it is usually a well-attended service, second only to the worship service on Easter Sunday.
In our church family’s tradition, the Christmas Eve service is festive, relaxed, and uplifting. With the lighting of the Christ Candle, the final candle in the Advent wreath, this service of “Carols and Candles” marks our transition from Advent to Christmas.
Christmas Eve services at other churches may be more structured or more extemporaneous. A church’s heritage, denominational affiliation, and spiritual DNA usually give shape to the type of liturgy that a church follows on Christmas Eve. Some services may be more formal with common prayers, a variety of scripture readings, and the celebration of the Eucharist. Other churches may follow a more informal approach to the Christmas Eve service, inviting participants to request their favorite carols before sharing the Christmas story, and perhaps even hosting a reception or meal following the service.
What are some things to avoid and some things to accent as you prepare for your annual Christmas Eve service? Here are a few suggestions to help us maximize our opportunity to host a worshipful service that celebrates the birth of the Christ child:
Things to avoid…
- Don’t chide the folks who show up on Christmas and Easter only. It’s still a mystery to me that some church members only show up on Christmas and Easter, but since we have not walked in their shoes, we are in no position to judge them. If we single them out and rebuke their holiday-only participation, we not only sound judgmental and condescending, we also lose the opportunity to speak grace and encouragement into their lives.
- Don’t try to demythologize Christmas. In other words, don’t use this service, often filled with excited children, to deconstruct the legends of St. Nick. That is their parents’ job, not yours.
- Don’t lapse into partisan political rhetoric. These are tense and somewhat toxic times politically. Your congregation needs to hear about the Prince of Peace, not someone’s biased political perspective. Christmas Eve is a time to unify the people of God, not divide them along political lines.
- Don’t include stewardship promotions or infomercials. For sure it’s okay to remind folks that the church office will be open through December 31 to receive their end-of-year gifts. But don’t share budget updates underscoring how far behind you are on your budget goal, and don’t use Christmas Eve to preach a “catch-up” stewardship sermon. The best stewardship promotion may be to provide an uplifting, encouraging experience of worship.
- Don’t go into overtime. The most effective Christmas Eve services are not necessarily lengthy services. Those present have prioritized gathering with their church family to sing songs of faith and to hear a word of encouragement from their pastor on Christmas Eve. Most have family events and activities planned afterward, and many are navigating the parental challenge of managing all their children in big church. Respect their time and avoid lapsing into a prolonged pontification at this significant service.
Things to accent:
- Make sure to offer a generous welcome. Those gathered at the manger ranged from the angelic singers to the rustic shepherds. Those gathered for a Christmas Eve service may include an even broader demographic including rich and poor, resident and transient, member and guest. A healthy church extends a generous welcome to all of those present.
- Focus on the biblical story of Jesus’ birth. A healthy church is grounded in the gospel, and the gospel narrative of Jesus’ birth is central to a Christmas Eve service. For example, at Christmas Eves past, I have often quoted from Dicken’s, “A Christmas Carol,” but only as a secondary illustration. The primary story is always the biblical narrative.
- Invite congregational participation in singing. The music of Christmas is the language of the people, and though a Christmas Eve service may include solos, ensembles, and choirs, the bulk of the singing involves the entire assembly of worshippers. I have noted that even those church members who seldom join in congregational singing from Sunday to Sunday, will join the chorus of carols on Christmas Eve.
- Give thanks for the reverberating sounds of children. Our church does not open the nursery on Christmas Eve, so children of all ages are in the service, and they are quite loud at times. Yet the voices of children, even crying babies, are music to a healthy congregation’s ears, affirming the presence of the next generation.
- Celebrate the joyous atmosphere of reunion. In other words, Christmas Eve is like homecoming, with family members, former church members, and guests all joining with the core church family for worship. This homecoming spirit, which is often more important than any sermon we can preach, testifies to a church that has a treasured past and a promising future.
Someone wisely said, “The things that count the most can’t be counted.” As a veteran pastor, I am convinced that durable relationships and community connectivity are more indicative of church health than much of our membership data and attendance stats. And a few of these healthy traits and trends might be manifest at your Christmas Eve service.
A festive and effective Christmas Eve service might just encourage the Scrooge in your congregation to join with Tiny Tim in declaring, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”
At the Center for Healthy Churches, we believe that “a healthy church is a community of Jesus followers with shared vision, thriving ministry, and trusted leadership.” Our team of coaches and consultants stand ready to assist your congregation as you affirm your vision for the future, as your congregation adopts the best practices of ministry, and when your congregation enters a season of pastoral transition.