By Jim Estep
Christmas is undeniably the most celebrated season of the year. It used to begin with Thanksgiving (the time my wife allows me to set up the tree and decorate the house), but it seems like we begin seeing Christmas items on television and on store shelves earlier and earlier. QVC began having Christmas specials in July! Society may be better prepared for Christmas than the church, although for different reasons.
The holiday season, particularly from Thanksgiving to Christmas, offers the church an unprecedented opportunity to minister. However, like most opportunities, we can fail to make the most of them due to procrastination, lack of preparation, or underestimating the potential of our opportunities. Enacting the following six ministry principles during a season replete with opportunity can maximize our ministry during the holiday season.
1. Expect Guests!
Congregations almost always experience a spike in attendance between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Enhancing our first impressions ministry—greeters, welcome center, welcome gift—and connecting with guests during and following their visit are more important than ever. Many times, the difference between growing congregations and plateaued or declining congregations is this: Growing congregations are always prepared for guests and are always ready to make a good first impression. For growing churches, every Sunday is Christmas.
2. Carefully Plan Special Events
Churches can inadvertently overschedule the Christmas season. We add to the hustle and bustle. Churchwide events, special worship opportunities, class and small-group parties, and seasonal ministry experiences can overfill the week. And these calendar items typically occur in the evening, taking away from family time. The frenetic holiday calendar takes a toll on church staff who are often directly or indirectly involved in all the activities, and many times are responsible for their planning and execution. Try to focus on special events that are purposeful, which provide good opportunity for ministry, and which will not cause undue stress on the church’s families and staff.
3. Minister to Those Beyond the Congregation
We oftentimes forget to minister to nonbelievers and the dechurched in the community. The holiday season provides the church with an opportunity for community outreach and to work side-by-side with those who do not worship by serving those in need. During the holidays, many churches provide a Thanksgiving meal or visit nursing homes or purchase Christmas presents for less fortunate families or for inmates. Churches also often host a fun, family-friendly holiday event that’s open to the community (invite people to simply “show up”). These types of gatherings can make a great first impression.
4. Help Families Mezuzah the Season
The holidays are becoming increasingly secularized. The religious dimension of Thanksgiving typically is underplayed, while Christmas seems centered on materialism. “Jesus is the reason for the season” . . . but not everyone seems to realize it. We need to help families remember the sacred, spiritual dimension of the holidays.
Leonard Sweet’s book Dance the Soul Salsa calls on people to mezuzah their lives, meaning to make even the everyday item sacred. The Hebrews could take a pile of stones and create a memorial, a national monument (see Deuteronomy 27 and Joshua 4).
Families can mezuzah the holiday season by creating personal and familial habits (rituals) and interpreting symbols of the season and how they point to Christ. Stave off the approach of secularization by intentionally reasserting the spiritual and sacred dimensions of the season. Encourage families to identify how God has blessed them over the past year prior to sharing the Thanksgiving meal, prior to the Christmas Eve service, and prior to opening their Christmas gifts. Encourage families to read the birth narratives and to pray for several consecutive nights leading up to Christmas Day.
5. Elders, Minister to the Ministry Staff
The holidays—more than most seasons in the church calendar—are a time of heightened expectation and demand, a time when personal and pastoral calendars can become crowded. It’s a peak time for requests for service and benevolence. It can be easy to forget that pastors are people and that ministry staff have families; unfortunately, their personal and family lives can be made to take a back seat to the demands of the ministry.
Elders need to assist staff in guarding their family time during the holiday season. Elders should perhaps limit staff’s participation in certain activities, or provide a financial gift, or add additional time off during the season. (I served a congregation that closed the office between Christmas and New Year’s Day as a benefit to the church staff.)
6. Start Preparing for Next Year Now!
It might be too late to implement many of these principles this year, but it’s not too early to start planning for 2022. Focus your resources, orient ministry leaders, recruit additional volunteers, and avoid overscheduling the events calendar. All this will expand ministry potential during the holiday season and decrease stress on the church staff during what is typically a very hectic time.