Looking forward to Christmas Eve

I confess that I have struggled with Christmas Eve worship for all of my career. There is so much pressure on one service. There will be a church full of visitors. There are a large number of people who come with expectations based on former times. It is a season of nostalgia that has to be respected. When you become pastor of a church, one of the wise questions to ask is, “how do you celebrate Christmas?” because it isn’t just a matter of doing thing the way the pastor wants. There are huge expectations about Christmas services. Many of those expectations come from people who don’t come to church very often. All churches want their guests to have a good experience, and are willing to do some things just to make guests feel at home, but figuring out what that is on Christmas Eve is a challenge.

Some of the guests will be people who are visiting the church for the first time. They bring with them expectations that are based on other experiences in other churches. No small number of them are people who don’t go to church very much at all. Some of them are attending to please a parent or a sibling, or just coming because that is what their host family does on Christmas Eve. Some of the guests will be people who grew up in the church and are returning home to celebrate the holidays. They remember the way things were, but they don’t have any experience of how things have changed.

Just recreating the way things were is not possible. We don’t have the same volunteer base. We don’t have the same kind of parents. We don’t have the same consistency of attendance of the children in our programs. We can’t alter sociology. We can’t stop change. When we try to just do things the way we used to, we always will fall short. We can’t do it the way it was. We will always be disappointed. More importantly those who come to church expecting things to be the way they used to be will always be disappointed, no matter what we do. There is no way to roll back the clock.

A few years ago, the Department of Worship was discussing the Christmas Eve service. We had made a kind of a list of comments we had heard. One member didn’t like passing the plate for the offering and wanted us to only have a donation box at the back of the sanctuary. Another member wanted us to have the children’s pageant on Christmas Eve. Another wanted the living nativity, with actors and animals to be the focus of the service. Many listed the ceremony of passing the flame from candle to candle.

We discussed the reality of our situation. Everyone holding gives a pleasant glow to the service and involves the people. However, it excludes those who use oxygen. We had experienced an elder, who lived in a nursing home who was all prepared to come to a service and when the staff inquired about the candle lighting ceremony was told that she couldn’t attend such a service. Our congregation reacted by purchasing electric candles to be used by worshipers. It doesn’t have the same feel, but it offers the possibility of participating with less danger for those who are there. We talked about the simple fact that attendance by families with children goes down on Christmas Eve. It isn’t that we have fewer children. It is that the children of our church are with families who live elsewhere and the children who come to our church are not regular participants. We don’t have critical mass to have a children’s pageant. And, if we schedule the children’s program after school breaks for the holiday, a lot of the children we have in our program do not participate. We experienced that again this Christmas when we held our children’s worship yesterday after the schools had let out for the holiday. We barely had enough children to fill the critical roles in the pageant. We have had plenty of Sundays with a lot more children than we had yesterday.

There is a similar effect with the choir. This year is a reasonable example. We had 33 choristers for the performance of the Messiah a week ago. We had 13 in choir yesterday and it looks like the choir might even be smaller tomorrow night. Our own regular worshipers travel at Christmas.

The Department of Worship came up with some good ideas for celebrating Christmas Eve. A new set was designed and built for our worship service. New lighting was designed. We moved a bit away from the live pageant into a careful telling of the story. Surprising to me was the request for a Christmas sermon. The people didn’t wan’t a 20 minute diatribe, but rather a short, pithy 5 to 7 minute meditation, well prepared, well preached. They said that preaching was one of the things about our church that they wanted to show off to guests. Like many planning sessions, we came up with a few too many ideas to cram into one service. Designing the actual service to follow that conversation was a real challenge. But the conversation had given fresh energy to the project. I worked hard on my meditation. We crated new worship bulletins. We had what seemed to be a meaningful service and we got a lot of good comments.

We also got a few complaints. It isn’t possible to have such a visible service without complaints.

The next year we tried to take the complaints seriously. We returned some live actors. We kept the sermon. Each year we try to adapt.

So it is the day before Christmas Eve and I am full of jitters. I want this celebration to be a “best ever” kind of event for participants. I put a lot of pressure on myself to be up for the occasion. I worry about the actors. I worry about the choir. I worry about a lot of things.

The good news is that after that service, there is one more. At 11:30 pm we gather for midnight communion. It is a very simple service, with a small congregation. There will be less than 50. We’ll share some simple jazz, and hear singer with a couple of songs. We’ll tell the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke. We’ll share communion. We’ll toll the church bell at midnight. It will be worshipful and meaningful and the pressure will be gone.

There is much to look forward to this Christmas.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!