When I was a child, Christmas was a very special time for me. Not just because of the presents (though, obviously, for a seven-year-old child, they are one of Christmas’ big selling points), but because there was something special and spiritual about the festival. The Bible story, the traditions, the songs and the pattern of church all helped me to get in touch with the sacred. I don’t think I knew it at the time, but looking back, I can clearly see how the festival of Christmas shaped and furthered my faith development.
I grew up in a family of Christians, but these days that’s an unusual occurrence for a child. It’s unlikely that children who aren’t already part of a church community have any links with church at all. It might be two or three generations ago that a family had a connection with a Christian community. Yet, such is the nature of Christmas, it can still be a time of great spiritual encounter, regardless of a child’s or family’s spiritual background.
After all, Christmas is still a time when children and families with no church background at all encounter the story of Jesus, and tradition still plays a part in family life. Families that don’t set foot in church for the rest of the year might attend a Christmas service. Children might take part in a nativity play or hear the Bible story as part of a school assembly. And Christmas Day is still a day that many spend with their families. So, how do we help these infrequent but oh-so-welcome visitors to feel at home? And what message do we give them?
Tell the story
There are a lot of things to do with Christmas that seep into the actual story. We’ve all heard of, watched or even been in nativity plays that featured octopuses, Big Macs and Lord Sir Alan Sugar. Yet the story itself is so full of wonder – Old Testament prophesies of a saviour, angel visitations, a miraculous birth, travellers from afar – that I’m not entirely sure why we feel the need to jazz it up at all.
It’s more than likely that many of the visitors to your Christmas events and activities won’t know the actual story of Christmas. So take this opportunity to tell the story as it is. Yes, we can tell it in lots of different ways, from reading the Bible text aloud to creating a live-action Christmas experience, but stick with what’s there in the Bible. Don’t be tempted to add things in, let the power of the story of Jesus coming to earth speak for itself. Pray and trust that the Spirit will speak through the events of that first Christmas, more than 2,000 years ago, and be ready to chat about it with children, young people and families who may never have encountered it before.
I know this sounds obvious, but sometimes Christmas can be so busy with services, parties, fun days and more that we forget to actually speak to the people who come to the church over Christmas. Make sure that you have times over the season when people can chat. It doesn’t have to be anything ground-breaking or ‘fresh expressions’: something as simple as a Christmas coffee morning can be a golden opportunity. While children play, provide good coffee, tasty snacks and chat about anything and everything – celebrate people’s triumphs and share in their disappointments, listen to their Christmas struggles and share your own story, as well as Jesus’. Christmas can be a special time, but also a stressful time – a listening ear can be the best present people get.
For children, activities can also be good chatting time. When hands are busy doing craft, making cakes or drawing a picture, children are often more inclined to talk. There is less pressure than being face-to-face, and conversation flows more naturally. Indeed, we need to be ready to chat with people at any moment. Children are adept at asking the deep question at the most unusual (and, if we’re being honest, awkward) time. How easy is it for us to answer that question, without feeling the need to rush onto the next activity in our programme?
Embrace the ritual
If people who aren’t part of a Christian community have had any experience of church at all, it may well have been of some kind of church service with liturgy. They may have attended (or seen on TV) a service of carols and readings or taken a child to a crib or Christingle service. We can use these Christmas rituals as a way in to those who might feel uncomfortable going into a church building. Starting with the familiar can put people at ease and help them feel welcomed.
But, much more than just a way in, Christmas ritual and liturgy can be a powerful spiritual experience. For those who like to experience and express their faith through symbol and meaning (investigate the research by David Csinos into spiritual styles for more about this), such services and actions can be revelatory. If your church has faith traditions around Christmas, then make use of these to introduce people to Jesus and what he came to earth to do.
Say yes to new opportunities and new ideas over the Christmas period. Don’t let the idea of “we’ve always done it this way” to take hold and stop you doing anything new. Say yes to welcoming new people to your community, and say yes to allowing those new people to change your community. While the gospel message remains the eternal, our faith communities should be transformed by the people within them, not be kept the same due to a fear of change. Be brave and say yes.
It’s great to welcome people from all over our parishes, areas or networks over Christmastime, but when the festive period comes to an end, can the same be said of our interest in spreading the story of Jesus? If we’re going to make a difference in the lives of people who have only just caught sight of Jesus, then we must keep up contact with them after Christmas has passed. We must keep showing the love of Christ to them throughout the rest of the year. So, here are some suggestions:
Stay in touch
Whatever your church’s preferred way of keeping in touch with people, make sure that you include any new contacts you have made over the Christmas period. You’ll need to follow GDPR guidelines and get permission from people in order to contact them again. And don’t just contact them when you want to invite them to something, contact them to see how they are. If you prayed for them, find out what God has done. Send them cards or emails reiterating the welcome and how much you valued meeting them. Let them know that you as a community are there to help them should they need it. Those relationships you started at Christmas won’t survive if you don’t share people’s life path with them throughout the rest of the year. You don’t have to do this all yourself: link new people with those in your church who are in similar situations.
Use other festivals
Don’t stop with Christmas – the church celebrates aspects of Jesus’ story throughout the year, and these are great opportunities to reach out to the children, young people and families you met at Christmas. Easter is the obvious next step – the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is central to the whole story of salvation – but you don’t have to wait till then. Valentine’s Day or Pancake Day are good times to bring the church family together again with fun activities and food.
And beyond the life-changing story of Easter comes the joy of Pentecost, summer events, Halloween / light parties, Bonfire Night, Remembrance Sunday and then you’re back at Christmas. There are plenty of opportunities to welcome new families back to your church community.
Be welcoming week by week
Sometimes, as church communities, we can fall into a kind of siege mentality if we become too aware of the troubles that can face the church, troubles such as criticism in the media, falling numbers or lack of money. We retreat into what we find comfortable and start to resist anything new. As I said before, we cling to a way of doing things because “that’s the way we’ve always done them”.
However, if we’re welcoming new people into our churches, then these people will change things and we have to choose how to react to this. If we dictate to people how they should behave and insist that they conform to our way of doing things, then new families may not stick around. Yet if we allow new people to change and transform our way of doing things, as long as everything stays true to God’s way, then a feeling of community and belonging flourishes. And this starts by welcoming people week by week.
Start something new
Life is busy and Sunday morning might not be the best time for families to come along to church, so why not start something new? This could be a family small group or a new service on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. Make sure you involve the people you’d like to come in the planning of anything new – they need to want to and be able to attend. Messy Church could be something you think about starting – and you can get help from Messy Church themselves in getting going. You might also try out Explore Together from Scripture Union – a different approach to all-age worship and Bible engagement.
People might be all the more ready to engage with church this Christmas and beyond, after the trauma of the last two years. With many families having missed out on their normal Christmas last year, we should be ready to welcome them with open arms this year, and on into the new year. After all, Jesus is not just for Christmas – he can change families, communities and lives!