Christmas Eve (and the Christmas season in general) has surpassed Easter as the most likely time for first-time guests to visit our churches. We need to plan accordingly.
Here are five tips to help us all make the most of the opportunity that is coming our way on December 24.
1. Break the rules.
Many churches have unwritten rules about Christmas Eve, and most (all?) of these rules prioritize the insider.
Maybe the unwritten rule is that the Christmas Eve service is always at 7:00 pm. Why is it always at 7:00 pm? Because it has always been at 7:00 pm, that’s why!
That might work for insiders who schedule their lives around church events, but do you know what most outsiders are doing at 7:00 pm on Christmas Eve? They’re having dinner at Grandma’s house. And if they have to choose between Grandma and you, Grandma is going to win every time.
The rules in your church might be about the service time, or they might be about something entirely different. But whatever they are, we need to identify and evaluate these rules. What are the rules, written or unwritten, that might hinder unchurched people from showing up at your Christmas Eve services? Challenge and change those rules.
2. Go for two.
Many churches treat Christmas Eve like an extra point in football. After the touchdown, the team kicks the extra point. It’s safe. It’s relatively certain. But it’s only worth one point.
My strong advice: go for the two-point conversion. It might be more difficult, but it helps you run up the score.
Don’t just offer one service. Offer two, even if you don’t think you have enough people to fill one. If you wait until you fill one, you’ve waited too long.
People in our culture thrive on choice. They want multiple options. If we want to reach them, we need to recognize and respond to this reality. If you offer multiple services, it’s a near certainty that you’ll increase your overall numbers on Christmas Eve. (This same rule applies to Sunday mornings, too.)
The only people who will fight this are insiders who want the whole church to be together “like one big family.” It sounds sweet, but it’s actually selfish. If I don’t get to see everyone in one service but our church reaches people for the gospel because we offered multiple services, I should be willing to take that trade all day.
If it’s too late to offer multiple services on Christmas Eve this year, start planning for it next year. And if you already offer multiple services, should you consider adding more? The more options you offer, the more people you’ll see walk through your doors.
3. Don’t be afraid of tradition, but don’t be tied to it, either.
People get traditional at Christmastime. What other time of year does Bing Crosby replace Bruno Mars on the radio? Leverage this mindset to your advantage. Don’t be afraid to use some traditions to help connect people with the gospel.
At the same time, don’t allow traditions to get in the way. While some traditions can be a help, others can be a hindrance. We need to be savvy enough to recognize the difference.
In my church, there was a longstanding Christmas Eve tradition where I would bring all the kids up on stage with me. The kids were wearing their pajamas. I would sit down in a rocking chair and read them a holiday story. It was a sweet, sentimental Christmas scene that would have made Norman Rockwell proud. It scored me a lot of points with parents and grandparents, but it didn’t help us preach the gospel, so I ditched it.
Weigh each tradition in your Christmas Eve service on this scale: does it help us connect the good news of Jesus to the hearts and minds of everyone in attendance? If the answer is yes, load that tradition into the sleigh and take flight. If it doesn’t, fire it like a lazy elf.
4. Get to the cross.
If we want to connect people to the gospel, that means connecting people to the cross. That’s easy to overlook at Christmas because it’s all about the birth of Jesus. But we can never forget that Jesus was born to die.
The baby in the manger never saved anybody. However, a crucified and risen Savior can save everybody. Never, ever leave Jesus in the manger. Let him grow up.
Don’t allow the sentimentality of Christmas overshadow the gospel. Everyone likes the cute, cuddly, 8lb 6oz baby Jesus because babies aren’t offensive. They don’t teach offensive things like “love your enemies” and “take up your cross and follow me.” And they certainly don’t die an offensive death on a cross (Galatians 5:11). But this offensive Jesus is the Jesus that people need to know because this is the only Jesus that can save them.
I fell into this trap for years. I become an old softie at Christmas, and I allowed this to affect my preaching. I would preach soft, feel-good, sentimental messages at Christmastime. These messages were fun to preach. People loved them, but they weren’t changed by them. I shudder to think of how many opportunities I squandered in the Christmases of the past. I had to repent and get back to my calling to preach the gospel.
Paul wasn’t committed to know Jesus Christ and him in the manger. He said, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2, bold mine)
If your Christmas Eve message doesn’t get to the cross, fix it or scrap it. We can start in the manger, but let’s not stop until we get to the cross. Don’t let the sentimental keep people from seeing their Savior.
Maybe this goes without saying given what I’ve already written above, but let’s leave no room for doubt on this: you need to preach on Christmas Eve.
I’m always amazed at how many churches don’t leave time for preaching on their biggest days of the year.
I’ll never forget the first Easter I experienced in our church. There was an Easter cantata, because why not feature an entire concert of bad choir singing on a day when the place will be packed with guests?
I asked about the sermon and I was told that I had 10(!) minutes to share something….ON EASTER! That was the last cantata we ever had because I demanded that we preach the gospel on Easter.
That decision didn’t make me popular with some folks in our church, but these are the same folks who are no longer part of our church. A big reason why they left is because we canned any program or events that didn’t push the gospel forward.
That was on Easter, but Christmas is no different. Many churches dial back the sermon to a 5-10 minute devotion on Christmas Eve. And in its place, there is a children’s story or a Christmas pageant. Have these pageants ever saved anybody, EVER? I doubt it. But I know that millions upon millions of people have been saved through the preaching of the gospel.
I promise my first name is not Ebenezer. If your church wants to have a kids Christmas pageant, then have it. I’m not against kids dressing up like shepherds. But schedule it on a day other than Sunday, and certainly on a day other than Christmas Eve.
Again, if it’s too late to make the change this year, that simply means that you have nearly 12 months to plan for a different, and more effective, approach in 2018.
We have a wonderful opportunity before us during this season. We’ll have people walking through our doors who never give church a second thought any other time of the year. Let’s plan everything with them in mind.
“Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity” (Colossians 4:5).
Mike Edmisten has been the Senior Pastor of Connect Christian Church in Cincinnati for 11 years. He and his wife, Nicki (who is way out of his league) have two boys (13 and 10). Outside of family and ministry, Mike is passionate about Cincinnati Reds baseball and FC Cincinnati soccer. You can connect with him on Twitter @MikeEdmisten.