Holy Days are Here Again: Christmas Edition

 “In recent years the church itself has become the target of a good deal of criticism and, for many, has simply been dismissed as a meaningful player in contemporary culture. And yet, all the while, as we have seen, there is an increasingly urgent desire for images that capture something of the depth and beauty of life, for practices that can structure one’s life and spark affection. Religion has always been the custodian of such symbols, and they were the center of the church’s life from the beginning. Yet the sad fact is that few people turn to the church for such symbols today.”[1]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously claimed that “the church is only the church when it exists for others.”[2] That means the things we do in and as a church are deeply motivated by the people outside of the church. This kind of talk sometimes devolves into a sense that we should warp all the things we do in support of our own spiritual walks and lives to accommodate a random, idealized person who is not yet interesting in living a Christian life. That’s the sort of thing that ends in worship services where we don’t talk about Jesus for fear of alienating someone not in the room. That is not what it means to be the church for others.

In order to be the church for others we must first be the Church. There must be something going on in our midst for the seeker to find. It is both considerate and constructive to consider often what others interested but uninitiated in our language and practices would take away from observing them. Do they extend the welcome of Christ? The Church talking about how best to minister to people where they’re at is one of the most Christ-like things we could be doing. The conversation about whether we do certain things or talk amongst ourselves in certain ways because they’re “churchy” or because they’re significant to us and to living out our faith should be ongoing. The best way to be sensitive to people who have not completely bought into our community’s vision of God, however, is not to make it blander and presumably more palatable, but rather to offer sacrificial hospitality, complete translucence, and the richest of fare to the best of our abilities.[3] People don’t go on spiritual quests looking for superficiality, but depth. It’s worth discussing what might make people think to include our church on their quest and what offputtingly shallow practices, attitudes, and lingo they might encounter here if they do.

Bigga Gonzalez with the mural he painted during worship for Advent 2010. Each week the sermon and music focused on a different character in the Christmas story and so did the painting. Photograph by Jenn Cavanaugh.

Bigga Gonzalez with the mural he painted during worship for Advent 2010. Each week the sermon and music focused on a different character in the Christmas story and so did the painting. Photograph by Jenn Cavanaugh.

We often talk like we expect people to just wander in off the street in search of a place to encounter God. Remarkably, that does happen almost every time we open our doors, but it’s more of a symptom of desperate spiritual starvation than an indicator that they’re ready to throw in their lot with us on this journey. Consider the kind of confidence and trust we’re asking of people: to lose themselves in the worship of God in the company of strangers. Perhaps some word-of-mouth or outward sign will mark it as a place that is safe and trustworthy enough to enter, but increasingly the church building itself is not a sufficient sign of such. It may be that the sights, sounds and actions of our worship, ministry and community, visible from street level, audible through the open doors and perceptible in our neighbors’ daily lives could serve as such signs. Even then – even if people wander in for the music or the art or the safety itself – there’s no guarantee you have drawn them into worship. On the other hand, the symbolic act of walking into a church may be for them a greater step toward acknowledging God as God than most of your regular attenders take on an average Sunday.

Holy days are prime opportunities to be church for the world. It seems that people who do not normally attend church feel freer to come by. They are also the best times to revisit, and occasionally reinvent, our most significant traditions. It honors and blesses visitors and regulars alike to take breaks from our regular programming to dive deep into the festivals of the Christian year. What if Christmas in the church were as cozy and low-key as the secular versions most of us remember fondly as the best Christmas ever, the one that restored our souls and fostered our sense of family?

Homemade Christmas

The holidays wreak havoc on schedules. The churchy modus operandi entails planning extra, elaborate, once-a-year activities and services with only a skeleton crew to run them. Under these conditions, most proposed new traditions happen exactly once. Here’s an idea for a new tradition that may be more significant for the community, but probably less work for any one person than anything else you’ve done for Christmases past.

Sometime before Thanksgiving recruit nine volunteers who know they will be in town for Christmas Eve. Try to include a good cross-section of the church: young and old, male and female, starving artists and software engineers, different ethnicities. Assign them each a passage of scripture for a traditional lessons and carols service . Let them each plan a “lesson and carol” movement with a talk or a reading or an interpreted work of art and a song or activity for the congregation to respond with. Make sure you have at least one musician at their disposal for the singing. They each need to have their plans in writing a week prior to Christmas Eve so you can be sure not everyone is planning to sing Away in a Manger. Nine people who may not normally have much of a voice in church will have just blessed your congregation and twice-a-year visitors and made them feel like family.

To file in the "not less work, but great fun" category: the Christmas Arts & Crafts Bazaar. In recent years we've taken a break from making it so sales focused and simply spent the day making art together.

To file in the “not less work, but great fun” category: the Christmas Arts & Crafts Bazaar. In recent years we’ve taken a break from making it so sales focused and simply spent the day making art together.


[1] William A. Dyrness, Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011), 220.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 1997, 1953:282 [Ethics]

[3] One of the most powerful forms of translucence is acknowledging the limit of our powers and abilities. Instead of presenting our efforts as the end-all-be-all, what if we offered them as offerings and articulated whenever asked our experience that there is more and greater than we can do or say? This allows us to work toward God’s will being done without limiting God in others’ minds.

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