The Why and the Who

Refocusing the Christmas Lens

With most pastors and congregations thinking about upcoming worship services and other ministry opportunities that seize so much of our attention this time of year, I want to help us think broadly about what the priorities are, what they aren’t, and how this time of year can be instructive for the rest of the ministry calendar.

Refocusing the Christmas Lens Part 1: The Why and the Who

I think most conversations of boards, committees, and other people in the congregation who are involved with planning worship for Christmas eve and the weeks leading up to it should ask two basic questions over and over again:

1. Why are we doing this?

2. Who is this for?

I could probably just stop writing and that would be sufficient.

Our response to “why are we doing this” likely has something to do with the Incarnation, God’s love for the world, the hope that Christ embodies and offers. Great. But if so, let’s be serious about making that the starting point for our planning and all “programmatic” elements of what’s coming up on the calendar. It’s very, very easy to unintentionally let the “programming” get in the way of the gospel. Don’t let it happen. Because the truth is that the people in your community yearn for good news, for hope, for the radical and unconditional grace of God. Don’t give them a nice Christmas Eve program instead of the gospel; provide a Christmas Eve worship service that is a witness to the gospel. Shouldn’t this be a basic criteria for all of our worship and ministry engagement?

Closely related is the question, “who is this for?” To this we might say, “It’s for the community” or “it’s for the whole world.” Ok, great. But if we’re honest, in the case of Christmas programming, the more accurate response is, “it’s for our members because their kids or grandkids will be doing cute things in the service, but we hope they’ll bring their out of town extended family members too. And maybe some local guests will be there, and maybe they’ll come back in January after we tell them about the shiny new programs we’re offering.” Yes, this may seem a bit cynical of me. But I’ve been that pastor, caught in a system of expectations rooted in long-held traditions, deep sentimentality held by prominent members, and… well… hand bells (Ok, I actually kind of like hand bells). In retrospect, I see that our congregational leadership, including staff, board, and every other involved person, allocated most of our time, energy, and resources into planning something for “our people” while paying lip service to “the community.” And then during the last week we put a sign out front and something on social media to “invite” the community. Yeah, we all know that doesn’t work.

Christmas should remind us of Darrell Guder’s maxim that “the gospel is NOT for the church; it’s for the whole world.” Such a reminder would do well as ever present theme in our congregations. Challenge yourself, your congregational leaders, and all who are involved in planning worship this Advent and Christmas season to keep returning to the big questions of “why are we doing this?” and “who is this for?” These questions will afford focus, depth, and joy to the worshiping life of the congregation this time of year, and it may even occur to us that these are the questions we should be asking all the time.

Over the next few weeks we’ll get into the nuts and bolts of communication, hospitality, follow up, and related topics.