Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Getting ready for Christmas visitors

Most congregations will have to dust off the back—or the front!—pews on Christmas Eve. Churches find that a lot of people show up for what is both a major feast of the church and a major cultural holiday. The Christmas story reminds us that God is revealed to strangers and welcomes the outsider. How we prepare for Christmas at the doors of the church is every bit as important as what we prepare in the chancel.

There are many reasons that people come to Christmas liturgies: some prefer to come to church at Christmas and Easter; others come as a kind of “family reunion” gathering as a family in the church they took part in when the kids were younger and before they went their separate ways. Some folks are coming because they remember another church. Of course, some are coming for deeper reasons that they may or may not be conscious of. The major Christmas liturgies are a time of welcome and it is a time when the church is both ministering to the core congregation and to the larger community.

Don’t forget to prepare for visitors as carefully as we prepare our music, our flowers and greens and our liturgies. It is tempting to think that these special liturgies are for “us” and so end up treating visitors as outside observers or, worse, as interlopers. If there is ever a time when our liturgy is both a celebration of the community faith and a spiritual ministry to the community, Christmas Eve is it!

Here are some more or less random suggestions for extending hospitality to everyone on Christmas Eve. These are lessons that can be applied any time.
  • Everyone is a participant. In both our spoken communications and our printed notices be careful not to reinforce notions of those who “belong” or who are "insiders" and those who “don’t belong,” “we haven’t seen in a long time” or as "outsiders." We all are the recipients of God's welcome of strangers to the manger. Any hint that someone is perceived as an outsider is the same as saying, "No room in the inn!"
  • Avoid asking people to identify themselves publicly as visitors. For every one person who likes that kind of attention, there are ten who do not.
  • Repeat after me: “Merry Christmas. We are glad to see you.” Full stop. Avoid inadvertently shaming a person who “only” comes to church on Christmas and Easter. If the person in question brings it up, just smile (or laugh) and repeat the above line. If the worshipper is a person who was once very active in church and is now much less so, appreciate their presence now.
  • Don't assume that anyone knows anything! We long-timers may crack wise about “Episcopal aerobics” (you know, ‘stand, sit, kneel…’) and take pride in the hand-eye coordination it takes to juggle a Prayer Book, Hymnal and Bulletin, but for everyone else it can be an intimidating. Newcomers to our tradition or people who have not been to church for a while can be self-conscious about proper 'church-etiquette'. This is a good time to print as much of the liturgy as you reasonably can in one place.
  • Celebrate the church's faith without apology or hesitation. The Christmas Eve liturgy is the great rehearsal of the incarnation. All those who come want to be part of a living community's drama of welcoming Jesus. In doing so, they hope to discover again — or for the first time — who God is and who Jesus is — "up close and personal." Don't try to play to the audience. This is a glorious night full of God's splendor, mystery, and presence. Sing, pray, rejoice in all the ways your community is able. Deep joy and genuine excitement are contagious and appealing. Skip anything that is phony or contrived.
  • Encourage church members to show hospitality through attentiveness and warmth to those taking seats near them — making sure each person has a hymnal, a service bulletin, enough room, or a friendly word of guidance about where to turn in the hymnal. It is also a good idea to remind long-timers that they can gently help newcomers by sharing a hymnal or prayer book. If you see someone fumbling through a book trying to finding a page, try gently offering to exchange your prayer book for theirs. Ushers and greeters are important, but what will make a lasting and loving impression is the demonstration of grace and caring by the people in the pews who share the journey.
  • Orient ushers and greeters and make sure they are “on duty” and “on station” throughout the whole liturgy. Everyone may focus on the celebrant, preacher and choir but the first person a newcomer or visitor interacts with in your church is the usher and greeter. They should be focused on welcoming a newcomer, orienting them to the church and helping answer any questions. They should know where the rest rooms are, where to hang coats, be ready to pass along an activity bag for children, and invite them to coffee hour or hospitality after the service. Nothing sends a message of “you don’t belong and I don’t care” when an usher is chatting with members with their back to the door or who disappear after the first hymn.
  • Be ready to help parents with children who are not regular church-goers feel comfortable. Many parents have unrealistic notions of how children "ought" to behave in church. Many parents assume that churches are intolerant of children and fear that any little peep will attract disapproval. Proving them wrong would a pleasant and welcome surprise. If your church has activity bags or special bulletins for young children--or maybe a group can create small "gift" bags to give to parents with things that help children stay both occupied and engaged during the liturgy--make sure your ushers and greeters offer them to the parents and children as they come in. Don't wait for them to ask! If you have a nursery or a play area, make sure it is staffed and that there is a way for parents to still take part in the service maybe with Christmas books, coloring, etc. Long-timer parents with kids can assist visiting parents and their kids by helping them relax and enjoy the service.
  • Update your newcomers materials and have them ready.
  • Be sure all know how they are to receive Holy Communion. A simply worded notice in the bulletin or a brief explanatory word just before people partake will be a generous act of hospitality.
  • Love all the people just because they are there for this time, this holy night. Forget about wondering and worrying about whether or not they will come back.
  • Do leave breadcrumbs along the path so that if people want to come again, they know how and when to return. The Christmas Eve bulletin can be a great vehicle to describe in a brief, attractive way the unique ministry of your congregation and communicate when you routinely worship, how to contact the church office or clergy. Have materials ready for people to take home about your parish. Bulletin notices or a special insert with worship times welcomes participation and sends the right signals.
H/T to Daniel Benedict of General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church whose work on this topic was adapted for this post.

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