Christmas is coming. The Advent season is coming. And like the diminutive workers at the North Pole, NOW is the time to begin preparing in earnest.
By Tim Sitterley, Regional Director, US West
I dropped by the small department store near where I live the other day to pick up some hornet spray. We had discovered a basketball-sized Bald Faced Hornet’s nest in one of our shrubs. Judging from the number of hornets going in and out, how aggressive they were when approached, and how allergic I am to hornet stings, I figured a case of spray cans should do the trick. After all, you can never be too safe.
I noticed a couple of store employees pulling summer garden supplies off the shelf to make room for new product, and I assumed they would be putting out Halloween or possibly Thanksgiving items. I was wrong. They were stocking the shelves with Christmas lights and decorations. I’m writing this in early September, but my quest for instant hornet death took place in August. Christmas…in August.
Having just played Santa at my congregation’s Christmas in July engagement celebration, I guess I shouldn’t have been too taken aback. All the visitors to the event had a great time, and everyone wanted their picture taken with Santa and his elves. My experience playing jolly old St. Nick might make me the right person to write this article. Because while you may be in the “No Christmas displays till after Thanksgiving” crowd, I will argue that Christmas sales in the retail world should sound a planning alarm to every pastor and avenue champion out there.
Christmas is coming. The Advent season is coming. And NOW is the time to begin preparing in earnest.
There is no question that the Christmas season is the best time of the year to engage the community surrounding your congregation. And by community, I’m not only talking about the immediate neighborhood surrounding your meeting location, I’m also talking about the friends and family in the immediate sphere of influence of your current members. There is no easier and less threatening event to invite an unchurched individual to than a Christmas Eve candlelight service…or a children’s Christmas pageant…or literally any excuse to eat tree-shaped cookies and drink spiced cider.
If you are a Hope Avenue champion, now is the time to start planning your Advent and Christmas services with your team, your pastor, and with the Love Avenue champion. You Love Avenue champions should be planning your promotion campaign. If you wait until after Thanksgiving for either of these avenues, you have seriously shot yourself in the foot. So let me give you some ideas of what you should be starting to do right now.
What will your theme be this year? Just knowing that the four weeks of advent are represented by hope, faith, joy and peace is not really a theme. Rather, it’s a platform you build a theme on. Do you use a wreath with representative candles? If so, who will light them? Do you have advent readings prepared for each week? Who will read them? I know there are some who are resistant to candles for some reason. But if you are looking for ways to integrate your members into a worship service, there are few things that work as well as an Advent wreath. From children to the elderly, everyone can participate in some element of the weekly lighting of the Advent candle. And the fact that there are dozens of online sites providing scripts and outlines for your weekly lighting ceremony makes the Advent wreath something to seriously consider.
Then there are decorations to consider. Very few of our congregations own their building, so decorating the room you meet in each week may pose a challenge. One of the congregations in my region meets in an American Legion Hall. A few years ago, they offered to decorate the hall for the Legion. The members of the Legion were so impressed that it is now expected that our GCI group will handle all the Christmas decorating. But let’s assume that you meet in a facility that requires you to set up and take down each week. Vertical banners on stands are a wonderful way to bring a seasonal vibe into your worship venue. They set up and take down in minutes, requiring very little storage space. And you can order them specific to almost any theme imaginable. The key word here is “order.” There are many companies that provide banners and banner stands, but the closer you get to the Advent season, the longer it can take to receive your order. And depending on the company, you can often find advent programs with cover art to match. But again, you want to place your order well in advance of the need.
In 2022, Christmas is on a Sunday. Many congregations will cancel services to allow members to be with their family on Christmas Day. I know in the Sitterley household, pajamas are required on Christmas morning – whether you are a grandchild or a guest. By noon we have lost the dog in a mountain of crumpled wrapping paper. But whatever your Christmas day tradition is, Christmas Eve is the perfect time to invite friends and family for a short service of songs, readings and candlelight, followed by wonderful seasonal treats. And if you haven’t ordered those single-use candles by the first of November, you may be out of luck. You’re competing with almost every church out there. Asking people to turn on the flashlight setting on their phone only works in concert stadiums. just an FYI, make sure you order the little paper holders that go with the candles. “Silent Night” loses something when you have molten wax dripping on your wrist.
For Love Avenue champions, how are you preparing to promote you congregation and events during the Advent season? Encouraging members to personally invite family, friends, coworkers and acquaintances is certainly a start, but why not provide them with printed material to go along with that invitation? Perhaps that same printed invitation can be distributed to the homes surrounding your meeting location. To take promotion a step further, does your church send out Christmas cards to everyone on your mailing database? If you don’t have the equipment, most print shops can help you personalize your cards with your church name and logo. Just don’t hand them a box of cards covered in glitter. Nobody wants to be cleaning glitter out of their printer for the next week. And if you do send out Christmas cards, have your pastor, pastoral team members, or facilitator physically sign each card. None of our groups are large enough to make that much of a burden.
The song may tell us “it’s the most wonderful time of the year,” but we all know that is not always the case. The stress level around the Christmas season can become almost unbearable. And for those who may have recently lost loved ones, Christmas is hard. But if you properly prepare to celebrate the Advent season, you not only help your members make the connection between the music blaring at the shopping mall with the scriptural narrative of the most significant story ever told — Emanuel, God with us — you can also invite those who struggle to understand the real “reason for the season.” You can help those who are struggling, and those who would not normally darken the doors of a church on Sunday morning, to encounter the incarnation in a new light. John tells us at the beginning of his Gospel that “The true light that gives light to everyone” has stepped down into the darkness of our world. A white candle in the center of a wreath is a poor attempt to symbolize that light, but for someone who has yet to experience the source of that light, it’s a start.
Advent is not something you want to throw together the weekend after consuming massive amounts of turkey. Now is the time to begin preparations. Now is the time to order printed materials and supplies. Now is the time to begin reviewing the scriptures, with the intent to bring alive the birth story of God in flesh.
In the congregation I used to pastor (and still attend) we established the tradition of a Christmas candlelight service almost two decades ago. They were not always on Christmas Eve, but they were sometime during the week before Christmas day. One year I realized I hadn’t assigned anyone to light the Christ Candle, the white candle in the middle of the Advent wreath. Looking out at the darkened room it hit me that this needed to be something more than just carrying out a tradition. I said a quick prayer, and my eyes were drawn to an elderly and long-time member. Commenting on the significance of what this candle represented, I felt it fitting that the honor would go to someone who had faithfully served in sharing the gospel. The tears on this woman’s face as others helped her come forward to light the candle confirmed this was a Holy Spirit moment.
Since that evening, there is a clear anticipation to see who will be honored to light the Christ Candle. Young, old, new — it has become an opportunity to recognize members of the congregation. There is a clear anticipation each year. And after stepping down as lead pastor, I too was brought to tears when my name was called to come forward. I had to play Silent Night on the guitar immediately afterward (another required tradition in our congregation), and I’m glad I memorized the chords. I never would have been able to see the sheet music through leaky eyes.
May your congregation grow in their anticipation for the Advent traditions that you develop and adopt. May others be drawn into your celebration and find true hope, faith, joy, and peace. And as you and your avenue champions prepare for this year’s services, may you find yourself humming “Joy to the World” well before Halloween. It tis the season after all, regardless of the month. If anyone questions that, tell them Santa told you.