Don’t Miss the Evangelistic Moment in an Unusual Year
Christmas sneaks up on us a lot of the time—and that’s probably more true than ever in 2020. So whether you’re ready to get into the spirit, or you’re more excited that Christmas means we’re inching closer to the end of 2020, there’s no doubt this year will be different.
It wasn’t that long ago that churches were scurrying to reimagine Easter, and the challenge for leaders was trying to imagine celebrating Easter without in-person gatherings. As everyone likes to say, during this pandemic, this was an unprecedented event for today’s church.
We’re all getting a little wiser, and we’re all more experienced now. But six months later… it’s a little hard to believe we’re also going to need to re-imagine Christmas.
We were talking about this as a team a few weeks ago. As we thought about Christmas, it just occurred to us that unlike Easter, Christmas is a holiday where people outside the faith and outside the church still typically engage with church services. The Christmas service has family traditions built around it. Most family members will still go to church when asked at Christmas, even if they don’t consider going to church regularly.
But with the pandemic still going on, I think we have to acknowledge that attending an in-person experience may not be a draw this year.
Most people who are not connected with the church are unlikely to want to come to an in-person experience wearing masks, socially distance in an unfamiliar place, with an unfamiliar crowd of people.
That said, if churches get creative about other approaches to Christmas, I think they could find a big evangelistic opportunity this year.
So, in this episode, I asked Sean Bublitz and Amy to take the lead on a conversation about how to re-imagine Christmas services. They both have years of experience planning remarkable experiences on church staff teams, and so we dove into things like:
- Why your church should reimagine Christmas services this year and where to start
- 2 key questions to ask to guide your Christmas service planning in this unusual year
- The crucial value of nostalgic elements, even when designing a virtual Christmas experience
- Encouragement for pastors as you’re preparing your Christmas message, and some ideas for thinking outside the box
- Some key thoughts about Christmas music, and what to avoid
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Welcome to The Unstuck Church Podcast, where each week we’re exploring what it means to be an unstuck church. It’s hard to believe, but it’s time to start thinking about Christmas. Many years, Christmas sneaks up on us. And that’s probably more true than ever in 2020. So whether you’re ready to get into spirit or you’re more excited that Christmas means we’re inching closer to the end of 2020, there’s no doubt this year will be different. So this week on the podcast, I sit down with Tony and Amy to reimagine the Christmas season for a changing culture. Before you listen to this week’s episode, make sure you stop and subscribe to get the show notes. Every week, you’re going to get one email with resources to go along with that week’s content, our leader conversation guide, access to our podcast resource archive and bonus resources you won’t find anywhere else. Just go to theunstuckgroup.com/podcast and subscribe. Now here’s my conversation with Tony and Amy.
In today’s episode, we’re going to join in with all of the retailers and get Christmas in front of our listeners. It wasn’t that long ago, churches were scurrying to reimagine Easter online, and whether your church had online services or not back then, getting online was not the primary challenge. The challenge for church layers was trying to imagine celebrating Easter without their in-person gathering. As everyone likes to say during this pandemic, this was an unprecedented event for today’s church. But we’re all getting a little wiser and we’re all more experienced now. But six months later, it’s time, hard to believe, now to re-imagine Christmas. And because you used to lead this at your church, Amy, I’ve decided we’re going to flip roles today. Are you okay with that?
Yep. And thank you for giving me a heads up this time. So I am all set.
All right. Well, you’re welcome. But there’s more. I’ve also invited another teammate to join us. This is Sean Bublitz. He was just trying to figure out how he’s going to introduce himself to this podcast because he’s usually the voice that you hear introducing this conversation, but Sean also used to work in a similar role as Amy, helping to design services including services for the holidays. So Sean, are you looking forward to joining us as well today?
I am. I really prefer being on the other side of the podcast and getting to produce it, but I also love Christmas. So happy to be here and talk to you guys about it today.
See, I knew you both love Christmas and that’s good because I don’t, but we should celebrate it. So, Amy, why do you think churches need to reimagine Christmas this year?
Well, this idea of re-imagining Christmas came up a week or two ago when our team was looking at the trends of churches that were regathering. And we were seeing on average, Tony, I think about 30% of the church’s regular attendance was actually returning to the building. And as we’ve talked about recently on the podcast, the in-person experience is predominantly serving people right now who are already connected to the church, right? It’s not the front door for new people that it has been historically. So as we thought about Christmas, it just occurred to us that, unlike Easter, Christmas is a holiday where people outside the faith and outside the church, they still engage with Christmas services. The Christmas service has many family traditions built around it. And based on my experience at our church, most family members will still go to church with their family even if they don’t consider, you know, going to church regularly. But with the pandemic still going on, I just think we have to acknowledge that attending an in person experience may not be a draw this year. Right? Do you agree?
I do. Yes. And again, I’m just, I’m loving it because you’re talking about people who will go to Christmas services because their family goes to Christmas services, and I, too, only go to Christmas services because my family goes to Christmas services.
There we go. So anyways, that conversation just led us to the question, you know, how can churches re-imagine Christmas this year so that we don’t miss the evangelistic opportunity? Sean, you were in that conversation. Anything that you would add?
Yeah, the reality is that even though some of us who’ve started regathering have gotten comfortable with attending in person again, most people not connected with the church are probably not going to want to come to an in-person experience wearing masks, socially distanced, in a place they’re not familiar with, with a crowd of people they’re not familiar with, too. So that’s kind of the downside. But if churches are banking on their attenders bringing people to church and not getting creative about other approaches to Christmas, I think they could miss the Christmas opportunity this year. But there’s also an upside. I think most people connected with the church now are used to attending their church online, and most churches are getting better at designing their online services. So we just asked the question, how could we reimagine a Christmas experience online this year that could reach and impact thousands of people and help them all take their next step towards Jesus?
All right. So before we dive in, Amy, you mentioned that Christmas is very different than Easter, which by the way, it is. One’s about a birth and one’s about rising from the dead.
Thank you for that clarity.
But I don’t think you meant that. What did you mean by that?
Well, like I said, Christmas just has many family traditions built around it. It’s nostalgic. It’s mainstream in the culture, you know, think Hallmark movies. They run all year long, I think, on Christmas. But Easter, in the church world, you know, is about celebrating the risen Christ, and Christians have some traditions around that amazing celebration, but in the secular world, maybe I’m wrong, but I just don’t think it has the same appeal and tradition to those outside the church, at least not so much anymore. Christmas has always been that holiday, in my experience, when people are a little more open to faith and open to coming to church.
It’s funny you mentioned Hallmark movies. Whenever I visit my mom, you have to prepare yourself so that you’re not caught watching a Hallmark movie with her. And by the way, every one of those movies is the same movie. It’s just different names, but it’s the same movie. All right, Sean, you know, Hallmark movies, too?
I unfortunately know them way too well. Yeah.
Alright, Sean, if you were coaching pastors on their approach to Christmas, where would you start?
I would start with two key questions. The first question I think churches have to ask is what could we create online that would reach people outside the faith and the church? And I say start there, because I think if we don’t, we’ll do what we’ve always done, which is we’re going to put our best energies into designing in-person experiences. And then we’ll use our leftover energy to figure out how to put that experience online. But when we do that, we’re making the in-person experience the primary venue we’re designing around. As Amy mentioned before, the primary venue for people we’re trying to reach is online. So give your best energy to designing an online experience first. So what online Christmas experience could you create that would reach people outside the faith and outside the church? The second question I think is related to that. And it’s what online Christmas experience could we design that our attenders would love to share with their families and friends? People like to share remarkable things. How can we make the experience remarkable? The opportunity we have this year is to equip our attenders to bring church to their family instead of bringing their family to church. When Amy and I were talking about it, we each imagined our own Christmas gatherings and how easy it would be to watch the online experience in the flow of that gathering, either before the meal or after the meal, after presents, whenever. But if people are going to do that, they need to know that it’s an experience that will connect with their family and their friends who aren’t connected to the church.
Alright, so Amy, with that in mind, what do churches need to be thinking about when they design this online experience?
Well, I like the word that Sean used, remarkable, right? By definition, remarkable means it’s something worthy of being remarked about, and that’s a high bar, but let me give you some kind of broad brush thoughts around that. Let me go back to the nostalgia thing. I think you must include elements of nostalgia. As humans, we love tradition, and research has shown that it’s actually hard wired into us. We love it so much that in 2010, a study from Northwestern University found that up to 93% of our actions can be predicted ahead of time. Tradition makes us feel safe, and we’re actually mentally healthier when we participate in traditions. So we have an opportunity to leverage that feeling this Christmas. So part of tradition and nostalgia for me includes, you know, the imagery of Christmas. You know, think trees, snow, stars, presents, lights, carolers fire pits, all those environmental pieces make us feel nostalgic about it. And of course, Christmas music. I think as you think about Christmas music, you want to remember that kids are in the room, and as you choose songs, I just encourage you to think “Joy to the World,” “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful” or “Silent Night,” those tried and true traditional Christmas songs. Not the outliers, like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” or “Angels From the Realms of Glory.” Am I wrong?
Yeah, no, I think you’re spot on. So thank you for being brave enough. Though, to say that. There are some Christmas carols that are better for these types of experiences than others.
That’s right. Right. You want songs that are easy to sing, and maybe I’ll just add, don’t over stylize these, and maybe this is a word to our music pastors, worship pastors. I know you’re sick of Christmas songs, and I know you’ve had to do so many services, so it’s fun to grab the funky new version of whatever song we’re singing, but we want to make it really easy for people to sing along if they want to. So while there’s hundreds of artists who have redone all the songs out there to make it unique, value the nostalgia of the song as you arrange it.
Amy. Can I just add something to that thought right there? So many times, I think, I know worship leaders and worship pastors who stand up in front of the congregation on a weekend and are trying to engage them in singing and worship. And it just sometimes doesn’t happen. And then we get this opportunity around Christmas where literally everyone knows these songs, and then we change the way the song goes. We change, the melody and then we have the same experience. No one’s singing along. So I love your encouragement. Don’t change it up. We already know these. Let’s let everybody engage in what they already know. Yeah.
That’s right. Another thing I would say broad brush is make it continuously engaging. So get some creatives around this service programming when you’re doing it online. Let me start with the end in mind again. It can’t be too long as you’re planning this service. We need high engagement throughout, but it can’t be too long. Kids are in the room. And like you said, Sean, this online experience maybe before a meal, which everyone wants to eat or before presents, which everybody wants to open. You want this to be a great experience that people enjoy so err on the side of being too short instead of too long. You’d rather leave them wanting more. And another piece in this continuous engagement, I think it’s going to be key to prerecord this experience. More people will engage when it’s on demand than if it’s a live stream type of thing, so they can fit it into their holiday schedule. And that’ll also give you the opportunity assess, Hey, was this engaging? Let’s just take it in now like our church family would take it in. You can make edits and you can make sure the video and the technology are at the highest quality possible for the context they’re in. So, Sean, let me just flip it back over to you. What would you add? You know, I’ve talked about the nostalgia and continuously engaging. What would you add?
Yeah. A couple of other things come to mind. First of all, make sure it’s easily shareable. And I think most of the time when we think about share-ability, we think about it in terms of social media, right? But I want to encourage churches and leaders not to discount how important it is, how important the content is to people’s willingness to share that experience. For example, if the content is controversial in any way and could bring tension to that Christmas dinner they’re having afterwards, they’re probably not going to ask their family to sit down and watch it together. They don’t want to invite that tension into their room. So just make sure that it’s easily shareable in the form of content that it is. If the experiences use churchy language, and people outside of the faith don’t understand it or it doesn’t address something relevant in their life, I think they’re going to be less likely to share it then as well. So don’t just focus on the function of how it’s shared, but focus on why someone would actually want to share it. Last and most importantly, our listeners know this, but make sure it points people to Jesus. Many churches are going to have their largest audience of outsiders around Christmas time. So make sure you tell them about the real Jesus. You have an opportunity to contrast the stereotypes about Christianity with the real person of Jesus with people around Christmas time and encourage everybody to take a step through the experience for non-believers. It may be one passage or resource you can encourage them to focus on as they consider Jesus. And for believers, it may be some kind of act of service or way they can reflect the real Jesus in their everyday life. Amy, we kind of summarized it in this statement, I think. Hopefully this is really helpful to our listeners, but just ultimately this Christmas, you can create a remarkable, nostalgic, shareable experience that helps everyone re-imagine their faith in Jesus.
Sean, that’s very helpful. Amy, as I’m thinking here, we’ve talked a lot about kind of the music and the experience overall, but I know for pastors, too, it’s gotta be challenging cause it feels like every year you’re you’re teaching the same message over and over and over again. So any encouragement for pastors as they’re preparing for this experience as well?
Yeah. I agree with what Sean said, so I won’t repeat that, but I would hope this would be, actually, maybe some freedom this year, because if you’re designing for an online experience, it opens up other teaching opportunities, other illustration opportunities, it allows you to maybe get in your community and do some of the teaching. So instead of being limited to a platform in a 30 minute message, you’ve got some creativity that you can bring around you to just brainstorm how could the teaching be different this year?
All right, Amy, thanks for that. Sean, normally it’s at this point in our conversation that Amy asks me, do you have any final thoughts, but because you are our special guest today for this conversation, and I know you love Christmas so much, Sean, any final thoughts as we’re wrapping up today?
I love that you didn’t prepare me for this at all, but thankfully I did have a final thought. My thought is, you know, throughout this whole pandemic season, over the last six months now, we’ve had a focus I think in many churches on just staying connected to the people who were already connected to our church. And I think that’s important and it’s good and we should do that. We should still be serving them, but let’s not miss the opportunity this Christmas for all of those people who are disconnected to our church, where this may be the one time of year where they tune in and they’re open to the message, they’re at least curious about this Jesus. We have a great opportunity there. So as we design what this experience looks like, let’s think about them and how we can serve them and how we can connect them to Jesus and what experience and what tools might work best to reach them where they are.