As many churches plan their seasonal outreach celebrations, they often focus on putting on a big program for the community. It could be a play, serious or humorous. It could be a concert consisting of anything from the choir presenting a formal choral arrangement to the music ministry doing a special seasonal musical to hosting a visiting Christian Rock group.
There is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with these events and if you follow the advice of Effective Church Communications and are conscientious about connecting with people at your events, explaining what is going on at the church, explaining the Christian faith, linking them to more resources, and inviting them back, these events can be effective ways to grow your church. But something else is going on that we need to consider if you want your event to have a positive impact on your congregation beyond the event itself because. . .
"What you win them with is what you win them to."
Seasonal events don't stand alone. How we celebrate them reflects both the core beliefs of the church and the effect of them on the spiritual growth of church members.
This ties in with a challenge from the book, Not a Fan, becoming a completely committed follower of Jesus by Kyle Idleman—with what he calls the Snuggie Theology. Though it sounds innocuous, it isn't. In summary, Snuggie Theology is the approach to the Christian faith that says coming to Jesus is like wrapping yourself in a Snuggie, (if you aren't familiar with them, they are a sort of backwards bathrobe with sleeves)—all warm and soft and where you will get all you ever wanted or dreamed.
Idleman reminds his readers that if this is the expectation people have (and sadly many do in our world) about the Christian faith, that it will be very hard for them to take seriously Jesus' challenge: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34). In connection with this, he added the advice of one of his elders who said:
"What you win them with is what you win them to."
How we present the Christian faith to people forms the foundational expectations they have of it and of their responsibility to Jesus. Since many people first come to church because of invitations to special events, we need to carefully evaluate the message we are presenting not only in the content, but in the form of our event. This is especially important in our world today because people will often come to our church celebrations without a background in the basics of the Christian faith. It's all new to them and their first impressions of Christianity will have a lasting effect on how they respond to it.
How this applies to our performance-centered celebrations
Yes, events such as church concert performances can and do communicate that Christians worship God and God is worthy of celebration and worship. I am not proposing that we do away with all church seasonal performances or concerts, but consider what messages we might be giving out if the primary way we celebrate at our church is through performance-based events, where the staff and a few members put on the big event and the majority of the people are a passive audience. Please know that these messages are not automatic and performance-based events can do good things, but we need to consider the possible negative messages to be the best stewards of our time and resources during the holiday season.
Possible messages from performance-centered celebrations:
- That putting on big performance celebrations are the most important thing the church does because these events are what the church spends the most money on and what are most advertised.
- Performance is the highest calling for a select few in the church and the role of most people in the church is to sit in the pews and watch the church celebrities perform.
- The church is seen as the provider of entertainment and if the entertainment doesn't continue or lags in innovation or excitement something is wrong with the church.
- What is important for the congregation is not that they interact with each other or their guests at the event, but that they show up and show appreciation for what was performed.
- If children cannot sit quietly they are not welcome to the event.
Following several exposures to a series a church of performances, we then face these challenges:
- If a visitor becomes a regular attendee, these first encounters may influence how they interact with the church on an ongoing basis. If they come into the church as spectators only, when are they told they must become a functioning, working, self-denying disciple?
- If all their experience has been "come and be entertained," any other message might be interpreted as a bait and switch tactic.
- The responsibility for outreach success is laid on the quality of the performance—instead of relying on the power of God and the love of His people to draw newcomers to church.
- The most tragic impression of all to give to visitors and newcomers to the Christian faith is that concerts and performances are more important than feeding hungry people, serving the poor, or any other kind of servant evangelism. Before you strongly deny that, consider—when was the last time your church put the same amount of effort and money into advertising what was needed for the hunger concerns around the world that it did for the Christmas concert or similar event? When did you work that hard to get people to serve at the food pantry or help the elderly or visit the sick or those in prison? When did you do a huge PR PowerPoint promotion about the number of children dying each day of preventable diseases or about the underage women sold into the world-wide sex trafficking?
That last challenge is hard to consider and it might seem offensive and out-of-place for an article about celebrations, but if we want to live our lives wisely and use our resources in ways most pleasing to the Lord, we need to always keep in mind what is important to Him. The poor and the needs in our world are incredibly important to Him. Even in the midst of a holiday performance, you could do something as simple as taking up an offering for hunger relief. Or you could have a program insert that says something like this:
We hope you have a fantastic time tonight!
We have so much to be thankful for as we listen to the music and enjoy the goodies after the concert.
But as we celebrate, we know many of these blessings are beyond the reach of most of our world.
To do something about that we are taking up an offering for World Hunger tonight.
In addition, caring about the less fortunate isn't just something we do one night, but a core concern of our church. On the back of this insert are some volunteer activities we do weekly to serve those in need in our community and around the world.
Join us—we celebrate Jesus tonight—we serve Him each day!
We must keep this in mind as we plan our celebrations. In one of the very clear pictures Jesus gives us of final judgment in Matt. 25:31-46, Jesus doesn't ask about the extravagance of the performance events we hosted. He will want to know what we did about hungry kids.
Balance encouraged and an alternative to performance-centered celebrations offered
In addition to a performance celebration, consider an alternative that would involve active participation by many members of the church such as a holiday meal. Let's get very practical about what this could involve and what it might communicate. Though the specific holiday used below as an example is Thanksgiving, this process could be used for any seasonal celebration. Following is a real-life example.
Here is the situation:
A church would like the preparation and serving of a Holiday Meal to be an outreach to the members of a senior citizen mobile home park and a service opportunity for an Adult Sunday School Class.
Not far from the church, the Lemon Wood Mobile Home Park has a beautiful, large, club house that is a perfect place for the Thanksgiving dinner, with more room for games, TV watching and relaxing before and after dinner. A couple who live in the park are both the teachers of the Adult Sunday School Class from the host church and willing to organize and host the meal.
Outreach goals for this event:
- To communicate to residents of the Park, the love of Jesus and that service is important to Him.
- The opportunity to simply serve some of the older seniors who cannot travel for the holidays and who perhaps have no close family members. There are many widows and widowers who are alone in the park.
- To pass on a handout to those who attend to link them to websites and Bible passages about Christianity.
- To lay the groundwork for a Bible study or service in the park in the future.
The church group putting on the dinner is an Adult Bible Class and the class teachers want to:
- Give the class members an opportunity to serve. The class has studied Max Lucado's book and video series Outlive Your Life and prior to that a series on "Making Prophecy Practical, lessons from the OT Prophets for Today." The class has been taught serving; they need to put their teaching into practice.
- Give the class members an ongoing prayer challenge for the success of the outreach.
- Give the class members who do not have family in the area a way to celebrate with their family of faith.
- Give the class members a way to get to know each other better and grow in their fellowship and faith as they work together to put on the meal, enjoy the meal, interact with the seniors, and clean up.
What interactive, serving events such as this can communicate
If all goes as prayed for, what an interactive serving celebration can communicate both to church members involved and to those in the community:
- Christians celebrate by serving, in particular by serving those who perhaps would not celebrate at all if the church did not offer this opportunity. Sitting alone in a trailer thinking about a spouse who died and children far away is not a happy thought, but would be reality for many if this event does not happen.
- The Christian faith is an interactive, involved faith that delights in giving, not just in selfish celebration among insiders.
- We get to know each other by serving together. A few hours of working together in the kitchen builds fellowship among church members more than months of sitting and listening to Bible lessons.
- All ages from little kids helping to seniors are welcomed, put to work, and encouraged to interact before and during the event.
- People will know we are Christians by our practical love for each other to those in and outside the church.
- If people respond to church or Bible study invitations for later church involvement, our invitations won't come from unfamiliar organization, but from a group with whom they have already shared a meal.
Consider a balance
This article was challenging to write and I know some will take offense at the slightest suggestion that treasured church performances are anything less than magnificent, but my goal in this is not to have you do away with all church performances, but to consider adding some events that are interactive, service opportunities for your people and your community. Not everyone can sing gloriously on stage, but everybody can sit with a lonely person and share a meal.
How we choose to celebrate holidays has implications far beyond the performance or celebration itself in how people respond to the church and to living their faith.
Much more could be said—but my husband and I are the Sunday School teachers in this example and we have a lot of work to do before dinner is served.
To see the flyer we created to recruit volunteers for this outreach, CLICK HERE.