So last night we had a Christmas program at our church. There are probably a half dozen or so we have each year, between our children, adults and senior adults, and the week-day child care. Christmas programs are as old as the church, and every age group brings a particular viewpoint on this season. I love them all, and get a kick out of everything from watching the kids sing their songs to the earnest dialogue of the senior adults in their program.
I remember hearing years ago of one of those Christmas pageants churches used to have, when children put on bathrobes and held cardboard shepherd’s crooks. In one of those programs, there was a five-year-old shepherd, standing in the back of the stage as Mary laid her Jesus-doll in the manger. The little guy stepped to the front to deliver his line and forgot all his instructions. Instead, he just called out, “Mom! Dad! Mary had her baby and it’s a boy!”
Anyway, back to what happened at church last night. It wasn’t a typical Christmas program. No manger scene. No adorable children dressed up. No choir standing in front and singing. No organ or songbooks. Instead, a guest, jazz band complete with a rocking horn section. A lead singer with a voice as smooth as silk. Music that included secular as well as sacred Christmas music. An evening of Christmas in swing time. All this done in partnership with the local Christian radio station.
Here’s what it looked like:
I got to church for last night’s event forty minutes early, and all the parking lots were full. When I finally walked into the church, all the seats were already taken. The balcony was full. The aisles were packed. The front lobby was full. Many people simply left because there wasn’t anymore room. My wife and I ended up standing on the steps in the back corner of balcony. I mean, the place was a madhouse. But in a good way: even with the great crush of people, there was a holiday spirit.
And when the concert started, there was such a rush of people enjoying themselves that you could feel the energy in the place. It was a great night. The group, “Denver and Mile-High Orchestra” were masters at engaging the audience. Their combination of remarkable musical gifts, professional-level staging and sound skills, high-energy showmanship and inviting audience participation made for a memorable evening.
This kind of event isn’t a substitute for an overtly Christian celebration of Christmas. And in the next few weeks we’ll have lots of other occasions for more formal and specific worship services, including a candlelight service on Christmas Eve and a Lord’s Supper service on Christmas Day. None of them, though, will have the attendance that last night had. None will bring as many people looking for an alternative to the rampaging secularism that’s robbing our nation of our spiritual heritage as did last night. None will bring as many lost people into a place of worship. And that fact alone makes me sit back and think pretty seriously about how we do Christmas celebrations; why we do them; and how we in the church can better position ourselves to be available to our community during Christmas, to minister more effectively to the people around us.
Here are some takeaways I had from last night:
· Almost everyone is looking for the sacred, and our churches must do better at opening our doors so that they can find it.
· Effective worship today can’t be a matter of just watching stuff happening on stage. It has to actually engage the people who are worshiping.
· Christian holidays—especially Christmas—offer maybe the best opportunity to connect with the secular community. Even the most skeptical people around turn at Christmas to more spiritual issues
· Secular songs and topics offer an open door into the sacred, if we in the church have the sense to see it.
· Everybody loves to have fun; and it comes as a surprise for some that there’s no sin in it.
· The segue from having fun in church to encountering Jesus in church is a big deal, and we haven’t yet figured out exactly how to do it.