- We are not churning out another Christmas service, offering pearls to swine to be trampled underfoot. Instead we are presenting the pearl of great price and presenting it with such craftsmanship and drama that people will sell all they have in order to possess it for themselves.
A Christmas service is easy to plan. We have certain readings and carols, a chronology, a build-up, a climax and so many connections to make with our lives today that even an appeal comes naturally. Most of our Christmas worship services are filled with glorious moments – favorite carols, candlelit readings, a child’s solo – not to mention the appearance of Santa, Gabriel, Wise-Man Melchior, the donkey and possibly Buzz Lightyear, all bringing their unique magic to the nativity scene. But because we have often expected certain aspects of these services to carry with them a special significance, along with our confidence in the shape of the story itself, it can be easy to forget that a well prayed-through and crafted Christmas service can have an immediate impact that rises well above the usual expectations. And this will, most likely, come through particular moments of meaning, challenge, delight and awe.
For every congregation or audience there is a journey to travel and a unique story within which to share. So how do we go about shaping our own story from this familiar biblical one, and from all the versions of it that we have experienced over the years?
What’s the theme of your Christmas service?
Matthew’s theme is different to Luke’s and John’s. And Isaiah’s for that matter. Each biblical author followed a certain set of themes – the Messiah King, light, angels, the poor, justice, peace and joy etc. What theme is the Holy Spirit leading you to bring out? Select your material based on this.
Use the story we have been given – creatively
There is an obvious chronology – from Old Testament prophecies to the flight to Egypt. And there are carols that mark the way on this journey. But simply covering all the bases does not necessarily form a good story – in fact it can distract from the key themes seen above. Choosing characters and certain aspects of the story that highlight these themes and intentionally changing, stretching or truncating the chronological order can bring certain episodes to life.
Note the congregations prevailing cultural issues and shared experiences
The Christmas service speaks into today’s experience as much as reminding us of what happened 2000 years ago. What are the issues that people are generally facing – perhaps the cost of living, fear of war, oppression, anxiety or comfortable pride? These shape our presentation, as can the culturally shared experiences or language that may be referred to – a sporting victory, a contemporary song or set of characters, a tragedy or shared amusement or triumph. These, too, are references that enable us to make a deep connection to the bible story.
Once we have decided on our theme, the story we will tell, and the places of cultural connection, we can then look at texture and tone.
Fast, Slow, Up, and Down – Pacing Your Holiday Service
The opening and closing sections are some of the best times to bring everyone together – with familiarity, energy, drama, and an appeal to the senses. Dark to light, quiet to loud, surprise to recognition. Too many slow songs or readings, though, make us bored. Too much sparkle overshines the mystery. There needs to be playfulness, or it will become either tense or overly worthy. There needs to be tradition because that’s one of the appeals for our guests, although the surprise of the unfamiliar and the out of place is often where the delight and intrigue happens. Playfulness and solemnity need careful orchestration rather than creating confusion through an artless clashing of mood.
Curate the atmosphere
Nostalgia, mystery, and fun are three key elements to the kind of Christmas experience that many people seek. Nostalgia is about tradition and safety – a retreat towards experiences and values that were once (or were wished to be) experienced. This is a powerful longing, especially when everyday life does not live up to once dreamed ideals. So, although our message is not a hiding away from pain (quite the opposite for Mary and then for her son, Jesus) the promise of a once-remembered home is powerfully expressed in bible prophecies. Mystery – expressed in music and light, in ancient words and images – is so different to the immediacy of social media – and is in abundance in both the story and the traditions of Christmas. Fun happens when people are together – finding their seats, eating crumb-dropping Christmas fare and laughing together at the familiar, ironic and nonsensical when we present it honestly and freely.
Then within the story and the atmosphere we find the moment where – with a gasp, a thrill, or a tear – we share together in the truthful moment of the kindness of heaven coming to our needy earth.
Find the moment
It’s not unusual for people to remember Christmas events. This can be for a variety of reasons – the cute 6-year-old who sings a winsomely off-key solo, the not-meant-to-laugh-at chaos of the nativity scene, the movingly authentic testimony, the stunningly performed a-cappella. The remembering is not simply about the usual carols and readings. There is usually a ‘moment’ – or a series of moments – that catches people’s hearts. It is well worth anticipating this and planning it, so that it can be sensitively and powerfully maximised.
Craft the moment
In the evangelical tradition the moment is often in the preaching – a relevant and inviting word. Such moments, however, don’t need to be limited to a well explained gospel message. Knowing what the powerfully creative or artistic moment is, enables a response that is heart as well as head. An audience is surprised when a song familiar in culture takes on new meaning juxtaposed with traditional Christmas material, but also, when they hear an unfamiliar (to them) but powerful worship song in the midst of what is expected. Images that surprise and reveal, testimony that is real and immediate, silence that hovers after noise, old age and childhood, joy amidst pain, spoken word and prayer that resonate in our souls – all these can be the moment that catch the audience by surprise and open their eyes to the glorious living mystery that is Emmanuel.
Whether it is prayer, preaching, music or stillness, such a moment is the prophetic heart of our Christmas presentation. It is the awe, hope, conviction, and revelation that is formed in and through us by a combination of the material, the planning, and the delivery. A holy seed of spiritual life is planted in such moments, slipped through the crack of the door of people’s souls. We are not simply churning out yet another Christmas service, offering pearls to swine to be trampled underfoot. Instead we are presenting the pearl of great price, shining a light on it, heralding its beauty and presenting it with such craftsmanship and drama that people will begin the process of selling all they have in order to possess it for themselves.
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Martin Young is based in the UK and has been leading and planting churches for over 25 years, with ministry emphases on community engagement, global mission, leadership development, and the arts. He is now working with churches and leaders, pursuing evangelism, and running projects that engage people with the creativity of the Kingdom of Heaven.