The nation’s biggest religious celebration of the year is coming soon: Are you ready? More importantly for millions of American Christians: Is your chuch ready?
IS IT TRULY AMERICA’S BIGGEST RELIGIOUS CELEBRATION? This claim could be debated. Is going to church at Christmas truly “religious” for everyone? And, if we expand the meaning of “religious,” one could argue that July 4 is a celebration of civil religion—or that New Year’s Eve is a return to pagan spiritual roots. But let’s turn to the Gallup Poll: The most recent Gallup study of this question reports: Ninety-five percent of Americans celebrate Christmas and—of those who do—51% describe the holiday as “strongly religious” for them, continuing an upward trend seen since 1989.
CHURCH ATTENDANCE BOOMING: Over many years, Gallup has reported that 4 in 10 Americans describe themselves as weekly churchgoers, even though actual head counts in houses of worship haven proven that’s an optimistic claim. However, at Christmas, the percentage of Americans who say they plan to attend Christmas services leaps to more than 6 in 10. In short, Christmas is the year’s biggest occasion for visitors in churches. (Yes, Easter boasts high attendance, as well, but come back as Lent begins in February for more on that season.)
WHAT YOUR CHURCH SHOULD BE DOING TO BECOME WELCOMING
OUR AUTHOR INTERVIEW LATER THIS WEEK FEATURES HENRY G. BRINTON: He’s a popular columnist on faith, congregatinal life and American culture—posting occasional columns for the Washington Post and USA Today. His new book is The Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality. In our interview, we will talk more about Brinton’s very valuable insights.
WHAT YOUR CHURCH SHOULD BE DOING NOW TO PREPARE FOR CHRISTMAS: Start by updating your website! Hundreds of thousands of congregations coast to coast now have websites and a huge number of those sites actually push away potential visitors. Right now, your church’s front webpage should list all holiday-related programs and services. At this time of year, families are scrambling to plan December activities with family and friends.
IN HIS BOOK, HENRY BRINTON ADVISES: “Web sites are often the first threshold space that a visitor encounters, and they can make a positive first impression and deliver a powerful message of welcome.” Then, Henry cites examples. He urges churches to design their websites so that—right on the front page—there is clear information about “what happens during a Sunday morning worship serivce, where to go when you arrive, and what to do if you have questions about the church.”
THIS WEEK, check out your congregation’s website. Look for:
SCHEDULE: Is the upcoming schedule of events obvious on the front page? Is it so big and bold that no one can miss it? Post your whole balance-of-December schedule right there on the home page.
ADDRESS: Visitors use map apps or GPS devices, so your street address should be front and center—not in the fine print at the bottom of the home page or on some secondary page. Are there special parking problems—or helpful options like Visitor Parking spaces? Put that information on your front page with your address. Those visitors who use your webpage to reach you will really appreciate those tips!
WHERE TO GO ONCE YOU ARRIVE: If you’re reading this far, you’re probably active in a congregation and you would be shocked to learn how difficult it is for visitors to find the doorway that your members know is the “front door.” You would be floored to learn how many visitors don’t have a clue where they should go inside your building.
DESCRIBE WHAT HAPPENS: Describe your worship and other customs. If your congregation has coffee before services or a social time after services, makes sure your website schedule explains that. Visitors won’t know in advance and won’t be able to plan for it. Post a photo of your church’s interior, so visitors know what to anticipate. Or, better yet, post a photo of people attending a typical worship service. Churches are mysterious, daunting places to most visitors.
IDENTIFY THE MAJOR PLAYERS: Many churches seem to hide their clergy deep inside their websites, perhaps out of modesty on the part of the clergy—or out of a theological push to make members feel that they are leading the congregation. But consider: Making it easy for visitors to visually identify key figures in your congregation is a friendly service.
SPECIAL COLLECTIONS: Most church leaders have heard that it’s a bad idea to mention collections. But, if you’re collecting special items during the holidays—like cans of food for the needy or special offerings for the local homeless shelter—tell people as part of your events schedule. If visitors feel moved to seek out a church for the holidays, they don’t want to arrive and feel that “everybody else” knew about a special community-wide effort.
SPECIAL LIGHTS: A big draw at year-end holidays are “lighting” services. Some churches use candles, distibuted for free at the doors. Some churches use flashlights or even lit-up mobile phone apps held in the darkness. If you’ve got a special lighting service—explain it to your visitors in advance. Don’t assume they know what the words “candle-lit” means in your congregation.
A FINAL WORD FROM HENRY BRINTON ON CHRISTIAN HOSPITALITY
Click on the cover of Henry’s book, above, to order a copy. Just to clarify: The book is not specifically oriented to Christmas. It’s a year-round exploration of Christian hospitality. The book is not specifically focused on Sunday morning worship, nor is it focused on websites. It’s a deep analysis of why Christians share a distinctively welcoming vocation in this world. In Henry Brinton’s words from the book:
Jesus plays a dual role in any experience of Christian hospitality—he is both our host and our potential guest. We gather to feed the hungry and welcome strangers because that is what Jesus did as a gracious and loving host during his earthly ministry and because that is what Jesus continues to do through the Christian community today. But we also practice hospitality because it gives us an opportunity to welcome Jesus in the form of people who are hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, sick and in prison. The line from Matthew 25, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” echoes again and again throughout the ancient Christian texts … Over the centuries, the question of whether to offer assistance to a stranger has been intensified by the Christian understanding that it is Jesus himself who stands before us, in need of food and shelter.
One of the Greek words for hospitality, philoxenia, literally means “love of the stranger.” It combines the general word for love for people who are connected to us (phileo) with the word for stranger (xenos), reminding us that hospitality is always “closely connected to love.” But the word xenos has other meanings—in addition to “stranger,” it also means “guest” and “host.” So the word itself captures an essential mutuality that is at the heart of hospitality, uniting strangers, guests and hosts.
MORE WITH HENRY BRINTON
If you enjoyed this story, you will want to read:
Part 2: Interview with Henry G. Brinton about his book and tips for welcoming churches.
Part 3: When strangers who walk through our doors are truly “strange”—including Jedi knights.