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Featured: Christmas Eve: No Gimmicks Allowed

Photo Courtesy of Michelle Biggs

Christmas Eve: No Gimmicks Allowed


By Tita Parham
November-December 2012

Should we have a Nativity scene or kids in costume? Should we do something more contemporary or have a choir? How can we top last year?

United Methodist worship leaders often ask these questions as they prepare for one of the most highly attended worship times — Christmas Eve.

A variety of services and worship styles is important, given the diversity of people attending, but two pastors offer additional advice.

“Save the gimmicks for another day,” the Rev. Lee Trigg says. “That’s not why people come.”

The Rev. Ron Parker advises doing everything possible to make people feel included.

Trigg is executive pastor at First United Methodist Church of Round Rock (Texas). The church offers five Christmas Eve services, beginning with two in the afternoon where children sit around the pastor for the message.

During the first, preschoolers dress as angels and shepherds and sing carols. Older children forgo costumes at the second service and assist with Communion and lighting candles.

That service “is a little deeper, a little more theologically reflective,” Trigg says. “It is very much a hands-on service.”

It is also the most popular, drawing more than 1,100 people.

A traditional service at 7 p.m. has the second-highest attendance. It is followed by a contemporary service with a worship band and a late-night service featuring bells, Communion and candle lighting.

In all, the focus is on telling the story in a way that makes sense to each group.

“(At the contemporary service), I just take a few minutes and try to put it in perspective for them and to help them answer, ‘what now?’” Trigg says. “But they don’t come to hear me; they come to hear the story.”

If he could only do one service, he would make it traditional, assuring worshippers hear the story in music, Scripture and prayer. Then he’d “send them off with that story to tell.”

Inclusion, not exclusion

The Rev. Ron Parker says his church couldn’t “pull out all the stops” even if it wanted to. And it doesn’t try.

Parker just finished serving three months as interim pastor at Epworth United Methodist Church in Berkeley, Calif. He attends there when not serving as pastor.

For more than 10 years, the church has held two Christmas Eve services: one for children at 6 p.m. and a traditional service at 11 p.m., featuring choir anthems, carols, a brief sermon and candle lighting.

He says the early service is more popular and “a little bit chaotic” because the children form a Nativity scene while the Christmas story is read. Each child can play any part, so there might be six magi or two Marys.

That service attracts more than 140 people, while 80 people the second service.

The focus for both is “somebody can come … and feel included, that they were part of the thing and not just in the audience,” Parker says. “Everything is pretty oriented toward people who aren’t familiar with traditional ways.”

Worship leaders introduce themselves and their role. They provide instructions about what to do and where to go. Information is also in the bulletin. 

Members also are intentional about explaining things to newcomers, “because (many) were in that situation not long ago,” he says.

That includes people who weren’t welcomed in other congregations.

“We’re very open to a wide diversity, including a lot of gay and lesbian members,” Parker says. “Many people take a look at the diversity and see people shunned by other churches, then feel they will surely be welcome here.”

His advice for churches?

“Do everything (you) can to make people feel like they can join in,” he said. “Whatever they’re looking for, we want to welcome them and help them along that journey.”

Tita Parham is a freelance writer, editor and communications consultant based in Apopka, Fla.