Most congregations find they have to dust off the back pews on Christmas Eve. A lot of people show up for what is both a major feast of the church and a major cultural holiday. The following are some rather unsystematic suggestions for extending hospitality to all on Christmas Eve and at any other times that God welcomes strangers:
- Address all people as participants in the worshiping community. Avoid talking to or printing notices that communicate in terms of "insiders" and "outsiders." We all are the recipients of God's welcome of strangers to the manger. Any hint that someone is perceived as an outsider is the same as saying, "No room in the inn!"
- Avoid asking people to identify themselves as visitors. For every one person who likes that kind of attention, there are ten who do not.
- Be clear about the page numbers if the expectation is that people will turn to hymns, prayers, or passages in pew Bibles.
- Don't assume that anyone knows anything! Print it. Project it. Find some way to tell everyone in words or print where to find it.
- Celebrate the church's faith without apology or hesitation. The Christmas Eve liturgy is the great rehearsal of the incarnation. Any who come want to be part of a living community's drama of welcoming Jesus. In doing so, they hope to discover again — or for the first time — who God is and who Jesus is — "up close and personal." Don't try to play to the audience. This is a glorious night full of God's splendor, mystery, and presence. Sing, pray, rejoice in all the ways your community is able. Deep joy and genuine excitement are contagious and appealing. Skip anything that is phony or contrived.
- Be sure to keep a balance with more familiar carols and hymns if you use new music or songs. There are many lovely anthems where the choir sings something new as the congregation sings something familiar. (See "Christmas Eve Musical Hospitality" by Dean McIntyre.)
- Encourage church members to show hospitality through attentiveness and warmth to those taking seats near them — making sure each person has a hymnal, a service bulletin, enough room, or a friendly word of guidance about where to turn in the hymnal. Ushers and greeters are important, but what will make a lasting and loving impression is the demonstration of grace and caring by the people in the pews who share the journey.
- Offer options in times of services — one early service and another later service. Christmas Eve is a night when more is better as far as options are concerned — even in smaller-membership churches. Inconvenient for the pastor, musicians, ushers? Yes, but what are we to be about: convenience or worship and service? You might even consider a service on Christmas Day with the sharing of some food afterward. Those who have nowhere to go will be there!
- Communicate clearly that people may participate as fully as they wish or that they may simply observe.
- Be sure all know how they are to receive the elements of Holy Communion if you celebrate it (and why wouldn't you invite everyone to make his or her hands the manger for Jesus?). A simply worded notice in the bulletin or a brief explanatory word just before people partake will be a generous act of hospitality.
- Love all the people just because they are there for this time, this holy night. Forget about wondering and worrying about whether or not they will come back.
- Do leave breadcrumbs along the path so that if people want to come again, they know how and when to return. Bulletin notices or a special insert with worship times, how to contact the church office or pastors, and information about the church's distinctive ministries welcomes participation and sends the right signals.
For a very important theological and practical look at hospitality, see Patrick Keifert, Welcoming the Stranger (Augsburg Fortress Press, 1992).
For a practical and helpful orientation to hospitality, see Roger Swanson's and Shirley Clement, The Faith-Sharing Congregation (Discipleship Resources, 1996).
Daniel Benedict is retired from the staff of the Center for Worship Resourcing of the Discipleship Ministries.