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Following up with Christmas Eve visitors

United Methodists gather for a Candlelight Service on Christmas Eve at St. Matthew UMC in Fort Worth, Texas. Photo by Angelia Sims of Angelia's Photography.
United Methodists gather for a Candlelight Service on Christmas Eve at St. Matthew UMC in Fort Worth, Texas. Photo by Angelia Sims of Angelia's Photography.

For most churches, Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday are the two most heavily attended worship services of the year. Along with attracting most of the church’s membership, these services also bring in many guests and first-time visitors. While some of these may simply be visiting family in-town for the holidays, others are people with no familiar connection to the congregation.

Some guests may have been invited by a church member to attend a Christmas Eve service while others may have found the congregation on their own. Some may only be looking to attend this one service, while others might be open to attending future services. Whatever their circumstances, it is vital that guests feel welcomed and encouraged to come back. With all the extra planning that goes into the Christmas Eve service, it is easy for churches to neglect proper Christian hospitality this one night of the year.

There is no reason a church should not follow the same hospitality and guest follow-up practices on Christmas Eve as it does the rest of the year, though it may need to adapt some techniques for the greater than normal volume of guests. Here are a few suggested strategies:

  1. Greeters should be in place to welcome guests at the door and hand out visitor information cards. Download templates for visitor cards here. The church may need to recruit additional greeters in anticipation of the large turnout. Collect the cards after the service. To make it easier for guests you might suggest they drop the cards off in the same box where they deposit their candles.
  2. Use the bulletins, projector screens and other on-site communications tools to advertise upcoming events (sermon series, new classes, service projects, etc.) as well as days and times for weekly programming.
  3. Pastors should remind congregants to extend a welcome and “Merry Christmas” greeting to anyone in the pews they do not know. There is no reason for a church that normally does practices like “passing of the peace” to not do so on Christmas Eve.
  4. Congregants who find themselves sitting next to a first-time visitor might offer to introduce them to the pastor after worship, though only if the guest feels comfortable with this.
  5. Use the time before and after worship to be hospitable. Because of the high turnout and general holiday atmosphere participants may spend more time talking and socializing together prior to or following the service. This can be a very lonely time for first-time guests who might have come by themselves. As congregants are chatting with friends and family, they should also make a point of introducing themselves and sharing Christmas cheer with new faces. Remember that while this service might be highlight of the year for church members, for guests it might be the only service they have attended all year.
  6. During Holy Communion, be sure to remind everyone that God’s table is open to all and that all are invited to partake whether they are long-term members or first-time guests. You may even want to print this in the bulletin.
  7. If the church offers free goody bags to first-time visitors on-site, it needs to make sure it has plenty to accommodate the Christmas Eve service. Make bags seasonal with Christmas-themed flourishes like candy canes, tinsel, hot cocoa mix, etc. If the church produces any personal knickknacks like coffee mugs or pens, they should also be included in the goody bags.

Some follow-up practices may need to be delayed a little because of the Christmas holiday and limited availability of church staff and volunteers. New visitor information should be entered into the communications database on the next day the church office is open. If the pastor(s) or volunteers normally do follow up visits with guests, these may need to be postponed or rescheduled to accommodate holiday/vacation plans. While it is okay to push these follow-up activities back a little for the holidays, they should still happen as soon as possible.

Send greeting cards out to all new visitors with the following information:

  1. Thank the recipient for attending the Christmas Eve service and invite them to come back. The New Year is a time of new beginnings and possibilities. If their new year’s resolutions involve deepening their relationship with God, meeting new people/making new friends or exploring new ideas, an invitation to come back to church might be just what they need.
  2. Include contact information for the pastor and church office. Information on weekly ministry programs and opportunities should also be included.If the church has any promotional flyers for upcoming events or new programs include them with the letter.

The Christmas Story is among other things a story of unexpected guests and strangers coming together to celebrate the birth of Jesus. As your church remembers the shepherds who unexpectedly found themselves in Bethlehem to witness God’s greatest miracle, share good tidings with those strangers who have chosen to celebrate the miracle with your church this Christmas Eve.

Philip J. Brooks is a writer and content developer with the leader communications team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tennessee, USA.

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