Ann Michel and Doug Powe of the Lewis Center write that the pandemic makes connecting with new people this Christmas more important than ever. But new ways of being and doing church adopted in the face of the coronavirus present some natural opportunities for outreach and evangelism during this holiday season.
Earlier this year as churches adapted to the emerging coronavirus threat, few of us imagined we would not have returned to “worship as usual” by Christmas. Yet here we are. Congregations across the country and around the world are planning novel and creative ways of observing Christmas Eve and Christmas responsibly during a pandemic.
Even in a time when it seems that everything has changed, there’s one thing that probably hasn’t — Christmas is still one of the few times of year when people not normally interested in church take an interest and when church members are open to inviting family and friends. As you work to reimagine your Christmas observances, consider ways to carry on the tradition of inviting and engaging newcomers.
In fact, it’s more important than ever. Many families are unable to gather and celebrate as they normally would. Some bear the burden of personal loss or financial setbacks. Isolation and loneliness will reverberate loudly as the usual din of holiday busyness falls silent this year. Rarely have we entered Advent with a greater longing for the hope that the Christ Child brings.
How can we share the joy and hope of Christmas with others this year?
Fill the void
In normal times, the days leading up to Christmas can be frantically busy with shopping, parties, cooking, family gatherings, and travel. This year, many will be celebrating Christmas at home in smaller, quieter ways. Churches can join this trend. National United Methodist Church in Washington, DC, for example, is offering a virtual seven-day countdown to Christmas with special musical events, worship services, devotions, and children’s performances, all of which are based on the theme of comfort and joy.
Long before the pandemic hit, many forward-thinking churches were seeking ways to extend their spiritual presence beyond the walls of their church to engage people who might never cross the threshold of their building. (See “Taking Church to the Community,” Leading Ideas, January 25, 2015.) Now, churches in some parts of the country are holding outdoor events to minimize the risk of transmitting coronavirus. For example, in Texas, where the weather is mild in winter, First UMC in McAllen has purchased a large, inflatable outdoor screen and projection equipment to offer an outdoor Christmas Eve service. Remember, even when gathering outdoors it is still imperative to maintain social distance, wear masks, and follow local guidelines on the size of gatherings. But in situations where outdoor gatherings are feasible and safe, they can be a means of evangelism, making your church more visible and accessible to your community.
Update your website
Potential visitors almost always check a church out online before engaging in any substantive way. Your congregational websites may not reflect the major changes in worship and programming that have occurred since March. This may not be the time for a comprehensive website overhaul, but at least make sure your current worship options and any special Christmas events are front and center going into this holiday season. This is also a way to share information about assistance your congregation is offering during these challenging times when more families need help to make it through the holidays.
Enable virtual evangelism
The ease and comfort of “virtual evangelism” may explain in part why many congregations have enjoyed increased attendance for online worship services. (See “Online Worship Makes Evangelism Less Intimidating for Many,” Leading Ideas, June 17, 2020.) Posting on social media is a natural and spontaneous way for people to share their enthusiasm for what their churches are doing online. And it isn’t nearly as scary as inviting someone to attend an in-person church service or starting a conversation about God or the church. Christmas events are already low-barrier points of entry, so churches should maximize the opportunities for virtual evangelism by posting information on Christmas services and events to social media platforms where their members can easily comment and share. For example, sharing a message on social media platforms about a special music program is low-hanging fruit for virtual evangelism.
Connect with others
Many people may not have the support of family or friends over the holiday, including homebound individuals or those in nursing homes. Having volunteers from the church call consistently during the holidays can help them feel connected to the church and others. The holidays can be lonely even when we are not in the midst of a pandemic. This year it is critical to be more intentional about reaching out to others.
Bring church home for the holidays
More than any other holiday in our culture, except perhaps Thanksgiving, the celebration of Christmas is centered in the home. One reason fewer and fewer churches offer Christmas Day services is that they compete with the home-centered rituals of opening gifts, preparing special meals, and sharing family time. But virtual worship means we don’t have to set these things aside to “go to church.” Instead, we can welcome church into our homes and incorporate it into our home-centered family rituals. Since many family groupings will be smaller this Christmas, it’s the perfect opportunity to encourage families to gather together at home for online worship.
The pandemic makes connecting with new people this Christmas more important than ever. But the pandemic also has given rise to new ways of being and doing church that present new opportunities for reaching people. Christmas 2020 calls us to meet new people in new ways. Don’t miss this moment.
- Virtual Advent, a Leading Ideas Talks podcast episode featuring Anna Petrin
- Online Worship Makes Evangelism Less Intimidating for Many by Doug Powe and Ann A. Michel
- 10 Ways to Reach Unchurched People at Christmas by Carey Nieuwhof
Originally published by the Lewis Center for Church Leadership December 1, 2020. Republished with permission by ResourceUMC. Ann A. Michel is associate director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary and teaches in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available. F. Douglas Powe, Jr., is director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership and holds the James C. Logan Chair in Evangelism (an E. Stanley Jones Professorship) at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. at Cokesbury and Amazon.