|Holidays and the Church|
By Dan Vis
December 20, 2018
Though a little late for this year, I've been wanting to write up a list of ideas for making the most of the holidays in the local church. So here it is! Save this list for next time and get ahead on your planning for next year... :)
The holiday season is both a conundrum, and an opportunity for pastors and other church leaders. On the one hand, members are distracted by big events like Thanksgiving and Christmas, travel, vacation, and visits with family. On the other, they are primed and open to messages and programs connected to the season, that might otherwise have far less impact.
In my church, I took advantage of the season. While there is no biblical basis to these contemporary holidays, there is a natural ebb and flow in the daily lives of church members, and it's wise for leaders to tap into that for ministry. Much like Jesus used the extra-biblical celebration of Hannakuh (the feast of dedication) as an opportunity to communicate truth (John 10:22And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter.), I tried to give sermons and run programs during the holidays that connected with where my members were at that particular time of year. And even more, to shape their experience.
Here are 9 suggestions for making the most of this season that I found useful, organized around the main holidays of Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years. If these are not big events in the culture where you live, use these suggestions as a springboard for ideas that might work based on your cultural calendar.
1. Take a Break
My church stayed extremely active with a number of strong ministries, and our calendar was busy through the entire year. We typically ran an evangelistic seminar each spring and fall, with all the pre-work and follow-up events that go with that. Plus, we ran a 7 week evangelism school each summer. Usually by the time November and December rolled around, we were all ready for a break. So I made an intentional decision to keep our schedule to a minimum during these months. My members always appreciated it.
I used these two months to do a significant amount of long-range planning and goal setting for the coming year. I would analyze trends, review our calendar, spend extra time in prayer, asking for direction and discernment of priorities, and so on. By this time we would usually have the coming year's calendar mapped out, in rough, general terms. But during these last two months I would zoom in on the details and fine tune the calendar. This kind of thinking always required a good amount of time, free from stress and pressure. By keeping these months slow, and then using that time for strategizing, I was able to enter the new year fully charged and ready to go.
2. Emphasize Gratitude
Each year we made our theme for the month of November gratitude, thankfulness, or something similar. For an engaged, mission-driven church, it's important to encourage an environment of appreciation. Devoting a whole month to that, where we look for ways to recognize different groups in the church can be remarkably beneficial. Preach sermons on praise, giving thanks, the role of gratitude in the home, etc. Acknowledge teachers, the church board, seniors, or some other group. Mix things up, but do something special each year.
3. Stewardship Weekend
Every pastor should focus on financial stewardship periodically, and doing it in the context of Thanksgiving is an ideal time. While tithing is often presented in the context of faithfulness, and duty--and rightly so--it is also helpful to present giving in the context of gratitude to God. And the Thanksgiving season naturally lends itself to a sermon along those lines!
The weekend after Thanksgiving is another great opportunity to emphasize another aspect of stewardship. Every few years I would preach a "Black Friday" sermon, exposing dangers in the greed, materialism, and crass commercialism that so riddles our society. A message encouraging people to turn their focus toward spiritual prosperity and away from the buying and selling Jesus warned about, will have more impact this weekend than others. Use it!
4. Do a Memory Challenge
In looking over our calendar, we found December to be the perfect slot for a memory challenge. Each year we would choose some book of the Bible, divide it up into sections, and recruit members to memorize one section each. We'd usually spend all November recruiting and reminding people to work on their verses. And then the first weekend in December, the whole church would come together after a fellowship meal, and write out the entire book from memory. We'd line tables up all the way down the foyer, put out sheets with the references for each section at the top, and at the appointed time, everyone would start writing. One year we reproduced the book of Revelation in about 12 minutes. Another year the Sermon on the Mount. I suppose this could have been done any time of the year, but something about the timing made it especially festive!
5. Sharing Opportunities
Christmas is one of the best times of the year to share Christ, and few people will turn down something offered as a holiday gift! Even if that gift is religious in nature. Find tracts or books appropriate for the season. Or encourage one of the ministries in your church to plan a special neighborhood outreach linked to the holidays.
In our home, my wife prepared some small baskets with cookies, fruit, and other goodies, plus a calendar, a spiritual book, and a jar of Bible promises. We gave them to all our neighbors we could catch home as a way to get acquainted. In every case they were warmly received because of the season. For another suggestion, consider printing this week's blog post (Incredible Genealogies!) and sharing it with a friend at work or school. Because so many are thinking about the birth of Jesus at this time, they will be more inclined to read it, and give it some honest thought.
6. Christmas Sermons
There are plenty of great sermons you can preach related to the birth of Jesus. Talk about the wise men, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna, the religious leaders in the time of Christ, the prophecies, the parallels between the 1st and 2nd advent, the mysteries of the incarnation, and many other topics. I used every available slot in December for these kinds of inspirational messages. By preaching sermons on these familiar stories, you can link the lessons you teach with the symbols of Christmas present everywhere--just as Jesus used parables of common events to link his teachings to scenes they would see every day.
My church also did a Christmas musical program each year, organized by either our music committee, or our church school. I personally love many of the old Christmas carols, partly because they bring back many warm memories of cold nights out ingathering, in my first church--so I always enjoyed these. I made a conscious effort to let the church plan and run these program--giving me a nice break from the pulpit!
7. Year End Review
My last sermon of the year was almost always a year in review. This is the perfect time to review the mission statement of your church, and evaluate your progress toward it. While in the midst of constant activity, it's easy to miss the progress you are making. Pausing for a moment to reflect on what you have accomplished as a church is helpful. I would also often review some of the headline stories from the news, and their implications in terms of endtime events. These can be used to inspire a sense of urgency, and challenge members to double down on their pursuit of the church mission in the coming year. People tend to be highly reflective during the last few days of each year. Tap into that.
8. New Year's Challenge
Similarly, my first sermon of the year was typically a preview of the year to come. I would officially announce our theme for the year (chosen by our strategic planning team, and voted by the church board months earlier). And I would use the sermon to explain how it links it to our church mission and vision. And typically there would be a call to revival & reformation, or to recommitment, rededication, reconsecration. If the previous week your members were looking back, this week they will be looking forward. So cast a vision for the future they can embrace enthusiastically.
9. Prayer Emphasis
Throwing goals out there is not enough. The church must be challenged to unite around those goals in prayer. So the first sermon of the year was typically the launch of some sort of prayer intensive. We had a great prayer team and experimented with different approaches--and they were all a blessing. We tried a 40 days prayer program, a 21 day Daniel fast, a 10 day email upper room prayer series, a week of prayer with actual meetings at the church, a prayer emphasis for the first 4 weekends of January, and other approaches. I don't have a particular recommendation as to which worked best, but we tried hard to involve the whole church, and used a large prayer email list to try and keep everyone engaged. By the time our prayer focus was over, we were well into the new year, and the holiday mindset was over. And it was time to get back to work!
There you have it: nine ideas to tap into the holiday season, and maximize them for good in your church. Not every idea will work in every situation, but with a little prayer and creativity, you can develop your own approach to making the most of the big events on your calendar.
We don't want to overemphasize these cultural holidays, but neither do we want to ignore them completely. Rather, like everything else, we want to find effective ways to harness these to advance the work Christ has left His church to do. Seek guidance from God, and the Spirit will give you ideas too!
How important is it to connect with people, to make our sermons and programs relevant to where people are? What programs have worked well in your church during the holiday season? Share your comments below...
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