The answer to this question will vary in Presbyterian churches, and the way in which we respond reflects our most fundamental attitude toward outreach and evangelism. Almost every congregation desires church growth and sets it as a primary long-range goal, but sometimes our behavior prevents the very thing we say we seek.
I have a vivid memory from a Christmas Eve service when I was a boy in my home church. The pastor welcomed the congregation with words something like, “I want to wish many of you a Merry Christmas, a Happy New Year, a joyous Easter, a pleasant Fourth of July, and a Happy Thanksgiving because I know that I will not be seeing most of you for another year!” Maybe, in Daniel Powter’s words, he “had a bad day.” However, even as a child I knew this attitude was unfeeling and insensitive, and as a pastor I have never even thought, much less said, such a thing during any service I have led.
Yet, some Presbyterians, people who would never express anything so crass out loud, mutter sotto voce, “I don’t like Christmas Eve services much any more. I hardly know anyone who attends.” “Why does John Smith show up for only one service during the whole year? Where is he the other fifty-one weeks?” “If some of these strangers stayed home it would be easier to get a parking space or a seat tonight!”
Perhaps a better question to ask is, “Why do you think so many people come to the Candlelight or Lesson and Carols services on Christmas Eve?”
If we assume it is only to put in some spiritual face time or to make a ritual showing, our attitude will be closer to the pastor’s mentioned above. But if we assume most of the visitors and strangers crowding our doors on that special night, even the ones who may never come again, are really searching for God’s presence (“Emmanuel”), hoping beyond hope that something will happen this time in the depths of their hearts (“all our hopes and fears”), looking for some joy to the world, then we can approach them with a whole new outlook.
Christmas Eve is a time of true Christmas magic, as C.S. Lewis once put it. It is not just the candle glow and music. It is a recognition that the truth of the Incarnation is a wonderful mystery, the amazing fact that God dared to place eternity in the life of a squealing baby. Lewis’ language is not as inclusive as we might like but it encapsulates the Advent wonder. “In the Christian story God descends to reascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down further still, if embryologists are right, to recapitulate in the womb ancient and pre-human phases of life; down to the very roots and sea-bed of the Nature He had created. But He goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him.”
If we assume that the visitors in our midst are attending our Christmas Eve services for the same reasons we are, i.e. to touch God’s mystery, to be lifted up from despair, to find a place in God’s world, to worship at the source of God’s great love for us (if even for just an hour), we can greet them with mutual affection and love rather than sarcasm and suspicion; not as strangers, not even as guests, but as fellow seekers of the truth; as brothers and sisters, all gathered together to give glory to God as members of the extended family of Jesus; all of us here to celebrate the birthday of our Brother.
Earl S. Johnson Jr. is the pastor of First Church in Johnstown, N.Y. and adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College.