When Christmas fell on a Sunday in 2005 it made news not because of the synergy it allowed between corporate worship and the feast of the nativity, rather the headlines were about how many large churches had opted not to hold services that Christmas Sunday. Having served on staff at several congregations I understand how much time it takes to plan and lead a Sunday service. It can be disheartening to put so much effort into a worship service only to have a handful of congregants present. Many of you are planning services for Christmas Sunday this year, and I celebrate your decision to gather for worship. Here are some thoughts on ways to make the most of the time of worship on Christmas Sunday.
Keep it Simple
Perhaps you are slim on staff and volunteers this Christmas Sunday. That should not inhibit a joyous celebration of the nativity. There is an abundance of compelling material in the Story and, like every Sunday, we should let the Story of God’s saving activity take center stage. Proclaiming the joy of the Word becoming flesh can certainly inspire creativity, but it is not dependent on creativity itself. Read the Scripture(s), celebrate the Story, and know that it will be more than enough.
Don’t Stop With the Manger
When Christmas falls on a Sunday we have a prime opportunity to proclaim the wondrous mystery of the incarnation. Perhaps this Christmas Sunday we would do well to move beyond sermons with titles like “The Best Present is Baby Jesus.” Such sermons, often targeted to the “twice-per-year” worshipper, too frequently minimize the incarnation. The doctrine of the incarnation is central to our faith and it forces us to dive into the beautiful, mysterious love of the Triune God. Preach on John 1, proclaim with joy the Nicene Creed on Christmas Sunday, design worship that celebrates the richness of the incarnation.
Sing the Songs of the Church
Mary, Zechariah, and the angels could not help but burst into song over our Lord’s birth; we should do the same on Christmas Sunday. Much of the content of our song is grounded in the paradoxical nature of the incarnation. How can the eternal God be born? How can the One whom the heavens cannot hold be held in a peasant girl’s arms? This beautiful mystery has inspired countless hymns and we should sing these loudly on Christmas Sunday. Sing, for example, “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and make sure to include verse #2, “True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal…” Sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “Joy to the World.” Consider reading or singing as special music Charles Wesley’s hymn “Glory Be to God on High.” Whatever you sing, choose songs that draw your congregation deeper into the Story of God’s salvation in Christ. Shorten the sermon and let your congregation sing with the angelic host.
Move With Joy
Many congregations that offer multiple services are opting for a single worship service on Christmas Sunday. Some are canceling children’s church to take the stress off of volunteers. If children are present for the entire service, find opportunities to engage them in worship—shorten the service, sing more and preach a shorter sermon, consider having an older child read a Scripture passage. While a “recessional” might be unfamiliar to your congregation, Christmas Sunday could be a good chance to close your service by having the entire congregation recess out of the sanctuary while singing a hymn like “Joy to the World” Have the children follow behind the pastor, perhaps carrying banners. If your congregation is hung up on the word “recessional,” call it a “parade.”
Remember the Forgotten
Finally, Christmas Sunday will be a time of grief and loneliness for many in your midst. Consider ways to embrace those who are too often forgotten after the service is over. Perhaps you could coordinate opportunities for families to host other members who are alone on Christmas Sunday. Maybe several families would commit to holding an open “feast” following the service where anyone could join. If the incarnation says something definitive about the character of the Triune God—namely, that God draws near to us in our brokenness—how might we reflect this in our community on Christmas Sunday?
Regardless of how you design your service on Christmas Sunday, remember that your labors are not in vain. The entire host of heaven will be joining you that Sunday whether you have two or two thousand people present.
We have asked some of our other contributors to share the way they are designing worship for Christmas Sunday in their context. Look for other ideas later this week!