By Carey Nieuwhof
ChristianWeek Columnist | December 5, 2016
Any idea what the best outreach opportunity of the year at your church might be?
You might think it’s an event you do, or perhaps it’s Easter. But whether Christmas has historically been your best opportunity to reach unchurched people or not, I believe it could be.
As our culture becomes more and more post-Christian, we’re seeing far fewer times when the holidays of the church and the holidays of culture sync. I remember about a decade ago hearing a Toronto DJ refer to Easter as “the first long weekend of summer” (in Canada Good Friday is a holiday and schools still take Easter Monday off…a relic from Colonial days). Good Friday and Easter were completely lost on him. It was simply time off.
Christmas is completely different.
Our culture still loves Christmas. Sure, the motives are commercial. But Christmas is the only time of year when you’ll hear malls belt out explicitly Christian songs like Charles Wesley’s “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”:
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
If you follow a lot of Christians on social media leading up to Christmas, you probably have noticed how many people lament over the culture’s disregard of Christ.
Well, you can see the obstacle. Or you can see the opportunity. I choose to see the opportunity. There are so many connection points with our culture you’ll miss if you only see the glass as half empty.
This is no time for the church to be more cynical than the world, which still remembers something is different at Christmas, even if they’re not exactly sure what it is.
Stop complaining about the world. Reach it instead.
As the general population thinks less about the Christian faith, Christmas provides a unique opportunity to reach people who no longer ordinarily attend church.
What’s surprising is that many churches don’t really leverage Christmas to make the impact it could.
Over the last few years, I’ve run posts on how to leverage Christmas. People keep asking for more….so this is the 2016 version.
At Connexus Church, where I serve, our Christmas service wins hands-down every year for both overall attendance and attendance by unchurched people. Although from a theological viewpoint, Christmas will never be bigger than Easter, when we think of it in practical terms, our Christmas outreach is always bigger than Easter simply because the culture is paying more attention.
Our culture pauses for Christmas in a way it pauses for little else in the year.
TV and film celebrate Christmas in all of its expressions. Almost everyone decorates their homes, businesses, and cities.
On December 24th and 25th, the Western world comes as close to stopping as it ever does.
I’m not sure there’s any better time than Christmas to connect with those of your friends and neighbours who rarely, if ever, go to church.
Here are 11 ways to make Christmas your best outreach of the year.
1. Design an event for your community, not for your members
So what’s the biggest mistake many churches make each Christmas?
Simple. Too many churches hold a quiet Christmas Eve or Christmas Day service for members and leave it at that.
Others will do little to nothing special.
That makes Christmas the biggest missed opportunity of the year.
Unchurched people want to celebrate Christmas. Why can’t your church help them?
Here’s a hint: if you design your services with the community in mind, your members will love it too. Especially if their friends come and it changes their lives.
2. Brand the event around the community, not your church
One of the best decisions we’ve made in the last few years is to take our church’s name off the main branding for our Christmas services.
We simply use the names of the cities we’re in. So for Barrie, Ontario, we’re Christmas in Barrie. In Orillia, it’s Christmas Eve in Orillia, etc. Sure, we let people know it’s hosted by a church, but people are looking for a place to celebrate and we want them to know we can host them and their family at an event designed for the city.
We’re expanding our Christmas outreach this year into four cities that are within an hour of each other (which makes specific theming more difficult), so we’re using Christmas Eve in the City as a larger brand.
3. Build a special website
If someone has to click through 15 pages of your website to find your Christmas services, they’ll probably give up. And even if you put it on the home page of your website, it’s still a church website.
We started building custom sites a few years ago for our Christmas services and have been thrilled with the results. Here’s this year’s version.
Again, people have Christmas on their mind, and when the site looks like Christmas and there are free tickets available, it’s easier for people to say “I’m in.”
Sites like this don’t have to be expensive. Get a teenager in your church to design one. Or for a thousand dollars or so, you can have a basic site put together.
Find an easy to remember URL (like ChristmasEveInTheCity.com or ChristmasInMidland.com) that makes your site more findable, local and shareable.
4. Experiment with multiple service times
Not everyone can make it to your ‘one’ service. This year we’re doing 8 services over two days (the 23rd and 24th) in four cities.
Yes, those are long work days for staff and volunteers, but you can reap a harvest all year long from that investment.
We always offer more than one service time, because the reality is that different families have different needs. Young families seem to prefer earlier services so they can get their kids to bed early or have dinner together. Retail workers need a later service.
This year at our broadcast location, our services will run at 1, 3, 5 and 7 p.m. At our three other locations, we’ve picked the middle to later service times.
The reason? Providing multiple service times gives multiple families lots of opportunities to attend and to invite their friends.
5. Stretch yourself and experiment
To be honest, pulling off Christmas services in four cities is going to stretch our team. But it’s a good way to test out new venues, new places and new communities in which you might one day have locations.
Sometimes stretching yourself calls out the very best in people, challenges them to invite, and it can bring your church into communities in brand new ways in a season in which people are already looking for events to attend.
Sounds like a great combination to me.
6. Give your congregation invitation tools
Did you know that 82% of people would come to church if a trusted friend invited them?
Yet in a typical year, only 2% of Christians invite a friend to church. Heartbreaking.
Create some full-colour cards with details on it which people can hand to their friends.
Last year we tied candy canes to Instagram-like cards to make them easier to hand out to friends. This year we’re also doing business-size cards and some full-size posters. The posters pop up all over our cities in places like Starbucks, hockey arenas, community centres and more.
It’s easier to invite a friend to something like Christmas than to a regular Sunday morning.
7. Use social media
Sure, maybe you don’t have the bandwidth to build fresh websites. Just do it for free using social media. Create a Facebook event or promoted posts. Use all your social media channels and get the word out.
Encourage your people to share with their friends. They are your number one source when it comes to promotion because they’re already invested and engaged.
This year we’re doing a Photo Booth at our campuses that will create some fun Instagram moments with dressed up kids and people holding a “Join us for Christmas Eve” signs.
8. Distribute (Free) tickets
Why not ticket your Christmas services? Free tickets of course, but tickets help create demand.
They have also helped us manage fire code. Eventbrite is an inexpensive and easy solution.
Plus, having tickets drive decisions and commitments to attend.
9. Love your community
This year, we’re attempting to give double the amount of money we normally give to our community partners like the local food bank, right before Christmas.
We’re also participating in local Christmas parades and community events in ways that show our community that we’re for them and that God is for them.
Love makes a pretty irresistible force when it’s unleashed on a city. And generosity makes an impression on unchurched people.
10. Invite them back
Every year, without hopefully sounding like a commercial, we invite people back for January.
They get a card explaining the new series and dates, times and locations. Last year we even played the trailer for our January series during the services, even though it was anything but “Christmassy.” Because our January series dealt with a felt-need (people don’t like their jobs and find life overwhelming at times), it created a huge buzz and many guests returned in January simply because they saw the trailer.
I know inviting sounds basic, but you’re dealing with unchurched people. Think about it, you would never go to a party unless you knew you were invited.
Unchurched people don’t know they’re invited unless you invite them. So invite them.
11. Plan a call to action
God’s grace is sovereign. We’ve had people commit their lives to Christ during volunteer events and during series about tithing. So God can do anything.
But you need to do your part. Don’t let people walk away bored or with just a big warm fuzzy. Challenge them. People will leave mostly unchanged unless you create a different expectation.
Almost every year, we give people an opportunity to surrender their lives to Jesus and it’s amazing how many people do.
And when we invite them back and offer them steps to take in the new year (like beginning Starting Point), Christmas starts a journey for them that often ends with them surrendering their lives to Christ.