[I’m excited to be back each Tuesday sharing practical ideas for Senior Pastors in the trenches. Let’s start off this week with an issue that many of you have already “settled” in your minds and are getting ready to roll out to your congregations in a few weeks.]
Hopefully, I’ve caught you before you’ve announced this year’s Christmas Eve service times to your congregation.
This “once every seven years” conundrum that lays before us (namely, “Christmas Eve is happening on a Sunday so what do we do about our Sunday morning services when we normally just have Christmas Eve services later in the day?”) – presents us with one of the best chances this year to solidify the evangelistic-focused DNA in our churches.
Three Things We Know For Sure About Christmas Eve Services
But before we think through how to capitalize on this unique opportunity, let’s recall three key things we know to be true about Christmas Eve:
1. A Lot’s At Stake: 25% Of All Potential Visitors This Year Will Visit Christmas Eve Services
We can’t lose sight of the fact that if we want the churches we serve to grow by 100 converts over the next year, we’ll need to see 1,000 new people come through our doors. In the prototypical outreach-focused church, only 10% of new visitors return and grow to full participation every year. Which means, if ten people visit, only one will come to Christ and stick.
I’ve found that when churches grow by 100 people, 25% of those visitors come via Christmas Eve, 25% come on Easter, and the remaining 50% will be spread out over 12 months. Listen, we all know that church life and growth cannot be reduced to simple math, but these numbers are consistent across the board. Simply put, if you want to reach unchurched non-Christians and see the church you serve flourish, then what happens on Christmas Eve matters a lot.
2. Service Times Are More Important Than Seating Capacity
When I begin coaching a Senior Pastor one of the first things I do is start encouraging them to add at least one more Christmas Eve service the following year. Inevitably they will respond with the same six words: “But we already have enough room.”
That’s when I tell them that for the people they’re trying to reach, the absolute last thing on their mind is the question, “Will there be enough room at this particular service?”
The question non-Christians are asking is, “Will this service fit into my family’s Christmas Eve plans?” If it won’t, it doesn’t matter if you have 500,000,000 seats available, they’re not coming.
Which leads me to my next point.
3. The Best Christmas Eve Service Times For Non-Christians Are Anything Between 1:00 and 5:00 p.m.
In other words, anything after lunch and before dinner on Christmas Eve.
Why? Because non-Christians are doing errands in the morning (or don’t cut out from work until lunchtime) and have dinner/family plans after 6 p.m..
Want to guess the #1 Christmas Eve service time for churches under 1,000 nationwide?
Want to guess why?
I think there are two reasons.
First, most churches have stopped taking risks to reach non-Christians a long time ago.
Second, most churches are composed almost entirely of people that have been at the church for more than six years (hence their passion to reach people far from God has likely waned). They’ve become enculturated by a church tradition which states, “We go to church on Christmas Eve. That’s what we do.”
Non-Christians don’t buy into your “tradition” no matter how hard or creatively you ask them to join you. You could advertise that Jesus himself is going to show up at your 7:00 p.m. service and people will still choose to go to grandmas for the annual Christmas Eve dinner. That’s what they do.
After 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve churched people go to church and unchurched people spend time with their families.
Just look at our numbers from our Christmas Eve services last year. We held 7 identical services and had a total of 4,579 people join us. The numbers looked like this…
Christmas Eve, Eve – December 23rd
5:30 p.m. – 517
7:00 p.m. – 357
Christmas Eve – December 24th
1:00 p.m. – 574
2:30 p.m. – 949
4:00 p.m. – 1088
5:30 p.m. – 606
7:00 p.m. – 488
Both of our 7:00 p.m. services were the two lowest attended services.
I think it’s because our people love inviting their non-Christian friends to Christmas Eve services. This is one of the biggest days we see God catapult a life towards transformation, so our people go all out. But people came to the earlier services because that’s when their unchurched friends were willing to come with them.
Should We Keep Our Regular Sunday A.M. Services and Add Later Christmas Eve Services?
Undoubtedly the core issue that you’re thinking about is what to do with your current Sunday morning services, right?
Here’s how I would come to a decision on this issue.
1. If your leadership is on board with the vision to reach unchurched people, the answer is simple: cancel your Sunday morning worship services and hold Christmas Eve services between noon and 6 p.m.
My suggestions would be as follows:
- Start with a single 4 p.m. Christmas Eve service
- Then add one new service each year, 30 minutes between each
- Soon you will have services that run 1:00, 2:30, 4:00, and 5:30 p.m. and you can start experimenting with earlier and later times (especially with Christmas Eve Eve times)
Last year I coached a great Senior Pastor who serves a church of 125. I told him he needed to do whatever it took to hold two Christmas Eve services last year, not one like they have always done. Doing so, I told him, would establish evangelistic DNA and reap long-term benefits. His response: “But we already have enough room in one service.” I reiterated that unchurched people don’t care about your seating capacity, they care about the convenience of your service times. “Trust me,” I said. “Two services.”
So, he took the risk and held services at 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. and had a great response: two services with 75 people in each of them! He was elated, and I was even more so. It was a HUGE victory for his volunteers, his church, and his leadership. Why have one service of 75 when you can have two with 75 in each?!?
2. If your leadership is not on board, keep your morning services BUT add an additional service at 4:00 p.m.
Some of you don’t have the buy-in from your leaders/people to nix your Sunday morning worship services in favor of later services times. If that’s your case, I’m going to share something I always say to Senior Pastors I coach: “Don’t win the battle but lose the war.”
Don’t do something right now that will seem like a win, but will actually end up hurting you in the long run.
If you’re in a situation like this, here’s what I would suggest:
- Have your normal Christmas morning service times this year, but instead of hosting your Christmas Eve service at 7 p.m. like you do each year, go to the mat fighting to get it held at 4 p.m.
- Then market the living daylights out of that 4 p.m. service – online, invite cards, signs, banners – push it the entire month of December as if your entire ministry depends upon it. Recruit people to come. Invite 200 people from the community yourself. Then watch what happens.
By doing this, three things will happen:
- Unchurched people will come to that 4 p.m. service.
- Your people will know you’re a leader who respects what has gone on in the past, but is pointing to a preferred future.
- Your people will want that 4 p.m. service time next year.
By this time next year, you’ll have the added credibility of having been successful once, so your leaders will give you a little longer rope to work with. You’ll be able to add new services around that 4 p.m. service time, and your Christmas Eve attendance will grow from there.