Christmas Eve in Bars, Malls, and More

July 26th, 2011

Jesus replied, "Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come."

Over the last 10 years I have conducted Christmas Eve services in the most unlikely places - restaurants, NFL stadium parking lots, firehouses, nursing homes, and prisons. But on Christmas Eve two years ago, I participated in the miracle of over 350 people, nearly all strangers to one another, gathering for a Christmas Eve service of carols, candlelight, and communion in a bar—the Wildhorse Saloon, in downtown Nashville, Tenn. (And we had over 425 the next year!) Through this most unlikely venue, I saw God move in the hearts and lives of people, most who would have never stepped into the door of a church. It was a powerful reminder to me that through Jesus, God reveals his intention to encounter people where they are, rather than make us find Him.

I believe one of the greatest opportunities for us to reach out in a missional way that is both grace-filled and transformational is found on Christmas Eve. Even in our secularized society, there is still a thread of understanding that perceives Christmas as sacred or holy time, when God comes near to us. On Christmas Eve, people are not looking for the latest contemporary music or the latest video. They want tradition. They want to remember. For a few moments on Christmas Eve, they want to go to their proverbial home, and for all to be right with world. It may not be reality of their lives, but for a few moments on Christmas Eve, in the midst of whatever they’re facing, they can take hold of “Peace on Earth, God Will toward Men.”  This is good news for churches skilled in traditional worship, who may sometimes feel at a disadvantage when it comes to creative outreach.

Christmas is the perfect opportunity to reach out to those estranged from the church. On Christmas Eve, it’s as if the world stops and looks at the church as says, “We don’t pay any attention to you any other time of the year, but tonight, we’ll listen. What do you have to say? 

Going Off-Site

Since the worship is itself traditional, most of the creativity lies in finding and adapting a unique, non-churchy space to have this service. Traditional Christmas Eve services on-site at your church are still valuable, of course, especially to those who are comfortable with the established church and find great meaning there. But for those with little experience of the church--or worse, who have been burned by the church in the past--we must go to them with off-site celebrations where they can experience God’s incarnate love for us in Jesus Christ.

If at first you are uncomfortable with this idea, you're in good company. John Wesley, the man who coined the phrase, "The world is my parish" had a very hard time at first reaching out beyond the walls of the church. So much so that on March 31, 1749 he penned these words in his journal:

“I could scarcely reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields.... I had been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relative to decency and order that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.”

But through his experience at New Gate Prison and other outside the church venues Wesley began to engage the unchurched on their turf, regardless of where that might take him. At times it would be the market square, at other times a church yard, or beside a coal mine, or on a city street, or a natural amphitheater. Wesley’s eventual commitment to meet people where they were, within their cultural context, in order to share with them the gospel of Christ became a practice known as “Field Preaching,” which, in its American context, was responsible for the revival fervor that spread across the 18th and 19th century frontier.

Many times those of us in the church forget that Jesus was not born in a church or cathedral, he was born "off-site" in the muck and mire of stable for animals. He was born in the reality of life, not the "stained-glass" portrait of the birth of Christ we sometimes portray. A real God, for real people, in real life, that's Emmanuel, "God With Us."

Finding Your Space

On Christmas Eve, business owners are open to partnerships with churches that will increase the traffic flow into their establishments. (Many will even pay for advertisements that will promote your service!) It is important for the manager or owner to see how hosting this Christmas Eve service will separate him from his “competition” and bring potential customers into his business.

Not all of the following venues will be available in your community. However, review each of them, add to the list, and lift them in prayer as possible venues for the service you plan to offer.

Bars – Your outreach here is to the patrons of the bar, many of whom (especially those spending Christmas Eve in a bar) may not feel comfortable in a traditional church setting.

Casinos – As with bars, you may at first feel uncomfortable about this venue, but you must ask ourselves would Jesus go into these places to share his love and grace. What an incredible opportunity to share with these patrons the Light of The World, Jesus Christ.

Hospitals – Many hospitals have chapels where you can offer a service there for patients and their families. I have also seen where churches did their outreach to emergency workers through this venue.

Larger Hotels – Many hotels would love to offer to their guests the opportunity for a Christmas Eve Service right there in the hotel itself. A Banquet room would be adequate for this.

Malls – During the day on Christmas Eve would be a great time to offer a Carols, Candlelight, and Communion service for the last-minute shoppers. Often there are food courts or other open areas that can accommodate such a service. At other retail centers, like Wal-Mart or Target, a tent can be set up in the parking lot, lit and heated for under $1000.

Nursing Homes – Here you ask the activities director if you can offer a Christmas Eve service in the afternoon or early evening. You can even invite the families of the residents to come and experience this Christmas Eve service with their loved ones.

Police Stations or Fire Stations – There are many emergency workers who are on duty on Christmas Eve. If you live in a larger metropolitan area, there may be enough on duty to justify a service.

Restaurants – Many restaurants have a party room where you can set up your service. The restaurant can then offer something no other restaurant can offer in your community—a great meal and Christmas Eve service with Carols, candlelight, and communion  all at the same place!

Other possibilities – School gymnasiums or auditoriums, YMCAs, Bingo Barns, Movie Theatres, wherever people gather on a regular basis. You can offer a wonderful Christmas Eve service in these venues that feel much more natural to many who may not feel comfortable in a traditional church building.

Depending on the number of volunteers you have, you can offer numerous services at locations across your community. The senior minister does not have to be at every service. When I was the lead pastor for a large church in Florida, we did 16 Christmas Eve services on six sites! Over 5200 people attended. I led 5 of them; the rest were led by associate pastors and trained lay people who served the elements after they had been consecrated by ordained clergy.

Building Trust

When approaching business managers about using their facilities, it needs to be communicated that your intent is to reach out to the community in a loving, hopeful, and celebrative way and that you will not bring a judgmental or harsh attitude to the people attending this service. This is especially important in places where you may not approve of all the activities that go on there (bars, casinos, etc.).

One thing we did to help create trust and a true sense of partnership, was to ask the manager of the Wildhorse Saloon to bring his family to the service and light the Christ candle on the Advent Wreath. He was thrilled to do so and after the service commented how meaningful it was for him and his family. In fact, after the service that night, he talked about adding a homeless ministry component to next year’s service; where together we would feed the homeless who gather on the banks of the river just a few blocks from the downtown area of Nashville. How incredible that it was the manager of the Wildhorse Saloon, not someone from our staff, who wanted to find a way to reach out to the homeless in the downtown Nashville area. The heart of God was revealed in the manager as a result of a creative partnership, and about six months later, he affirmed his faith in Christ and joined our church!

When we finished our Christmas Eve outreach at the Wildhorse Saloon our first year, a local news station came and filmed a segment for their 10 p.m. newscast that evening. At the close of his report, the newscaster unknowingly said these prophetic words… “For the folks at Brentwood United Methodist Church, if you can’t come to church, the church can always come to you.”

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