The Christmas Invitation

My churchy friends across the Western world and I are gearing up for the Big Event tomorrow night, which preparation includes getting ready to welcome with true hospitality and not a smidge of resentment the multitudinous not-so-churchy friends who will nevertheless be darkening our doors this one night out of the year.

In thousands upon thousands of churches pastors will make little welcome speeches, and in thousands upon thousands of those speeches the welcome on Christmas Eve will include words to the effect that first-timers or irregular attenders would also be most welcome should they come back on Sunday, because "you may not be aware, but we do this every week!" or "if you like tonight's music, you won't want to miss what our choir's up to in January!"

Like that's going to happen.

Granted, there will be some vanishingly small proportion of Christmas Eve visitors who just are at just the place in their spiritual journeys that the retelling of the Christmas story and the music and the candlelight and whatnot will prompt them to consider taking the next step in exploring the claims the church makes about this precious baby, and maybe that next step will involve showing up at church again a couple days hence.

But the thing is, I'm pretty sure that the handful of visitors who are in that boat would be fully able to figure out  on their own that they can come back to church on Sunday, without hearing a pitch that the pastor surely intends as a word of welcome but that the listener who hasn't crossed the church's threshold since last Easter at the latest can't help but hear as a guilt trip.

Besides, even if someone were so enthralled by the beauty of the Christmas Eve service that they decided to come back the next week, if the artistry and emotional experience is what draws them, they're going to be disappointed. Because there isn't a church in the world that performs on the Sunday after Christmas up to the same level that they do on Christmas Eve.

There may still be a few candles lit, but nothing to match the ambiance of an evening sanctuary bathed in the soft glow of a hundred wax-dripping fire hazards. They probably won't be hearing from the regular preacher, but from some less-experienced associate or intern or lay person (cough, cough) who is stepping in while the more experienced homilist takes a well-deserved rest after the rigors of Advent. The choir may be off altogether; at the least, they're down a few voices and either reprising one of the pieces from two nights ago or pulling out something notably less ambitious. If there's a worship band, it might be missing the bass player or the drummer and a couple of the vocalists, because the young leaders of the church -- if the church is fortunate enough to have young leaders -- haven't yet gotten back from taking the kids to see Grandma and Grandpa, or figure that they've already done church this weekend and have earned a good lie-in for one Sunday out of the year. Add to that the people who have been soldiering on through the past couple of weeks even though they're battling seasonal illnesses of one sort or another who are finally going to give themselves permission collapse into bed, and the church is almost certainly going to be operating on a skeleton crew the Sunday after Christmas.

Which is fine, because the point of Sunday morning worship is not to match the emotional and spiritual intensity of Christmas Eve. I'm just saying that pastors should perhaps be careful about making hyperbolic promises on Christmas Eve that their congregations can't deliver on in the clear light of a few days later.

And this is why I think that the tack taken by Solana Beach Presbyterian Church is nothing short of brilliant.

Rather than urge their visitors who attend their special Christmas services to come back the following Sunday -- which they're almost certainly not going to do, and even if they did, they would likely find it less than compelling, since if they were the kind of people who saw the value of weekly gatherings for worship and instruction they probably would already be attending church on a more-regular basis -- Solana Beach Pres invites them to come back in a couple of months, when the church holds its annual Community Serve Day (link is to the not-yet-live page for the 2011 event -- here's last year's page).

They aim for higher than 100% participation in their big one-day outreach and service blitz, by promoting it within the congregation as a fundamental expression of the church's identity in its community, and by promoting it beyond the congregation as an opportunity for others in the community -- whether church members or not, whether Christians or not -- to do something worthwhile for their neighbors in need.

Rather than invite visitors to return and passively consume a religious performance, after which, if you stick around long enough, we might eventually work up the nerve to ask you to do something, Solana Beach Pres gets about the business of being the church and invites inquirers to come be a part of it.

Now, I do believe that worship and the Word are the very heartbeat of the church -- so much so that, as enamored as I am with Solana Beach Pres's Community Serve Day, I can't quite embrace their decision to hold it on a Sunday and in lieu of their normal worship services. While I concede that doing so gives a nice rhetorical opportunity to emphasize ad nauseam that they are not "cancelling church," but being church in dozens of locations across the city, and that there is probably no better way to communicate the importance that the church leadership puts on community service than to cede the prime time church slot to it, ultimately I am more comfortable with the Great Day of Service my former congregation holds annually -- on a Saturday, including a time of worship, even if that means they never get the participation level that Solana Beach Pres achieves.

But as vital as I believe worship and the Word to be, I don't suppose that they must be the entry point for the unchurched into the life of the church. Many people who are not active in a church community want to find a way to "give back" to their communities. They also think that works of service are the kind of thing that churches ought to be doing more of. So it makes all kinds of sense for a church that wants to demonstrate the relevance of its creed to the lives of outsiders to get involved in service and to invite those outsiders to come along in that process. We don't need to demand that people become insiders before they can take part in the good that the church is doing.

The outsiders who volunteer alongside Solana Beach Pres members may quite naturally find themselves building relationships with the church folk who serve a common cause. (Asking someone for help is a far more powerful means of deepening your relationship with them than offering help.) They may, through these relationships, become interested in the spiritual motivations behind their friends' service. They may in time come to see the vital place of worship and the Word in their friends' lives, and eventually seek it out for themselves. They may come to church through the back door, in work boots and dirty blue jeans, rather than through the front door, decked out in their Sunday best.

Or maybe they never will. Maybe they will dig a ditch or plant a tree or paint a day care center and go on their ways. Presbyterians believe in common grace -- the goodness of God to and through every person, whether or not that person ever becomes a believer. Inviting nonbelievers to be their fellow workers in serving their city is an expression of that faith.

When we tell the story of Christmas, we tell about a God who came into a broken and brokenhearted world to make a difference, "to proclaim good news to the poor. ... to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners." The invitation that we extend to our guests at Christmas time is ultimately not to come be a part of our particular club, but to come be a participant in what this God is still doing in the world. Solana Beach Pres has found a creative and compelling way to do that, so that when they spread out through their city in a couple of months, it will be the natural continuation of the song they may be singing tomorrow night: "Come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ the newborn king."

*  *  *  

I learned about Solana Beach Pres's Community Serve Day in a workshop at last year's Santa Barbara Mission Conference. This year's conference will be on January 15 at First Presbyterian Church in Santa Barbara; advance registration continues all the way to January 5. This is a national-caliber event. If you live in the greater Santa Barbara region, you should come. If you live beyond the Santa Barbara region, you should check out your travel options.

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