There is an inevitable let down after Christmas. This is December 27, only two days after the day that most are still digesting. The other phenomenon that normally occurs at this time is that folks are starting to depart; families are returning home; people are going back to work. That may all be different now, even as we will still be recovering or enduring the pandemic. But there is still a shift in thinking, in focus, in direction in these Christmastide worship experiences.
That is why we chose to continue the series through the Sundays after Christmas. It is hoped that if there were folks who appeared during the peak of the Christmas season, that you are holding on to them, or at least making sure they know that the welcome continues. This is not the time to shift to taking for granted those who may be new to the fellowship. Yes, we want them to feel a part of the body and not outsiders, but our hospitality need not end once they’ve made their second or third or even more visits to our gathering.
The hospitality teams or the hosts (appointed or natural) need to be on the lookout for those who might still be new. It is not the time to overwhelm newcomers; however, but to begin to work on the connections. Evidence suggests that folks stay because they find a relationship within the community they have attended. Who is reaching out to welcome? Who is gathering them under their wing? Who is showing them around or accompanying them to worship and other events in the life of the church? This kind of hospitality is harder if worship is online only, but connections can still be made.
How do you enjoy your company in worship? First of all, you make them feel at ease. That means that you explain everything that you do. You don’t have any little gotcha moments in worship, where everyone knows to stand or sit or move, except those who are new because nothing is ever written out, instructions are not given or posted to help people move through the service. Secondly, find out something about newcomers, but not by putting them on the spot in a large group setting. That can be intimidating for people familiar with the space. Instead, find someone who can approach them and engage them in conversation about themselves. Most people like talking about themselves in a safe environment with someone who seems genuinely interested in them. And then make sure that these “investigators” know how to share the information and with whom to share it. They can also introduce the new folk to pastors or other leaders who might continue the conversation.
Maybe there isn’t anyone identifiably new in your setting. We know everyone, and everyone knows what to do and where to go. That may be true, but it is still worth practicing how to include guests and shape the service to first timers, so that they feel comfortable. And no matter how close-knit your congregation might be, there are those who aren’t as well known, whose stories haven’t been told, and who could provide hospitality practice for the congregation. Continue to examine the worship flow to get a sense of how it might be viewed by someone who hasn’t grown up in a church environment. Help everyone see the reasons behind the different movements of the worship order. It just might be that some long timers among you might say, “I didn’t know that’s why we did that!”
Enjoying the company means also celebrating the Christ among us. As the chief guest who is also the host, let our worship be full of celebration of that presence. Let the prayers acknowledge the Christ born among us; let our songs be not just about the baby, but about the call to go and tell the story. Isaiah tells us to celebrate the new spring that has been planted in us (yes it is the dead of winter, but the new life of spring is not far off). He tells us to rejoice in the new clothes of righteousness. Maybe you could ask everyone to wear something new, if they received a gift of clothes for Christmas, as a sign of this celebration.
Above all, Isaiah tells us we cannot keep silent. Let there be shouts and songs of joy, face to face or online. For those joining online, ask for a recorded shout to be played during worship, everyone checking in as we celebrate the new life among us. Let us together enjoy the company we’ve welcomed.
Rev. Dr. Derek Weber, Director of Preaching Ministries, served churches in Indiana and Arkansas and the British Methodist Church. His PhD is from University of Edinburgh in preaching and media. He has taught preaching in seminary and conference settings for more than 20 years.