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Responding to Christmas Eve visitors

Responding to Christmas Eve visitors

The Rt Revd David Walker is the Bishop Diocesan of Manchester in the Church of England. He recently conducted some research into why folks were attending church services. He enlisted the help of folks at Worcester and Lichfield Cathedrals and was able to survey 1150 people attending services. The majority of folks attending were regular churchgoers, but around 40% of these contacted were not. Those who were not currently regularly attending church services broke down into interesting stats which you may wish to read about in the full article on the results at the Church Times.

One thing that the bishop emphasizes is that the occasional churchgoers who may show up at your parish’s Christmas Eve service aren’t necessarily going to be looking for the same experience to which regular church attenders are accustomed. Since this service will likely attract many folks who may be seeking something more and may be open to further/future engagement, he has some suggestions about structuring this service in particular.

  • Don’t update the words of well-known carols to fit your theology. Stick with versions that people will remember from way back, and that resonate with a faith that may once have been firmer.
  • Be imaginative. Use poetry, prose, and art. Decorate the church distinctively, and allow people to hold and light candles. Appeal to the range of worshippers’ senses.
  • Remember that the aim is not to mimic the form of a normal Sunday service, but to produce something distinctive and obviously unique.
  • If there is to be a sermon (and at carol services, it really is not a good idea), let its words be directed to unfold the mystery, drawing worshippers into it, and thus closer to God. Do not attempt to expound doctrine, or teach your parish’s views on some theological controversy.
  • Welcome people, but respect their personal space. They have come to be with God, and with those accompanying them, not to be made to shake hands with strangers. Exchanging the Peace is for another occasion.
  • Mention other special events coming up in the calendar. Give out a leaflet with details of them. But go softly on plugging the regular services too strongly; you do not want to convey a sense of expectation that they “ought” to come to these.

+David’s word of advice is, “This Christmas, as at every Christmas, we will be opening our doors to the slightly familiar faces of those who occasionally come to church. My plea is that we try to understand them better, and thus be a little more informed and hospitable to their needs. Who knows? They may come back again.”

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Mary O'Shaughnessy

Last year, a visitor who knew me through work commented, “It was so beautiful–and the Communion line was so efficient!” He felt comfortable and welcome because the people who were serving as ushers and altar party, knew what they were doing and therefore were calm themselves.

It is important to remember that our self-important busy-ness and bustling really do come across to visitors, and not in a “oh, look at them” way.


As an occasional attendee, I can’t imagine skipping the peace. It may be my only connection to some of those in the Parish. But I m one who appreciates the formality and continuity that service doesn’t change much from one visit to the next, no matter how long between visits. My concern if you go to these great lengths for the occasional attendee, is that you then stop catering to the needs of those who support your church year round. My parish has several services available throughout Christmas Eve and a couple on Christmas Day- let people know what to expect. Let them know which services may be more like regular Sunday services, and which will be changed up, and how. Our later services are listed as Traditional Christmas Services vs. the earlier services listing things like, “Christmas gospel proclamation is enlivened ,” and “Experience the living love of God among us.” Then I can pick which one is going to serve my needs best.

(Thanks for commenting, we ask that people use their first and last names. Thanks editor)

Ann Fontaine

I also wonder about putting on a “show” for visitors that is not really us. Will they feel like bait and switch if they come back?

Paul Woodrum

Doesn’t sound like he’s talking about the Midnight Christ-Mass at Christmas, but carol services and the like that some parishes rig up for the occasion.

Ann Fontaine

Not doing the passing of the peace on Christmas Eve at our little church would leave most bereft. Some good ideas though. Short -good news sermon – yes!

Jerald Liko

I agree with Ann. I can’t speak for the average Brit, but the average American is perfectly well-prepared to shake hands with strangers; it’s actually our normal mode of interacting with folk we don’t know. The hugger a may wish to dial their affection back a notch, but in this country, there’s no need to avoid sharing the peace.

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