A live Nativity can be an engaging, heart-warming event not only for church members but for the entire community as well. One Houston-area church has decades of experience bringing the Christmas story to life in this way. Lindsay Peyton shares their organizational and planning tips.
The Christmas story literally comes to life every year at Christ Church UMC in The Woodlands when actors and animals spring into action for the live Nativity on Christmas Eve. When Maggie Wood assumed the post of director of student ministries at Christ Church United Methodist, the live Nativity was already a tradition for members. A number of families repeatedly signed up for roles in the holy family. And volunteers behind the scenes knew what it would take to make the event go off without a hitch. The entire community counted on coming together to take in the sights on Christmas Eve. The live Nativity is one of the church’s favorite and most rewarding events.
Still, some churches worry about the planning and organization involved and are unsure about taking on a live Nativity. Wood, however, believes hosting a live Nativity is well worth the effort. “It’s a gathering place for our families,” she said. “There’s a lot of laughter and joy. It’s just an easy way for our families to connect with each other.” The live Nativity is the first thing members see when they head to service on Christmas Eve. “It creates an atmosphere before they even walk in the door,” Wood said. At the same time, the neighboring community enjoys the live Nativity, even if they don’t belong to church. “I get to say ‘Merry Christmas’ to them as they take their pictures and their kids explore the Nativity,” Wood said.
Here are her tips to other churches considering creating their own:
1. Start early, especially if you are going to have live animals.
Wood admits that she likes to confirm the next year’s reservation for live animals almost as soon as they are picked up after the Nativity. “We lock it down every year,” she said with a laugh. She also lets families know acting roles and volunteer opportunities about a month before the event, so they have plenty of time to get involved and mark their calendars.
2. Don’t be afraid to delegate.
A live Nativity is a big production, Wood explained. To make it work smoothly, everyone plays a part. “Each ministry takes leadership in a particular area,” Wood said. Student ministry is in charge of the actors. Children’s ministry lines up the snacks, and the communications director gets the word out online and in the local newspaper. A number of backstage volunteers are equally essential and help children don their wardrobes between sets. Even some woodworkers at church went to work making the manger.
3. Consider your finances.
Creating a live Nativity is a financial commitment, Wood said. There are a number of costumes to buy in all different sizes. In addition, there are animals to reserve, snacks to purchase, and backdrops to build. If the church decides to make an initial investment, the cost levels out over time. For example, Christ Church no longer needs to buy costumes now that it is fully stocked with options. “Your church has to ask, ‘Is it going to be a one-off or a long-term investment?’” Wood said. “It’s something our church has decided has a huge payoff.”
4. Take time to think about timing.
When the live Nativity at Christ Church started, there were eight shifts, starting with the 3 p.m. children’s service. Each hour, new actors took on their roles. Wood found that filling the early slots was easy but finding children who wanted to stay up for the late service was a challenge. This year, the church has changed the hours, ending the live Nativity at 9 p.m. “If it doesn’t work, cut it,” Wood suggests.
5. Feed your guests and your volunteers.
Cookies, punch, and cocoa are part of the program when the community walks up to take in the live Nativity at Christ Church. There’s also a room reserved in the church for volunteers to rest alongside other members who will be at the church working on the Christmas Eve service. The church hosts a potluck in that room, so volunteers have a chance to rest and refuel before the next shift.
6. Worry just a little about the weather.
Being in Texas means Christmas could come with a heat wave, downpour, or ice and snowstorm. Spending too much time worrying about one or the other wouldn’t make sense, Wood explained. Still, she said, churches can be prepared to adjust to ever-changing weather. Christ Church has costumes that are lighter for a warm evening and layers to add for a colder night. The shelter also protects the cast from light rain. In addition, Wood explained that the short, hour-long shifts help children from getting too cold in the manger. “They’re only out there for one shift, so we can always bring out the hot cocoa,” she said. “We have a lot of choices.”
7. Reserve a dressing room.
Having a designated space for wardrobe changes is an important factor in running a successful live Nativity, Wood said. If only one person is in charge of costumes, it can become a major challenge. “When people are done with their shifts, they throw everything off, and it’s all in disarray,” Wood said. “That sets you up for failure the next time.” Instead, create a system, sign up a few volunteers for each shift, and keep a room backstage just for costumes.
8. Promote the live Nativity and make it easy to attend.
Christ Church’s neighbor is The Woodlands High School, which offers extra parking spaces to community members who want to see the live Nativity. A few signs help direct people to the right place. Taking time to make sure neighbors know where to go and where to park is important. Spreading the word about the event is also a high priority.
9. Consider your audience.
Wood explained some churches want a formal Nativity, one that is meant to be appreciated as a visual tableau. At Christ Church, however, they have a more casual approach and want to offer an interactive experience. Children can come into the manger, pet the animals, ask questions of Mary and Jesus and the Wise Men. “When you have all five senses, it comes to life in a way that doesn’t happen when you’re simply reading a story,” Wood said. “It’s really special to see the kids’ eyes light up. That’s really cool.” She explained that knowing the audience of the live Nativity is important. If a church has several young families with children, the interactive experience may be the way to go.
10. Keep the main thing the main thing.
Before the event begins, Wood gives the crew a pep talk. “You guys get to represent what we’re really trying to say tonight the hope we have as Christians,” she tells them. “We’re getting to create this story. For some people, it’s a refresher. For some, it’s the first time they get to engage in that story.” Either way, nothing should take away from the message, she explained. “They’re helping to create that atmosphere to experience the presence of God,” Wood said.
Note: Maggie Wood is now Associate Director of Youth Ministry at Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas.
This article appeared originally on the website of the Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church. Used by permission.