Ann Michel of the Lewis Center staff says Christmas visitors can leave feeling shamed or belittled if church insiders project a holier-than-thou attitude. The preparation of Advent, she says, should include prayer about and discernment of how we might reflect the heart of our Father in welcoming all who seek the Christ Child at Christmas.
[Editor’s note: Though this article was written with in-person worship in mind, the same lessons apply to online worship.]
You know what I’m talking about. A greeter’s snide remark when a family who hasn’t attended church in months or years suddenly shows up on Christmas Eve. The little dig in the sermon reminding people that services are actually held 52 weeks a year. The passive-aggressive farewell that says in essence, “Hope we won’t have to wait another year to see you again.”
For some church insiders, the joy of an overflowing sanctuary on Christmas Eve is undercut by some less attractive sentiments. Instead of celebrating that the lost have been found, we are annoyed that these people have come to enjoy the party while leaving us to sweep up afterwards and pay the bills. We imagine ourselves holier than thou and unfortunately that’s exactly the way we come across. And visitors or infrequent church attenders leave feeling shamed or belittled, rather than welcomed and celebrated. Small wonder they aren’t hurrying back for more.
This all-too-real dynamic suggests that the most important way we can prepare for Christmas Eve visitors isn’t by hanging the greens, lighting candles, or passing out special invitation cards. Instead, it involves preparing our hearts — not just for the coming of the Christ Child but for all who seek him.
We don’t have to search far in scripture to be reminded that God seeks out the one sheep that has wandered from the fold and rejoices at the return of the prodigal. Perhaps the preparation of Advent needs to include prayer about and discernment of how we might reflect the heart of our Father and not convey the attitude of that putout older son.
Whose Church Is It?
It’s easy for those in church every week to imagine that those who attend less frequently have forgotten the church or don’t care about its ministry. But experience has taught me that simply isn’t the case. There are people who grew up in your church or attended at one point in time, but their lives have taken them in different directions. Many of these people still have a deep reservoir of love and regard for the church. It means something that they chose to come home to church on the most special night of the year. And the longing that draws them back at Christmas is one of the ways that God is calling them, reaching out to them, urging them toward discipleship.
It is important that we honor and affirm the special claim that the church has on the hearts of all who cross its threshold at Christmas. And it is important that we acknowledge the claim that God has laid on their hearts, rather than imagining their motives for coming to church are inferior or phony.
But most of all, we need to remember that the church belongs to God, not us. And that it is a privilege and joy to be the church, not for our own sakes, but for the sake of others. This is true always. But especially at Christmas!