I still remember the Sunday my pastor told us we were canceling the Christmas play. It was 2008 and you could almost feel the tension in the room when he said it. No one understood why he would take something so nostalgic, such a traditional part of our Christmas celebration, and change it.
After all, if it isn’t broken, we don’t need to fix it right?
The church loved the Christmas celebration.
The congregation listened to him because we respected him, and we trusted the direction he was taking us, even if we didn’t understand it. If we wouldn’t have done that, we would have missed out on something really amazing. That year, Christmas for the City was born. I want to tell you a little bit about it.
Christmas for the City
At first, he had a hard time convincing people it was OK to call it a “party.” After all, this was a church, in the South, and the word “party” had all kinds of negative connotations to go along with it—but that’s exactly what it was.
Instead of pouring all of the resources into a Christmas production that meant a lot to our congregation, and (frankly) wore out the staff, the church was going to throw a giant celebration for our community.
Everyone was invited. Our entire city.
In fact, the vision of Christmas for the City was just as its name describes. It was a Christmas party designed to connect and engage our community. In order to make it a reality, the church had to give up some of our traditional understanding of what a Christmas celebration looked like, because it wasn’t about us. It was about the city.
No Need to Be Extravagant
The first thing the church had to give up was the idea that Christmas celebrations had to be extravagant.
I’m not sure where we all got this idea, but it seems like every year we felt like we had to outdo ourselves from the year before, and we had to outdo everyone around us. This competitive atmosphere, rather than adding value to our Advent season, was stealing our time, energy and resources. And our celebrations weren’t necessarily better for it.
Making the transition to simplicity was really difficult to embrace at first, but once we got over the “need” to outdo each other with decorations or technology, it was actually really freeing.
We also had to make the celebration more inclusive than it had been in the past.
Most Christmas celebrations look the same. And they aren’t the kind of place you want to come if you’re not already part of the church community. And since Christmas for the City was a celebration for the city, not for our congregation, the church had to begin to think outside the box about what its new celebration would look like. At first, people weren’t really sure, but as they started to connect with other local churches and nonprofits, they gathered an understanding.
On the first year, there were over 6,000 people in attendance. This crazy idea actually worked. It was actually a party for the city.
Now there are activities for kids, a poetry slam, a story gallery, a “party” room, and a live painting area.
There is even an area where the nonprofit partners can set up tables and engage with those in the community. They tell their stories, gather volunteers, and distribute resources.
It’s About Jesus
The church had to make the decision that the celebration was going to be about Jesus, not about the church.
People agreed to get as many other people involved as possible. They asked the local Youth Choir and Symphony if they would like to celebrate with them, and they agreed. They invited other churches to bring their choirs, and their congregations. Some were reluctant at first, but after a few years church and community involvement has grown.
Now 35 sponsoring churches, 14 nonprofits and people from over 50 churches participate along with Winston Salem First to put on Christmas for the City in Winston Salem, N.C.
The church’s name doesn’t appear anywhere on the event. Christmas for the City is not an event hosted by “our church”—it is a nameless, faceless event designed to gather together the capital-C church from all over the community to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the Christmas season. It’s a great story.
Sometimes traditions keep us stuck. Sometimes they are preventing us from experiencing the kingdom of God right here and right now. I’m so glad my pastor had the vision he did, and that the church was flexible enough to follow him. I pray you’ll do the same this holiday season.
Here’s a video recap from last year’s event:
What Christmas traditions does your church love? Do you sometimes feel like they keep you stuck? What do you want to do this year that is different?