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7 Ways to Connect with Unchurched People at Christmas

Christmas, unchurched, reaching unchurched people, Carey Nieuwhof, Leading Change

A friend messaged me this week with a great question. He’s the pastor of a mainline church that, like many churches, doesn’t typically have that many unchurched people every Sunday.

But he knows Christmas will be different. More than any other day of the year, people who never go to church will be in church for Christmas Eve services.  How do you connect with them?

At Connexus, the church I lead, we have the privilege of being able to speak to a fairly high percentage of unchurched people every weekend, which is why he was asking me the question. And Christmas Eve is by far the time when we have the greatest number of normally unchurched people in the room at any given moment. We will see our attendance grow by 50%-75% over normal (sometimes more), and the bulk of that growth is unchurched people.

Connect well with them, and you will see some back in January. Offer up a predictable or uninspiring service, and they will all be gone again until next year (or never come back), unchanged, uninspired and still, unreached.

I thought it was a great opportunity to offer a few things we’ve done to try to connect with unchurched people, and see what you’ve learned in this area to. Of course, there are many other ways to connect with unchurched people by serving in your community, serving the poor, getting out into the neighbourhood and more. But for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on what happens when they come to your church.

So here are my thoughts:

1. Use What’s Familiar in a Fresh Way. Christmas is the only season where the shopping malls and radio stations play church music, period.  We’ve made the mistake of being too unfamiliar at Christmas in the past – where in the name of being innovative, we ditched most of the traditional Christmas music. It didn’t work. People expect the familiar at Christmas. So our December worship set is almost all classic Christmas Carols, and Christmas Eve is almost 100% classic Christmas carols.

What our music team has mastered in the last few years, though, is presenting those carols in a fresh way.  They’ve figured out how to do them in a fresh, almost rock show style that sounds familiar but amazing at the same time. Artists like Chris Tomlin, the North Point worship team and so many others have done Christmas songs in a fresh way that make old classics sound completely familiar and completely fresh. Insiders and outsiders at our church love it.

If you’ve got enough familiar in the service, you can also make space for one or two songs that might not be as familiar but make the point you’re trying to make.

2. Have Fun! People love being surprised. Last year, our band and guest services team combined for a totally fun rendition of the 12 Days of Christmas. The band rewrote the lyrics, and as they sang each stanza, the guest services team ran down the aisle giving away whatever the band was singing about – from mock gifts to a few legit free gift cards. It was fun and engaging.

A few years ago the band opened with Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll”, pretending to have forgotten it was Christmas. The host interrupted them, told them to get their act together, at which point they played the rest of the song but switched to “made up” Christmas lyrics to finish it. I couldn’t believe the smiles across every demographic in the room.

We have a surprise to open the service this year again too. (But I can’t tell you what it is – yet.)

Fun engages people. And when you’ve got them engaged, they’re listening.

3. Find common ground. In the message, start with common ground. My friends at Preaching Rocket have done an unbelievable job of helping communicators understand how critical this principle is in beginning a message. But it’s never more critical than when the room is packed with outsiders.

This year I start my message by talking about how Christmas brings out mixed emotions. I shot the video in a mall parking lot standing in a pile of slush near a brown snow bank. (We pre-record the Christmas message every year. It allows us to run concurrent services at each of our campuses).

I explain how at some point we’ve all been hit by the spray from a passing truck or ended up with slush all over our boots and pant legs, and that life is like that sometimes. Then I spoke for a few minutes to each ‘demographic’ in the room. For example, I spoke to teenagers, saying maybe this is the year when your parents split up or when things fell off the rails in school. I spoke to business people who have had a ‘great’ year but still feel empty. And so on. The goal is to simply help people find themselves in the story before you tell the story. Because then, hopefully, they’re listening.

Even if you can’t or don’t shoot the message via video, just focus on connecting with the people who are in the room. You don’t need cameras to be engaging. You just need to be engaging.

4. Engage them emotionally. People might not remember what you said, but they remember how you made them feel.  While I don’t want to give too much away, after the message at this year’s service, our bands are going to play a very emotional, engaging but ‘non-Christmassy’ song set to video.  Essentially, those 4 minutes will be minutes to reflect, pray and maybe even for some, make a decision to follow Jesus. Regardless, it’s an emotional moment designed to create some space for people to personally connect with their Heavenly Father.

5. Take care of their family. When parents are worried about their kids, they won’t pay attention.  So at four of our six services on Christmas Eve we offer child care for the youngest.  For all the kids in the service, we offer an activity pack – crayons, games, and even sometimes some food.

On the way out, we’re handing every family an activity (A Great Family Experiment) to do together over the holidays.

When people know you care about their family, they know you care about them.

6. Tee Up the New Year. Every year, without hopefully sounding like a commercial, we invite people back for January.  They get a card explaining the new series and dates, times and locations. This year, the new year’s series is kind of fun, so we’re even playing the title package during the service ‘welcome’ window so people get a snap shot of what a normal Sunday series is like.

7. Pray. Really pray for people coming at Christmas (and all year long). God loves them more deeply than any of us ever will. Pray that they would move into a growing relationship with Jesus. And pray that we would meet them in a way that honours and brings glory to God.

So those are seven things we’ve done to connect with outsiders. What have you done? What have you seen that’s effective?

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  • Kaye Chalwell

    Thanks for this post. Unlike many churches, we get very few visitors at our Christmas services. The people where we live don’t even think of going to church at Christmas. But we have discovered that they want their kids to be involved in something. For the past few years we have run a two day Kids’ Club just before Christmas and the kids come and create nativity plays and a whole church service that their parents then come to on the second night. Our church is filled with people who never come to church. It really is a matter of using what’s familiar in a fresh way – it’s quite traditional, but it just seems to hit the spot with these families who won’t otherwise come at Christmas. We are praying that this will help them connect with Jesus and the church in the new year. (Sorry about this long comment!)

    • Carey Nieuwhof

      Those are great points Kaye. Thank you!

  • Gunnshow

    We have A LOT of brand new Christians and unchurched so one thing we do is give everyone a printed copy of the Christmas story from Matthew and John and challenge them to read it at their Christmas gatherings

  • Gunnshow

    Is the family activity available online somewhere? Love that idea.

    • Carey Nieuwhof

      We’re going to make it available to church leaders in January.