If you watch Christmas TV-movies like my wife and I do, you have a picture of small-town life at Christmas. You might imagine the bustling town square lit up with Christmas lights as the various businesses make their Christmas profits, a full calendar of community activities and contests, and probably someone who left town for the big city coming home for Christmas to find love. Well, most of the sentimental romantic picture of small-town Christmas is only found on the Hallmark Channel. In real life, town square doesn’t have that much business left, community activities are rare, and the factory that needed saving closed a couple of decades ago.
But that doesn’t mean that pastoring in a small town at Christmas isn’t busy and challenging in its own way. Christmas shopping is a challenge; you can’t have everything delivered to your home (some things come in boxes easily identified by kids and wife), so often it takes two or more day-long excursions to a nearby town. You are often remote from extended family, so you need to fit in a chance to leave town for a while to celebrate with family. In the midst of all of this, there is the challenge that every pastor faces in approaching the Christmas story in a fresh way that will help everyone re-engage the wonder of the Incarnation and to anticipate the return of Christ.
There are competing pressures. Christmas is full of tradition, and most churches have several special events that mark the season each year. Christmas is also a good time for outreach, as many people will consider attending a worship service at Christmas that would not come other times of the year. So there is the pressure to keep tradition, do outreach, and celebrate properly. Christmas is also very busy for everyone, and people often feel overextended. In small churches, the years have brought fewer people to uphold and carry out the same holiday traditions and programs, overtaxing human and financial resources. So there is the pressure to cut back, to cancel programs, and to take a break.
So which is the right response? It’s important to find balance. A church cannot keep the same programs–even at Christmas–with thirty people that they used to keep with a hundred. But it’s also important not to fall into the trap of not trying. Cancelling things can easily become a habit that’s hard to break. Once you quit one thing, it’s easier to wave off the next one, too, and eventually become apathetic and defeated.
I have found that it is important to start early, beginning with setting priorities. What are your Christmas programs going to be about? Who are they for? I made a mistake this year of planning an event that was supposed to be nostalgic and uplifting to older members, but then I made the raucous Wednesday night kids a featured part of it (It did not go as I originally envisioned). We should have a mix of things that minister to our longtime members, giving them peace and comfort and joy in the season, as well as things that are more outreach oriented. Choose traditions that are most meaningful and find ways to make them smaller, more Christ-focused, and less stressful. Start planning in the early fall what type of program would best suit your congregation and community as a Christmas outreach, whether it’s a community angel tree, a music program, or something that’s unique to you.
Most important of all, we as pastors need to care for our own souls during this time. We often run on empty, neglecting to seek God each day because of the length of our to-do lists and because of the exhaustion of the season. I often find myself limping spiritually into our Christmas Eve service, trying to lead others to meditate on a wondrous gift I myself have been leaving unwrapped. It isn’t important to draw near to God because it is Christmastime; it’s important to draw near to Him because He is our life in every season. It would do us well to plan ahead in this area as well, knowing how difficult it often is to maintain personal time with the Lord during the holiday craziness.
I love Christmas. I love to talk about how Jesus came to earth as a baby, light into darkness. I love to listen to the music, buy the presents, set up the Christmas morning scene, travel to visit family, and to eat Christmas cookies. But all the festivities can make us lose our footing, both as leaders and as individuals. May the Lord Jesus bless each of you who read this with peace and balance this Christmas, to encounter again the beauty of our Father’s pursuing, saving love, and to celebrate in the Spirit that brings joy in every season.