Okay, so I know there are some pastors who use sports analogies ad nauseam (I’ve been known to make reference to the New Orleans Saints often), but permit me to make one more as I reflect on Christmas Eve. You see, Christmas Eve for pastors is like the Super Bowl for football coaches. There are two times each year when all the preparation, anticipation and expectation are heightened for pastors and church staff–Easter Sunday and Christmas Eve. At least it’s that way for most United Methodists. I suppose I could say if Christmas Eve is the Super Bowl, then Easter Sunday would be game seven of the World Series.
To watch our 6 p.m., Christmas Eve worship service, click here!
Easter Sunday and Christmas Eve are the two largest attendance days in our church year. For years, I didn’t have a Christmas Eve service in the small churches I pastored. It wasn’t a tradition I grew up with, so when I entered ministry, I didn’t have a model to base a service on, so I never pushed the issue. I must confess when I went to seminary, the student appointment I served did have the tradition of Christmas Eve worship, but I nixed it in favor of returning to Louisiana to be with family (we were homesick–don’t judge me!). But, when I returned to Louisiana permanently, we moved to Morgan City, and Christmas Eve was THE worship service that everything pointed toward. There was no way I was touching that one! It was my first experience with Christmas Eve worship, and it was wonderful (and yes, it was the largest attendance of the year–even larger than Easter).
Planning for Christmas Eve actually begins in the spring as I do sermon planning for the last half of the year. I suppose that’s one of the big differences in a pastor and a football coach. A football coach makes draft choices, prepares games plans, and goes through training camp all in the HOPE the team makes it to the playoffs, and if the team makes it to the playoffs, then game plans, defensive schemes and line ups are made based on the opponent in the HOPE the team wins the game and advances. Football coaches HOPE to make it to the Super Bowl, and usually have two weeks to prepare. Pastors KNOW Christmas Eve is coming. It’s not a matter of if we’ll make it to the Super Bowl. The Super Bowl is coming. We know the date. We know we’ll be in the game. We know there’ll be a crowd. We only HOPE we’ll be ready. And, there’s no way we could prepare in two weeks.
What are some of the plans that have to be made? Hmmm? First, is the sermon. Yeah, I know. Most people come to Christmas Eve for the candlelight and Silent Night, so does it really matter what the preacher says? Why not just give a nice little homily about babies and starry nights…say something sweet about God’s love, and light the candles. It’ll be okay. I’m sorry! I just can’t do that! This is the most people I’ll speak to at one time all year long. I can’t not share the Gospel. I can’t not make it evangelistic in some way. I can’t not tell them why Christmas matters. It does matter what I (or any preacher) say, so it’s important that planning happens, and it starts for me usually in March or April. What’s more, it’s got to be a short sermon, and I don’t know about other pastors, but it takes more time to write a short sermon than a long one. There’s plenty to say, it’s knowing what not to say that’s so hard.
Next, is music planning, and it’s not just selecting the music. It’s rehearsing the choir. It’s chasing down and lining up orchestra members. Yes, it’s even finding money to pay orchestra members. All that starts early in the year, too, because rehearsal usually starts in September. I just thank God for music ministers who handle this endeavor. I guess I could compare a good music minister to an offensive coordinator. There’s consultation between the head coach and the coordinator, but it’s really the coordinator’s job to put the offensive game plan in motion. Trust me! Music is like going on offense. It will set the tone for the service. Music matters. Music matters a lot. It’s not just a matter of singing Silent Night. Silent Night may the be crescendo, or the exclamation point, but everything must build up to that point in the worship.
Then, there are the visuals. Ours were spectacular this Christmas Eve (thank you, Kem Alexander!). The sanctuary of First United Methodist Church literally glowed with colorful lights this year. It was beautiful, but that, too, took planning, coordination and lots of hard work. There are poinsettias to be ordered. There are trees to be erected and decorated. In our case, there’s a stage to be put in, furniture to be moved, and an altar to be raised. It’s a lot of work. It begins weeks in advance.
Finally, there are tons of logistical issues to be worked out as the “big game” approaches. There are ushers to organize (in our case, ushers for three different services), communion servers to organize (again, for three different services), clean up staff between services to coordinate, and I’m sure I’m forgetting the minute details that our facilities staff coordinates of which I have no idea. That’s why it matters when you have a coach assembles a great staff. The staff knows their roles and the coach can depend on them to carry out their role. I have a great staff! I thank God for my staff. If I’m any good at all, it’s because they are better than me. Of course, I’ve always tried to have people around me who are a thousand times better at what they do than I am. I’ve achieved that.
Though there are many similarities, there are also some differences. For one, the Super Bowl is one game. For FUMC, MONROE, Christmas Eve is three services (4 p.m., 6 p.m. and 11 p.m.), so we have to be “on” our game three times. Another difference? In the grand scheme of things, the Super Bowl doesn’t really matter. In ten years, or twenty years, or a hundred years, the teams victory will be nothing more than blip on the radar of history. But, sharing the Gospel with someone on Christmas Eve who might not otherwise ever attend worship could have an eternal impact, and that’s a major difference, indeed. Oh, and there’s one other difference I can think of–the winner of the Super Bowl usually goes to Disney World. Pastors and church staff just want to go home and go to sleep. While many coaches, players and fans have a few months to savor their victory, pastors and church staff only have a few days. After all, Easter is right around the corner.
I’ve probably overplayed the Super Bowl analogy. Some may even think it blasphemous to compare the two, and perhaps they would be correct, but I know the hard work and effort that goes into Christmas Eve. There may be a better comparison, but I’m not sure what it is. Perhaps it would be better to make no comparison at all.
Until next time, keep looking up…