As holiday planning is under way, cookies hitting ovens en masse, Christmas trees being resituated in living rooms across the world, gifts being purchased, and family gatherings being planned, it is worth thinking about how we plan our attendance at Christmas Eve services with family members who no longer attend church. It is now widely known that people my age do not attend church regularly like generations past. On any given Sunday, those in their 20’s and 30’s are least likely to attend a congregation. This trend raises challenges for families all across the country. How do we celebrate Christ’s birth together if many in our families are not really Christian anymore?
We should be clear, most non-churchgoing young adults are not ‘at war with Christmas’ or ‘Millennials killing Christmas’. Why people ever started talking about an entire generation, individuals who have never met the other millions their age, as a group of people who conspire to kill anything is beyond me. Still, it is understandable that there is a lot of anxiety and tension in families when it comes to carrying on Christmas traditions which have, at their center, celebrations of the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Things have changed in our world and culture, and in many families it has become much more difficult to share the faith across generations.
Despite the data and the trends, I encourage you to avoid assuming that young adults do not want to go to Christmas services or share in the Christ story during this season. Even though many of my peers do not share the Christian faith like I do, they have told me that they still like going to church at Christmas. There is a transcendent beauty in our worship, especially during candlelit Christmas Eve services that can be appreciated regardless of what one believes about the true meaning of Christmas. Young and old alike can appreciate the importance of our Christmas traditions, and it is worth making time for family to be together in the church so that may happen, if only for one time a year.
As we think about how to share in Christmas celebrations across theological and ideological divides, here is a list of things that Millennials desire from the church around Christmas time:
1. Respect for the doubts of non-believers
Too often, at least in this pastor’s opinion, we church-goers can get caught up in the “rope ‘em in” mentality. Perhaps this language is unique to places like Montana, where roping is still a common way of life, but I don’t think so. I have seen the “rope ‘em in” mentality played out in churches all across the country. The “rope ‘em in” mentality is the idea that if young adults walk through the church doors then it is the job of the people in the church to keep them coming, in spite of any reservations that our guests may have about being there. It makes sense to us church-goers that if we care about the church and we care about those who we invite to attend church services with us, then we would want to keep sharing the church we care about with those we care about. However, I know that many people my age do not want to attend church, even once a year, because they do not want to be pressured into believing what they do not believe.
While it is important for Christians that we share the Gospel at all times, attempts to compel and pressure people into regular church attendance do not represent the Gospel very well. As Christians, we must accept that people are freed by the Messiah to believe, and we were also freed to doubt. I suspect that if church-going Christians respect the doubts of non-church going family members, then these family members are much more likely to respect our belief that going to church as a family at Christmas time is important to us.
2. Be authentic in sharing your faith
What do you really believe about Christmas? Do you really believe that the Son of God was born among us in order to redeem our broken world? Do you really believe that God saved the world through our Savior’s birth? I do. Others don’t. We all approach the season together, but differently. If you really believe the Christmas story, do not be ashamed of your faith. One can respect the doubts of others while authentically sharing what we believe. In fact, we better respect the doubts of others by honestly listening to what they don’t believe and honestly sharing what we do believe.
3. Honor the fact that some people are there just for the sake of tradition and that is okay
If you just attend Christmas services during this season out of tradition or habit, you are always welcome to join us. If we are being honest, there are many mysteries of the Christian faith that are hard for lifelong, church-going Christians to wrap our hearts and heads around. The mystery of the incarnation is no exception. Despite what some Christians portray, we do not go to church because we know everything; we go because we believe that God is doing greater things in our midst than we can ever comprehend. One does not need to believe perfectly to attend church. We are all entertaining mysteries beyond our limited understanding of the universe and the God who made it. If tradition is the only thing that drives some to ponder these mysteries with us in a church setting, then church-going Christians should not get in the way of that.
4. The church should be prepared to offer a religious experience to the non-religious
Many who join us on Christmas eve services do not really know what is going on. Religious language has been silenced in much of our public life, and families have largely abandoned church-attendance in their private lives. As a result, most people have no idea what it is to have a religious or spiritual experience at all, whether it be at Christmas or any other time of the year. Our society has become religiously illiterate.
Yet, surprisingly, many people seem to be far more open to having religious experiences during the Christmas season than pretty much any other time of the year. The church should not scoff at people’s openness or condemn people’s lack of religious understanding, but lead them in this season of religious exploration. Christmas worship can be very powerful, and we in the church should try to make it especially meaningful for those who will only have an experience like it once a year.
5. Embrace the symbolism of the season
Christmas traditions are saturated with meaning and significance. Evergreen trees and wreaths symbolize life persevering through a season of death – an image of the Christian’s life persevering through our own mortality. Candlelight services are a mainstay in many congregations because Christmas is a time when we remember the light of Christ literally piercing the darkness of evil in our world. The meager image of our Savior’s birth in a barn confronts standards of worldly greed and political gain in our human concepts of power and wealth, but, anymore, people don’t even realize that a manger is another word for a feed trough! Our church services, Christian symbolism, and Christmas traditions are full of rich, profound meaning and it is the church’s job to preserve and teach others the true meaning of Christmas. As time has proven, if the church does not take the lead in sharing the deeper meaning of Christmas, nobody else will.
May your Christmas celebrations be merry and shared by believers and non-believers alike!
Rev. Seth Nelson is a pastor and the author of The Church Unknown: Reflections of a Millennial Pastor. He lives in western Montana with his wife and two children.
Rev. Seth Nelson, author of The Church Unknown: Reflections of a Millennial Pastor, writes this blog. The blog focuses on the future of the church as well as how God loves and cares for us in the present. He is a pastor in Ronan, Montana.