It's all my children have ever known. For years and years, we have been part of hosting a Christmas Eve Worship Service.
We go to church, we sing songs, we hear from scripture, we light candles while singing Silent Night, then we blow them out and wish our church family a merry Christmas.
And for me, when I blow out my candle, it signals a shift in my thinking. At that moment I stop carrying ministry responsibilities and start simply being a husband, a dad, a grandpa, a son, a brother, an uncle, a friend.
The Christmas Eve service fills my heart with love, joy, and peace. But what my family does after that worship service was actually born out of exhaustion.
We go out to eat.
We started it when we had multiple Christmas Eve services that followed Christmas Concerts, and children's programs, and year end parties, and all that stuff. But even when we found a better balance in life, we still continued to go out to eat after the Christmas Eve service.
We've done it for years. We pick one of the two or three restaurants that are open, and there we slink cheerfully into our chair, waiting patiently for the overworked staff to prepare our food. We're usually a small crowd, but we make it a point to bless our servers as they bless us. Then we tip them generously and head home.
Once at home, we open one gift from under the tree. It's always the same gift but we pretend we don't know what it is. Then, we eventually head to bed to rest up for a wonderfully full time of family the next day.
That's how we do Christmas Eve. I love Christmas Eve. And I know I'm not alone.
We may all have different traditions that surround it, but for so many of us the Christmas Eve service marks a time of sacred remembrance about the Incarnation. Even for those whose faith doesn't order their life much at other times, the Christmas Eve candle lighting service is a religious rite that makes the season feel just right.
This year we're not going to do that.
This year we're not meeting at the church.
This year we're not going out to a restaurant.
And it was my decision.
I'm not a fan of my decision to not have an in-person Christmas Eve service. And I know I'm not alone. But there's a reason for it.
There haven't been many easy decisions this year regarding whether and how churches should limit gatherings to help slow the spread of the virus. And the fact that it's politicized complicates the decision.
We all have our opinions about whether churches should "be open" or not. My sense is that our church is pretty much in the middle about it. That's where I am.
We take the virus as a serious threat that is worthy of precaution and prudence. (We've lost friends and family to it.) But we also believe fellowship with other believers is worth some level of risk. So we try to strike a balance.
That's why our campus is open for worship services. But a month ago we were looking at an uptick in Covid cases in our area, and our crowds were starting to grow with the return of our winter friends from the north. (In fact, we're still not sure what to expect of our winter crowds.)
Christmas Eve is typically a large service for us. And I can imagine a scenario where we would have to turn people away when we still have physical seating available. And I can also imagine a scenario where we decide to offer multiple services (as some of my pastor friends are doing) and then hardly anyone shows up because they want to avoid the crowds.
It was a decision without a clear right or wrong. But it was still a decision that had to be made. And it wasn't all about Covid.
As I was considering it, I was also considering my conviction that, as Christians, we don't need to crowd into auditoriums to really worship God. In fact, this year has challenged our assumptions about that. And I believe that what's even more meaningful is the challenge of worshiping together in smaller fellowship groups.
Don't get me wrong. I love singing in a big crowd. And I'm aware that the presence of a crowd gives a sense of authority to the gospel as it's preached. I think there's a place for that. I also think it's easier to do that.
But I think learning to worship God in our living room is more important than learning to worship God in an auditorium. And so, part of my decision was to take advantage of this opportunity to help us grow deeper in the practice of our faith, and in our idea of what it means to worship God.
And so, I made the decision that isn't my personal favorite. But it's the one I stand behind because it has a reason bigger than Covid. In fact, it's actually using Covid to help us learn to worship in our homes. And to see worship as part of how we celebrate Christmas in our homes.
This year we're asking you to host the Christmas Eve service at your home.
If your family and friends are all believers, learn to be comfortable worshiping together when you're not at church.
But even if you're surrounded by people who don't share your convictions or passions, ask them to share something you find meaningful, even if just to be nice. And I'm not talking about tricking them into worshiping. (You can't do that.) I'm talking about you deciding that your living room will be a worship center in your life. And that it will be obvious to those you love that you don't just go to church; you have decided to live your whole life in worship of Jesus Christ.
The worship service will consist of songs and scripture, concluding in candle lighting while we all sing Silent Night together.
It will be hosted at 5, 7, and 11pm.
Pick whatever time works for you and gather your friends and family in your home. Or accept an invitation to their home. (Don't do more than you feel is prudent, but do as much as you feel is prudent.)
Setup your TV or other device to watch at https://sarasotacommunity.online.church.
I think the TV is best, but you can also gather around a laptop, or even meet in the same room together all watching your own phones. The goal is to honor God by gathering for fellowship and worship in a common place with your family and closest friends.
Turn off the lights and participate.
Sing along as the worship team leads us in "O Come O Come Emmanuel," "The First Noel," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and "O Holy Night." Open your heart and mind to the scriptures as I read them. And then, as we conclude with "Silent Night," light a candle and pass the flame to the person next to you. As you do, pray blessing over them, that Christ would be formed in them, and that their lives would be filled with love, joy, and peace in the coming year.
Then do what you do to celebrate Christmas. And let it pour out of a heart that has worshiped the Lord.
My hope and prayer is that by doing this we will bring worship right into the rooms where we live, and right among the people with whom we do life. This is where worship belongs.
Pastor of Sarasota Community Church since 2009.