Some Thoughts on Carol Services
In the last couple of posts, I’ve questioned some of the common conceptions of Christmas. In this one, I’d like think a little about that most Christmas of traditions, the evangelistic carol service.
This is a time of year when people, who might otherwise be reluctant to attend church, may well be attracted to attend by the lure of carols, mince pies and mulled wine (or indifferent coffee, according to your churchmanship). I realise that most carol services were planned months ago, but here are some issues that should be born in mind when thinking them through.
Carols: the clue is in the name; a carol service should include carols. There are two issues here. The first is honesty, if we are going to call something a carol service, then carols should be front and centre. If your service is going to involve four carols and a 35 minute exposition of Luke 2, don’t call it a carol service – it’s a preaching service. To call something a carol service when it isn’t, is not honest and that’s generally not a good thing for churches. Secondly, there are the expectations of the people attending. People who don’t normally attend church can find the whole thing a bit strange, but familiar carols can help them feel more comfortable. I know that church worship groups are bored by all of the old songs and they are desperate to introduce that cracking new worship song that they learned at Spring Harvest/Word Alive/New Wine/Soul Survivor (delete as appropriate) and which mentions the manger. Don’t, just don’t. You’ve invited people along to a carol service, so sing carols. There are plenty of other Sundays in the year when you can introduce new stuff. By all means, have a choir or instrumental item as part of the mix, but keep it traditional. If you can get some brass instruments to join your normal musicians, all the better. Of course, it is legitimate to have a rock Christmas, a nativity play, dramatised readings from the Gospel stories; just be honest about what you are inviting people to.
Bible Readings: I might shock regular Kouyanet readings by saying this, but I would consider using the Authorised Version for the Bible readings. If not the AV, go for a version which sounds slightly old fashioned. In normal circumstances, I would normally argue for using a modern language version, but at Christmas, people are looking for something traditional.
Welcome: be friendly, but not intrusive. Mention upcoming events in Church, but don’t be pushy. Think long and hard about giving people cards to sign up with their contact details (and then don’t do it). I know that contact cards are an attractive idea for churches, but for outsiders they feel slightly sinister. If you do push ahead with getting people to sign up, make sure that your card has been checked by someone who understands the data protection laws. What information you collect from people and what you do with it is tightly regulated by law and it is important that Christians conform to the rules. On the other hand, there is nothing to stop you handing out attractive cards that welcome people to the church and which provide a link to the website.
Preaching: Be contextually appropriate, be friendly and point people to Jesus. Don’t go on too long, don’t feel that you have to explain everything about the Gospel and don’t tell people that their idea of Christmas is all wrong. A 5-10 minute talk that ends with a question and which leaves people thinking is likely to be far more effective than a longer talk which tries to deal with every possible objection. Oh, while on the subject, don’t be tempted to explain the meaning of every carol, people will get bored with your voice and will start to switch off. One a related topic, Ian Paul has a blog post on whether we should preach at carol services, today (spoiler alert: the answer is yes).
What’s The Point: there have been numerous studies which show that it takes a long time for British people to move from an initial contact with Christians and the Church to the point where they put their faith in Christ. In all probability, you are not going to see people coming in off the streets and being converted. It might happen, it would be wonderful if it did, but in all probability, you are engaging in a long, slow process. Your carol service needs to take this into account. The aim is to help people to move a few steps along their journey to faith and to keep them moving. This means that you want to do your best to ensure that they will come back to Church – so don’t be too weird! Above everything, it means that you want to do your best to ensure that they are attracted by the person of Jesus Christ; so (in the jargon) make much of Christ. It is possibly a good idea to have an Alpha or Christianity Explored course starting a few weeks after Christmas to capture any interest that is stirred up by the carol service.
This doesn’t mean that you have to water down the Gospel, but it does mean that you have to present it appropriately and in a way which stirs up interest. Banging people over the head and telling them that they are going to hell is unlikely to see many converts and even less likely to see people return to learn more.
An evangelistic carol service is, by its nature, not for the church members. Don’t worry about keeping them happy – but explain why you are doing what you are doing.