Every pastor and active lay leader knows about the “C & E” people. These are the inactive members, nominally engaged constituents, sometimes-but-infrequent visitors who suddenly fill our pews to overflowing on Christmas Eve and Easter morning. They are the people brought by their spouses, cajoled by their Moms, threatened by their Dads, or intimidated by their in-laws into attending services with the family on Christmas and Easter even though they seldom, if ever, attend on other occasions. Or they are the neighborhood folk and surprise guests who have no formal relationship with the church, but who feel compelled by nostalgia, nascent spiritual yearnings, or guilt to at least make an appearance in church once or twice a year. Preachers have tons of jokes about them, and perhaps you have heard some. “Preacher, what I don’t like about this church is that every single time I have ever attended in the ten years you’ve served as pastor, you preach on exactly the same scripture, the birth of Jesus. That’s why I don’t come to this church!”
I had an interesting learning experience about twenty years ago about the Christmas and Easter crowd, and it changed my attitude forever. I’m indebted to a caring, persistent, and perceptive church member who had the courage and fortitude to gently correct me on something.
One Easter Sunday morning, while leading worship to a large, overflowing crowd, I made a humorous reference to all the “extra” visitors we had, and joked about not having seen them since last Easter, and how I hoped maybe they’d join us for Christmas eve. This kind of sarcasm, by God’s grace, is not common to me, especially in public, and I felt awkward as the words rolled out of my mouth.
The following week, Mrs. W visited in my office. She was genuinely concerned about something that was important to her, and I could tell she was uncomfortable about this, but felt compelled to say something. As her eyes moistened, she gently told how much she appreciated me and my preaching and leadership, but….. And then she told me how she prays constantly for her adult children and grandchildren, and how her highest hope is for them to grow in Christ, attend worship, and get involved with a church. On Easter, she had successfully managed to get them to attend church, and she felt hurt that I had spoken sarcastically about the “Christmas and Easter people.” She was not angry or antagonistic, but she was disappointed that my comments had not helped foster and support her desires for them to experience the welcome and warmth that otherwise characterized our congregation. She lamented, “What a missed opportunity it was, and I don’t know if I will be able to get them here again.”
She was right. I was wrong. I asked her forgiveness, and realized right at that moment that I needed to look at inactive members, nominal attenders, and infrequent guests in a whole new way. God had provided me and the church with a wonderful opportunity to touch the lives of people we seldom are able to communicate with, and I had blotched it up.
I think that rather than making “C & E” folks feel like outsiders and foreigners, we should be doing everything we can to make them feel welcome and engaged. We should give God thanks that we have this opportunity, even if it’s just an hour, and we should pray for the wisdom of right words and right tone and texture to help foster a next step for deeper engagement with the church. In fact, we should go to great effort to ease feelings of self-consciousness during Christmas and Easter services for those who are unaccustomed to worship. We should make the services as meaningful, authentic, accessible and approachable as possible. We should go to great effort to avoid insider language, acronyms, and coded shortcuts we commonly use to communicate to the insiders and regulars. Our goal is not to scold, belittle, provoke, or offend, but to invite, welcome, embrace, and treat with respect. The Radical Hospitality we see in Jesus Christ would have us do our best and offer our highest.
I hope our churches during Advent and Christmas will see the extraordinary opportunity God gives us during this season. What do we hope for our inactive and infrequent members? We hope that they get involved and grow in faith. Why should we feel resentment when they take a small step by coming with their families at Christmas?
Churches that practice Radical Hospitality welcome and engage and invite back anyone who attends. They follow up with phone calls or personal notes that express appreciation and to encourage further activity. They see Christmas Eve services as un-returning moments of opportunity that God gives us to reach those we usually miss. They plan Christmas Eve services to be “visitor friendly” and go out of their way to welcome family members and extended family relatives to the services.
I’m grateful Mrs. W had the spiritual boldness to correct her pastor. From that moment on, I’ve been thankful to God for every single person who attends worship, regardless of what family pressures or inner urgings cause them to walk through the door.
Yours in Christ,