In this Publisher’s Perspective, I want to give a pastor’s perspective. I have been first and foremost a preacher for almost 30 years, always pastoring a local church, ranging from 25 people to 1200 people in weekly attendance. In these nearly three decades, I have always conducted a Christmas Eve Candlelight Service and found it to be one of the best tools for ministry available to the pastor. Preacher, if you choose to have a Christmas Eve Candlelight Service, and do so correctly, you will be providing an unequaled outreach to your congregation, your community, and your own family.
Unequaled in Outreach
I have done candlelight services in small farming towns, mid-sized “county seat” towns, and large suburban areas. In all settings, these services have never failed to be the best avenue we have for bringing visitors into the church. I have almost never had a candlelight service in which we did not have to prepare for an overflow crowd. It doesn’t matter if your church is filled with young families or mostly made up of grandparents, nor does it matter whether your community is conservative, or (like mine) liberal. People will come to church on Christmas Eve more willingly than on any other day of the year, including Easter.
Unequaled in Pastoral Care
Not only is the candlelight service a great outreach, but it is also great for pastoral care. You will have long-absent members show up. You will have the infirm and the home-bound show up. People who have grown lax in their attendance will show up. Grieving church family members will show up. New parents will show up. You will be able to minister to each of them, to shake their hand, to take a picture with them, to give a pastoral blessing…and they will appreciate you for it.
Doing it Right
A Christmas Eve candlelight service is easy to do right but also easy to “mess up.” Before you plan a cutting-edge, high-tech, modern-feeling service, remember this: the only high tech experience people want on Christmas is the gift under the tree. This is the service to make low-tech, traditional, and filled with simple elegance.
Here is my advice for making a beautiful service:
- Plan a service about 45-minutes in length and definitely not more than an hour. Through the years, I’ve often advertised a starting and ending time for this service. People have other things to do on Christmas Eve, so remove the worry that the service will be a long one.
- Plan for well-known Christmas carols that are congregationally sung. This isn’t the time for new arrangements or new, contemporary choruses. People like the Hallmark Channel Christmas movies because they bring back memories. People will like your Christmas eve service if it brings back memories. If they are having to learn a new song, it just won’t cut it. About three familiar congregational Christmas carols will be ideal. Chose the familiar verses and skip the others.
- If possible, find great instrumentalists for Christmas eve. For years, I would use a string quartet or a harpist. The elegance of the evening and of the season makes this a beautiful time for extra-special pre-service instrumental music and accompaniment for the carols. As you select instrumental music, be careful to do it in a way that doesn’t slight those who play music in the church through the rest of the year.
- Avoid announcements. Just give a simple and warm welcome and leave other “housekeeping” matters for another day. With a smile, say something like, “Welcome to our church on this most beautiful night of the year. My wife and I are so pleased to serve the Lord in this church, and we want to thank you for coming tonight. After our time of worship, she and I will be in the foyer and would love to give you a handshake or a hug, to snap a quick picture together, and to wish you and your family the very best Christmas and a happy new year. Now, let’s join together as we sing…”
- Don’t get “preachy.” This isn’t the time for your revival-style preaching. It also isn’t the time for your “go get ’em tiger” sermon. In fact, it may not be the time for a sermon at all. From my very first year as a preacher leading a candlelight Christmas Eve service, I’ve never given a regular sermon. Rather, I have always shared the Christmas story directly from the pages of scripture, unadulterated with commentary, by memory. While it takes a lot of time the first few years to memorize the passages, that time-invested later provides great rewards. Now, for almost 30 years, all I have to do is a little mental rehearsal and I am ready to go. I usually have an instrumentalist play appropriately in the background, and I give a very brief gospel presentation at the end. I’ve done this year after year, and rather than hearing, “Why do you do the same thing every year?”, I hear people say, “It just isn’t Christmas until you tell the Christmas story on Christmas eve.” If you do a sermon, make it clear, simple, biblical, and encouraging. I love doctrinal and Bible-teaching sermons, but people simply don’t go to a Christmas Eve candlelight service to hear a scholarly lecture (just make sure they get scholar-level material the rest of the year!).
- Have a candle lighting time to close the service. Buy fresh candles each year and plastic protectors every couple of years. Have one placed under every seat so that each person has one available. Prepare in advance for how the candles will be lit. I usually have several younger men in the congregation ready to come forward when I light my candle. They then stand and walk forward to light their candle, then work their way down the aisles, lighting the candle of those on the ends, and the flame is passed throughout the congregation as we begin to sing Silent Night.
- Make sure that you have planned on how long it will take to light the candles and keep them lit for a reasonable period of time. You don’t want this time to be rushed, but you also don’t want it to go so long that people begin to get dripping wax on themselves or your church furnishings. With the right planning and an adequate number of helpers, even hundreds of candles can be lit in short order.
- With candles having been lit, and after singing several verses of Silent Night, close in a few carefully chosen words of Scripture, such as John 1:1-4, and a “Merry Christmas” as you walk through the congregation to the back door where you can greet people as they leave. Have people extinguish their candles on the way out and put the candles into cardboard boxes wrapped in Christmas wrapping.
- Don’t put any hard-sell promotion of your church into the service. Let the service be designed to help people fall in love with Jesus. They will remember that and come back to your church naturally.
- Don’t make the service too complicated. Simple, quiet, acoustic, with dimmable lights for candles are perfect.
- Don’t take an offering. Make this your gift to the community.
Scheduling and Promotion
- Over the years, I’ve slowly moved the service earlier than traditional, and found this to be appreciated by families. In the larger suburban church, we had a 4:30 and 6:00 service, and (to my surprise) the 4:30 service was the most heavily attended. For many years I did a 6:00-6:45 service and an 11:15 – Midnight service. The midnight service was always a small attendance, but those who came to it were fiercely loyal and appreciative.
- Promote the service in neighborhood bulletins, local newspaper announcements (the free variety), and, of course, your local church. I have also used Facebook advertising and found this useful. Send out a postcard to everyone on your mailing list. We keep our advertising for this service very simple. Click here to see our 2020 webpage announcement.
Because our church has a large online audience and because a Christmas candlelight service does not broadcast well, we provide an online-only version of the service. Click here to see the 2018 online service.
Need supplies? Dispensational Publishing House can get Christmas Eve candlelight service supplies and other church supplies at a discount. Click here to contact us and begin the conversation for your no-obligation custom quote. Supplies for a Christmas eve service are very inexpensive.