(This post originally appeared on December 9, 2014.)
We’re neck-deep in last-minute planning for one of the largest events we do all year. Christmas at DPAC takes months of planning, miles of cable, tons of lights, our entire staff team, and some 1,300 volunteers to prepare for the 10,000 plus guests that will show up at five services over two days.
When we pull away from the Durham Performing Arts Center on Christmas Eve at about 8 PM, it will be with the fullest hearts and most exhausted brains you can imagine. Full heart, because I’m confident we’ll see God do some incredible things during our time together. Exhausted brain (and feet, and legs, and every joint that we collectively own) because for three straight days, there’s no sitting down.
But if 2014 imitates the preceding two years, sometime in the days following DPAC one or more of our pastors will get a gracious inquiry from a well-meaning, inquisitive church member, telling us that something about DPAC didn’t feel right:
- It didn’t really feel churchy.
- I feel like I couldn’t sing along with all of it.
- That sure did feel like more of a performance.
And the response to every statement? Yes. Yes. And yes.
You see, we don’t design Christmas at DPAC for church members. It’s not that we don’t believe we’ll have many there. We will. It’s not that we don’t love our church members. We do. But our Christmas Eve services are not primarily designed with Christians in mind. (Whew. There. I said it. It felt good.)
For 51 other weekends out of the year, we gather in a gospel-soaked environment, and everything from the opening worship song to the closing commissioning is designed to encourage believers to look to Jesus. Certainly, we know non-believers will be present, and we do everything we can to make them feel welcome and not to feel awkward. We speak to our guests throughout the service, helping to include them in what we’re doing. We offer guests a chance to respond to the gospel. But ultimately, the service is geared towards the believer, and it’s intended that the believer participate from start to finish.
When we do an event like DPAC, every song, every element, every statement has huge intentionality behind it. Nothing is accidental. We start big: with big music, big lights, big sound. We’re hooking the guest and resetting whatever candlelight service kids choir expectations they walked in with. But where we start with “come and see,” we gradually shift to “come and celebrate.” We segue from hard-to-sing-along-with songs to more familiar, traditional Christmas music to a heavily evangelistic sermon. And then we come out of that sermon into a rich time of participative worship. We are taking the non-believers on an intentional journey, one that we hope will include a decision to become a Christ follower.
To put it another way, we’re starting with receiving (i.e., “What do I get?”) and transitioning into worship (“What can I give?”). We’re starting with spectators and transforming them into participators. And all of that is intentional.
You’ve visited churches that are highly attractional: every weekend kicks off with the cover of a latest pop song, reworked (or sometimes not) to fit the theme of the sermon. The series have catchy titles that reflect whatever the hit movie du jour is. Everything centers around the non-believing guest, and Christians who want “depth” can sometimes be left wanting.
And perhaps you’ve visited churches that are highly congregational. No doctrinal term is left unturned. No sacrament is left unobserved. Hymns and instruments and liturgies are all designed to take the congregation and point their faces towards Christ. But to the uninitiated guest, they can sometimes feel left out in the cold.
Our goal at the Summit is to be a hybrid. We’re more attractional than the traditional congregational church, and more congregational than the typical attractional church. (It’s really frustrating to people when they make an attempt to label us. We zig when they zag.)
Were we to start a regular weekend service with a song that was all performance and no participation, I’d be the first to cry “foul.” But when we take our services into the city and invite the city to come, we want to be sensitive to the city. Move them to the gospel? Absolutely. But we may take a slightly different route than we normally would on the weekend.
The beauty of an event like Christmas at DPAC – and of a celebration like Christmas itself – is that it gives us the opportunity to proclaim. We are proclaiming the message of Christmas (the good news of the coming of Jesus) to those non-believers who may have never understood it before. And we are proclaiming the gospel to Christians who think they have God all figured out. We want to move both groups to the awe and wonder that Christmas brings, and help both to engage more deeply with the gospel.
By the way, Mary and Joseph and the shepherds travelled this path as well. Angels appeared to them with a proclamation of the coming of Jesus. Jesus’ mama and daddy and the smelly lamb-wranglers didn’t participate in the proclamation of the Messiah – at least not at first. They heard the message, stood in awe and wonder of the message, and then later responded to the message by worshiping the Christ child for themselves.
There you have it: the rationale behind how we approach DPAC. So in the spirit of this post, I leave you with the words of that great ecclesiologist Mariah Carey: Make my wish come true, all I want for Christmas is you (to understand how we do).
Huge thanks to Jonathan Welch, Worship Pastor, and Jason Douglas, Pastor of Weekend Ministries, for helping me think through and articulate some of these points.
(Photo credit: Brett Seay)