Last Wednesday we celebrated the first day of summer (Yay!) and today I want to talk to you about Christmas (What?!)
I know that "the most wonderful time of the year" is still light years away from us, but that's exactly why RIGHT NOW is the perfect time to start making Christmas preparations.
Each Christmas gives your church a chance to swing your doors wide open and throw a party for the newborn King—a party where everyone is welcome. Each Christmas gives your church a chance to break through to your community with a creative and imaginative message conveying something truly remarkable and unexpected.
In spite of the frantic shopping, party hopping and present wrapping, people are primed by the holiday to seek meaning and significance. Your church can give them what they’re looking for! Christmas provides a wealth of opportunities to speak the truth about Jesus naturally…all it takes is a little creativity... and some preparation (that's why we are talking Christmas now.)
With this blog post, I am starting a 3-part series in which I will be sharing with you about The Christmas Experience—a beloved community event that my team puts together every year. The Christmas Experience is a combination of three separate activities: The Manger Project, Gingerbread Creations and Christmas Cookie Contest—all happening at the same time, allowing all members of the family to engage in something they can really enjoy. In essence, The Christmas Experience is a time when families can catch their breath, make fond memories and reclaim the warmth and charm of Christmas.
We put up this event every year for the following reasons:
It's children-centered and as such provides plenty of room for freedom, joy, spontaneity and creativity. Kids love this event because they're allowed to be themselves!
It makes our church accessible to the community. This event makes it easy for unchurched families to step their foot into the church, have fun and build relationships with other families.
It's family-centered and self-guided which means that the entire family can show up and leave at any time they want and have a great time.
It's engaging and interactive, meaning that there are no observers at this event. Everyone is a participant.
It doesn't require much preparation. (Right now, just trust me on this one.)
It doesn't require many volunteers; 8-15 people is all you'll need.
It's easy on a budget. Every year we spend $250-300.
I am excited to walk you through each piece of this unique event and share all our communication pieces and promo materials which you can easily customize. (Look for the download link at the end.) I hope that these ideas and resources will give you everything you need to offer the families in your community a beautiful gift—a chance to slow down amidst the holiday hustle and bustle, and enjoy moments of peace, joy and togetherness.
THE MANGER PROJECT
The Manger Project is a one-of-a-kind Christmas tradition that helps families focus on the true meaning of Christmas while building a wooden manger. This hands-on experience gives parents a chance to teach their kids hard work, perseverance and most importantly, why the manger (God coming to earth as a baby) is so important to their faith. For families who are new to Christian faith or are only beginning to explore it, this simple wooden structure will evoke curiosity and will spark some interesting discussions.
The Manger Project is the costliest of the three activities, that’s why we charge a $15 registration fee which covers all of the materials (wood, nails and straw), assembly instructions and a colorful 96-page “Journey to the Manger.” (This book contains an Advent poster, Bible character stickers, daily faith activities, readings, kids’ puzzles, and more. It’s a fun way for families to go on a journey to the manger and together see the birth of Christ with fresh eyes.)
We understand that the $15 registration fee can be too much for some families, especially during the Christmas season. That’s why we make sure that single parents get their kits for free and everyone knows that we don’t want money to stop them from coming to the event.
On the first Sunday of November, we set up The Manger Project booth where we display the assembled mangers and accept registrations. Families can choose between a large (life-size, 18.5” tall manger) and a small one (9” tall). Some families choose two—younger kids work on the smaller one and older kids on the bigger one.
This booth stays open all four Sundays leading up to the event. This is where families can also see the “Journey to the Manger” Advent kit and get postcards or posters to distribute in their community.
After families register, we send them an email with all the information about the event. (Example is included in the promo pack.) We send one email 1-3 days after they registered and another, a reminder, two days before the actual event. People’s calendars fill up very fast in December, so they always appreciate an extra reminder. It also gives them a chance to let us know if their plans have changed and they’re no longer able to attend. We don’t offer refunds, but they always have an option to pick up their kit at the church office and assemble the manger at home.
The beauty of The Manger Project is that it can be done anytime and anywhere. Each year we have families who cannot make it to church when we host the event, but they still purchase a kit and assemble the manger at home as a part of their Advent celebration.
Here’s the big picture that you’d want your families to catch from the start: The Manger Project is an annual tradition.
Parents and children work on the manger together which provides them with a fun, shared experience and fond memories.
Families set the manger they built either in front of their Christmas tree or in front of their house as a visual reminder of what Christmas is all about—God coming to earth as a lowly baby.
After Christmas, families turn the manger into a gift basket by filling it with baby products and taking it to a local women’s shelter, crisis pregnancy center or refugee settlement.
Next year you do it all over again!
The manger assembly takes between 35 and 60 minutes, and as you can imagine it is a noisy operation. That’s why we make sure to designate a special area we call Joseph’s Workshop far enough from the rest of the activities.
When families arrive to church, we have their kits waiting for them in sturdy paper bags. Their names are written on the outside of the bags, which makes it easy for families to pick up the kit or kits that they signed up for.
We purchased our paper bags from www.bagsandbowsonline.com
Large manger kits were placed in this bag
Small manger kits were placed in this bag
We also fill each of the bags with straw (to make the mangers look real). One of the farmers in our church gives it to us for free. You can also re-purpose some of the hay bales from Thanksgiving decorations.
We always make sure to have five extra bags for each size manger. This allows us to be ready for ten unexpected families who decide they want to build a manger. These extra bags don’t have any names on them. Once they are gone, we know we cannot hand out any more.
Even though we tell everyone that they need to bring their own hammer, we always have at least one family that forgets to. That’s why we always make several hammers available for those who left theirs behind.
If you would like to see what the actual manger kit looks like, you can purchase it by clicking HERE. This way, you’ll have an example to give to a handyman in your church. It won’t be hard for him to cut wood and create manger kits for event participants.
BITS & PIECES
Here are a few closing thoughts to help you see the big picture for The Christmas Experience and how each of the three components fits into it.
1. We host The Christmas Experience the first Friday in December. There are two reasons for this:
We want to catch families before they get swallowed up by the shopping, rushing and traveling that the Christmas season brings.
We want to give them a great starting point for the Advent season and also, give them tools to help remain centered on Jesus during Christmas season.
2. The Christmas Experience is a self-guided event, which means that families can come and go any time they please between 6 PM and 8 PM.
3. The fact that The Christmas Experience is made up of three separate activities makes it very hard to promote it in a clear and effective manner. Each one of the activities involves a number of different things, and if we tried to list them all in a single Facebook post or event poster, people would most likely get confused. That’s why we promote each of the three components (The Manger Build, Gingerbread Creations and Christmas Cookie Contest) separately. Once someone registers for one of these events, we send them an email explaining that The Manger Build, for example, is a part of a larger Christmas Experience that involves two other activities—Gingerbread Creations and Christmas Cookie Contest. In that email we include separate web-links which will lead them through the registration process for the other two events.
4. Since The Christmas Experience opens the doors of our church to the entire community, it’s important to have volunteers who greet people and provide them with all the necessary information. We have been blessed with a group of single older ladies who love to help by warmly welcoming everyone who walks through our doors and illuminating our church building with their radiant smiles. They also help us with the set up and tear down part of the event. They’re the real heroes of The Christmas Experience!
5. Festive atmosphere is a must! For us it begins at the parking lot. 30 minutes before the event starts, I set up a speaker that fills our parking lot with happy Christmas tunes. Such a little gesture, yet it sets the mood for the evening and makes a 40-second walk from the car to the church entrance much more enjoyable. If you are curious to know, my playlist consists only of these two songs:
6. Start the promo campaign five weeks before the event giving the families in your church and community plenty of time to absorb the information, to catch the vision, and finally, mark their calendars.
7. If your church decides to go with The Christmas Experience, you might want to ask your senior pastor to give you 5-7 minutes of stage time to cast the vision for this event before your congregation and invite the families to attend it. Also, explain to them the outreach aspect of the event and encourage them to invite their classmates, co-workers, neighbors and so on.
8. Don’t forget to download a promo pack provided for each of the events. Just put in your specific details, push “print” or “publish” and let the world know that they can escape the holiday mayhem and find warmth and togetherness in the walls of your church. Take full advantage of all the avenues available to you: Facebook, public places (library, grocery stores, gyms, etc.) and let them broadcast your invitation. Encourage the children in your church to give out postcard invitations to their friends, and encourage the parents to spread the news on their social media channels.
9. Download The Manger Project PROMO PACK here.
In parts 2 and 3 I will share with you about how to organize the other two components—Gingerbread Creations and Christmas Cookie Contest. Until then, let's be dreaming of a Christmas event that will let the families in your community experience the joy of Christmas, the mystery of love and the richness of Christian community.
If you like this article so much that you want to send my wife and me on a coffee date, that would be lovely. (Coffee Date Launchpad is HERE.) Thank you very much!