At holidays, churches ready for 'CEOs'

At holidays, churches ready for 'CEOs'

Churches are mixed on how to best minister to ‘CEOs’ – unusually large crowds on Easter and Christmas, including those who only attend twice a year.

By Ken Camp

Christmas provides churches with a rare opportunity to touch the lives of those on the fringes of congregational life, the Christmas-and-Easter-only worshippers.

Some roll out the red carpet for what ministers jokingly refer to as the “CEOs.” Others wonder if they treat CEOs like VIPs, why are they AWOL the rest of the year?

Church leaders try a variety of methods to stay in contact with the holiday-only visitors -- social media, direct mail, deacon family ministry programs -- with varying degrees of success.

Michael Ryer, minister of education and music at First Baptist Church in Commerce, Texas, says the holy day visitors are “not really all that different” from people who visit only occasionally throughout the year.

“In fact, the holiday visitor may have more loyalty to the church -- albeit seldom-seen loyalty,” he said. At least they can be counted on to attend once in December and once in the spring.

Mark Wingfield, associate pastor at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, observes several categories of seasonal visitors.

One group routinely attends special musical events, but the rest of the year they may be involved in another congregation. Those events also typically attract family members who may not normally attend worship.

“Christmas Eve is a different story,” Wingfield said. “I can’t tell you where all the people come from on Christmas Eve. There are the regulars, the family members of the regulars, the irregulars who show up only at high holy days, and then there are people I’ve never seen before."

Wingfield said most of the CEOs were at one time active members, and probably still consider themselves that way. “They raised children here, maybe even taught Sunday school, then have moved into a different phase of life,” he said. “They’re not strangers to the church. They just don’t seem to need the church very often.”

Doyle Sager, pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Mo., suggested that such people might feel a spiritual need more acutely around Christmas and Easter.

“The holy seasons tend to surface spiritual longings in people -- longings that lie dormant other times of the year,” Sager said. “So, instead of complaining or browbeating about the infrequent attendance, we attempt to seize the moment and touch that point of need and maximize this opening for the gospel.”

While not viewing the unusually large Christmas and Easter crowds as an annoyance, Sager said the Jefferson City congregation also doesn’t go out of the way to impress the CEOs, “as if we are doing try-outs for ‘American Idol.’ We see it simply as ministry and witness.”

At River Road Church, Baptist, in Richmond, Va., attendance on Christmas Eve and Easter Sunday “at least doubles -- maybe more,” said Pastor Mike Clingenpeel. “We do multiple services on both occasions to accommodate worshippers.”

While his church seeks to make a good impression on seasonal visitors, Clingenpeel said, “I can’t say we work harder at this on Christmas Eve or Easter Sunday than we do any other Sunday morning.”

Wilshire Baptist in Dallas seeks to make holy day visitors feel at home by ensuring that each one receives a personal greeting from a minister either as they enter or as they leave, but that’s not particularly out of the ordinary, Wingfield noted.

“We just do what we do, which includes trying to be guest-friendly all the time,” he said. “These are high-touch events, and it’s important to meet family members who are visiting, as well as others who are here checking out the church.”

The Sunday before Christmas typically attracts the largest attendance at First Baptist Church in Oklahoma City. Visitors typically fall into two categories -- newcomers to the city and extended family of church members, said Kristen Rogers, minister to children and families and administrative associate at First Baptist.

Newcomers view the holiday as “an excuse to visit without obligation,” she noted. Most family of church members live away from Oklahoma City, and the church does not look on them as prospects.

“We welcome them with little expectation of further contact,” Rogers said. “We try to create an open-handed spirit. Mainly, we think for them it is an opportunity to see that we are more than the church of their childhood. We have grown up.”

Research shows some worshippers gather for holy day worship out of a desire for familiar touchstones, while others attend out of duty to parents or grandparents, said Rodger Nishioka, associate professor of Christian education at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga.

“I hear from many that say they return to sing the carols and light candles, and it is not Christmas unless that happens. Others tell me they go as an obligation to family, and it is deadly boring and irrelevant to their lives,” he said. “Most say the sermon or homily rarely relates to them, as in understanding what this archaic celebration could possibly have to do with their contemporary lives.”

Part of the problem, he noted, is a tendency of church leaders to employ “tribal language” that only insiders understand -- terms like “Advent,” “Incarnation” and “Magi” for example. They make unwarranted assumptions about worshippers’ familiarity with the Christmas story.

“While many persons bring some knowledge of the basic story, the biblical story is conflated with secular versions such as the assumption that the shepherds and wise men arrive at the same time, and that there is mention of a little drummer boy,” he noted.

Holy-day-only visitors’ lack of familiarity with worship practices also can present a practical challenge, Clingenpeel noted.

“Guests with young children, for example, rarely want to leave their children in our preschool care during the service, and the children are not accustomed to worship,” he observed. “Holiday services tend to be more noisy than regular worship for this reason.”