(Photo: Winston-Salem Journal/Andrew Dye)
Christmas pageants have become a thing of the past for many churches in the Winston-Salem, N.C., metro area. Instead of pouring all their resources into one giant production for the congregation, these churches have chosen to look outward and take the Christmas "party" to the community.
Christmas for the City has become an annual tradition in Winston-Salem where churchgoers spend less of their time and energy on plays and more on shining the light of Christ in other people's lives. This year's party drew more than 10,000 people to the Benton Convention Center.
"[W]e were stunned to find a line stretching around the block waiting to get in," Chuck Spong, executive director of Love Out Loud and Christmas for the City, told The Christian Post about Wednesday's event. "In a very real sense, it was dramatic the activity of God that happened all throughout the building."
Churches in the area have slowly begun to adopt the idea of ditching, or at least scaling back, their in-house productions.
Spong came from a large church where its Christmas production had a budget of half a million dollars at one point. When he moved to Winston-Salem, he and the church leadership (of Winston-Salem First) decided to start with a blank page instead of going with the traditional "singing-Christmas-tree-type" production. That's when Christmas for the City was born.
"In 2008, just before the economy crashed, I was having multiple conversations with other music and arts pastors about: 1) being a little worn out regarding large-scale productions from a leadership, volunteer and financial standpoint, and 2) feeling impressed to turn as missional as possible," Spong explained.
"Then, the economy (and along with it, many of our budgets) crashed and it became even a wise thing to take a hard look at the amount of resources being poured into productions. Given those already robust discussions, it has been an easy case to make: to scale back what we do at Christmas and to pour our collective resources we have into outreach."
This year, 40 churches and 14 nonprofits joined the effort. But Spong can't say confidently that all of the participating churches have abandoned their own Christmas pageants, though some including his have.
"[T]he approach is so new, that they need to attend it to even get their minds wrapped around such a radically different paradigm," he explained. "We even still get push back from traditional folks in our congregation about throwing a party! Commonly heard: where's the altar call?!"
But, he added, once they've participated, they often adopt the new model.
Spong made it clear that Christmas for the City is an explicitly Christmas celebration.
"We are very direct in all of our media efforts and discussions leading up to the event: this is a Christ-centered event that celebrates Christmas," he underscored. "We do many things to make it inclusive of the entire city (and the whole city really does show up), but our vision statement is simple and direct: to create a meaningful Christmas experience (notice, not holiday) for the whole community. We tell our volunteers and others often that the bulls-eye is that attendees would encounter Christ and feel community from the moment they walk on the block."
But it is not only the community that benefits from the initiative, which includes children's activities, musical performances, and local artists, among other things. Churchgoers have a lot to gain outside of the church play setting.
Instead of simply inviting their friends and watching the church staff and pastor do all the "heavy lifting" during Christmas services that culminate with an altar call, churchgoers have been able to directly engage with the community and serve in any and every capacity during Christmas for the City.
"[T]he volunteer base truly is the entire Biblically-functioning community … not just the arts department. EVERYONE can play a role. If you've ever read 'Stone Soup,' this is a living, breathing representation of that metaphor," Spong described.
"Every conversation and interaction throughout the building is an opportunity to discover the activity of God and to push into a spiritual conversation. It is more like Jesus having the conversation with the woman at the well than Jesus preaching to the 5,000. With that in mind, I consistently met volunteers coming through the doors commenting on the joy and love they felt, how amazing it was to watch the Church come together, and how it must be what Heaven will look like with all of the various styles, personalities, denominations, etc. coming together in Christ."
In the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shooting, Spong is convinced that reaching the community is a high priority.
Christmas for the City, he said, "brings a cross-section of the ENTIRE community together and connects us in deep and significant ways, spiritually and relationally. One of the striking things is how blurred the lines become between those 'with means' and those 'in need.' I have never seen an event where such a wide spectrum of people mingle together in one place and share an experience."
Christmas for the City is part of a larger, ongoing effort called Love Out Loud, which seeks to unleash "unprecedented levels of compassion across Winston-Salem by mobilizing the body of Christ for the renewal of our communities."