Nostalgia is something that the laity are looking for at this time of year

Since 2007, the launch of the John Lewis Christmas advertising campaign has become something of a secular tradition. For many people it marks the commencement of the Christmas shopping season. Launched through social media and a two minute feature on television, this year’s advert is already set to build on the success of the last few Christmases.

As Catholics we can see this phenomenon as another example of the secular assault on the Feast of the Nativity. However, priests can also learn a few lessons as we prepare and plan to mark Christmas in our churches…

Embrace the sentimental

Already the short ad has been responsible for the shedding of many tears. The John Lewis campaigns have always been unashamedly sentimental and the advertising executives certainly know what works. They are unafraid to exploit the emotions. Bearing this in mind, we should resist the temptation for Christmas to be a time for liturgical and musical innovation.

Nostalgia is something that people are looking for at this time of year. Although many clergy and individuals involved in liturgy scorn the sentimental, this is the season when we should embrace the insipid. Surely this forms part of the evangelistic pull of Christmas which we can easily exploit.

The small village parish, where I serve, made the bold decision last year to move the annual carol service out of the Church building and onto the village green. Villagers were all sent an invitation and asked to bring a lantern to the service. We read the familiar readings and sang traditional carols.

It was a scene reminiscent of a cross between Midsomer Murders and Dickensian Christmas card. The overwhelming attendance was quadruple that of the usual number of people who came. It was sentimental, old fashioned and captured the imagination of a significant proportion of the population. Many of those who attended were non-Catholics and would not have come if we had used the church building.

The ‘Wow Factor’

The John Lewis advertisements and the in-store promotions always marry up in a highly orchestrated campaign. Last year seven million was invested in the run up to Christmas, enhancing the shopping experience. We cannot even dream of working with budgets of that scale but with a little thought we can achieve a lot with the resources that we have.

Decoration of the Church should be tasteful and simple. Kitsch will continue our embrace of the sentimental but having a coordinated scheme of colours will have a higher impact. Just look at the displays going up in every department store at the moment as a guide to what works.

Candlelight is also an inexpensive way to create a mood which can lead us into a deeper sense of reverence. If possible, try to ensure that all carol services and masses on December 24 are by candlelight, bearing in mind the needs of the visually impaired, readers and preachers.

Know your target audience

Using the language of the marketing industry jars with many clergy and laity, but are we clear about who we are targeting at Christmas? We are used to putting on Masses for Catholics and it is tempting to develop a pattern at Christmas which follows this model. Regular Mass attenders, twice (or once) yearly Catholics and their family members will all fill the pews in our parishes. Increasing those who are present will not be Catholic. Do we have enough awareness of their needs?

The danger is that we do what we always have done and assume that people will come just because it is Christmas. Our aim should be that they will come back next week, not just next Christmas. Ask yourself, What Would John Lewis Do? Know your audience. Co-ordinate the bidding prayers and homily and tailor them so that they are appropriate to different congreations, if have more than one mass. Most importantly, plan and don’t just let it happen.

Music

The soundtrack to the latest John Lewis effort is best known as the theme tune to the Royle Family sitcom. It provides an outstanding enhancement of the campaign and reminds us of the importance of music. It is simple and effective. When it comes to music we should know our limits and also think of those who haven’t worshiped for a while. This does not mean that we should be lazy but we should be realistic about what we can achieve. Less may be more in some parishes. People expect an organ and so give your guitarists a well-deserved holiday.

Traditional carols and music are what people will be expecting and so don’t fight it. If you don’t have an organist this is really is the one time of the year to consider hiring one. It will be an important investment.

What time?

Timing of Masses is crucial. Consistence is important and ‘opening times’ form part of our ‘brand identity’. With the reduction of clergy and combining of parishes there will inevitably be changes to the programme. Thought needs to be given to the newcomer and annual visitor.

How are the Christmas Mass times communicated to those outside of the regular congregation. If Midnight Mass that used to start at 11.30pm is now at 6pm, how will the uninitiated find out?

Advertising, noticeboards, websites should all be unambiguous and professional in appearance. Does the parish answer machine carry a notice about times of services? Please don’t leave someone standing in the dark outside the main entrance waiting for a 9pm Mass that has been discontinued.

‘Never Knowingly Undersold’

Customer experience and attention to detail will ensure that people will return to John Lewis again and again. Owning and identifying with the brand is crucial to future success and John Lewis invests greatly in training staff, developing stores and enhancing the environment. We have something unique which cannot be found anywhere else. What experiences do our occasional visitors have? Do they go away having had a positive encounter?

Train your stewards. It is not just about handing out the books and safely gathering in the Christmas Offering. Ask the regular congregation during the weeks before not to monopolise the clergy and stewards time at Christmas so that attention can be given to the newcomer. Make sure people smile. An order of service, tastefully and professionally presented would make a massive difference to the unsure. It would also save the need to juggle hymn and Mass books.

Everything should be ready well in advance in order to build a calm, reflective and purposeful atmosphere. Christmas is not the time of the year to appear amateurish. Trying to imagine how your church would be seen by someone else would really help to think about areas of development in the ministry of welcome.

Communicating the Message

The profound prologue of John’s Gospel is arguably the most beautiful passages of scripture but it is likely to leave the non-Catholic or lapsed completely mystified (maybe that is not a bad thing).

I am not suggesting dumbing down but our message needs to be clear and focused. The Mass during the Night tells the Christmas story best. Should we therefore also use these readings at the 6pm Mass when more children and families are present. This is certainly permissible as it is ‘Mass during the Night’, not ‘Midnight Mass’. Having a clear message is important. This is not the time to be too clever or too long. We should not waste the opportunity that a full church presents.

Don’t be a nag

When I was first ordained I remember concelebrating at a Mass where the main celebrant kept making sideways remarks about ‘Christmas Catholics’ while everyone looked at the floor, including myself. Resist the temptation to nag and instead focus on welcome. Many newcomers will be practicing Catholics who are staying with families locally anyway and so pestering them will be pointless. Non-Catholics and the lapsed may be looking for guidance and so don’t be shy to speak about Communion disciple. Just keep it simple and compassionate, and don’t be tempted to over-elaborate.

The Church of England and Methodist Church have a ‘Back to Church Sunday’. For Catholics, Christmas is the time for coming back.

This year’s John Lewis campaign shows the importance of preparation, planning, communication, creativity, sentimentality and clarity of message. For many clergy Christmas is a trauma to endure until the first G and T is poured on the afternoon of December 25. Let us turn this time into an opportunity for evangelisation.

The story of Jesus’s incarnation is greater than anything that could ever be dreamed up by an advertising executive. Let’s prepare to share His story with the world.