Whether you are in charge of planning a service for your local church, or you want to put one together for family and friends, you'll want to make the event as special as possible. Paul Long, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church and founder of Long Ranch 4 Boys, shared, "The Christmas candlelight service really has no Biblical mandate. It's, however, a great reminder about the true central focus of Christmas. The candlelight service is to help us celebrate the birth of the savior of the world, the light of the world, thus the candle."
Organizing a Christmas Eve Candlelight Service
Volunteer candlelight service planner Jennifer Conner has been instrumental in organizing Christmas Eve candlelight services for a variety of churches over the years, including her last church Bethel Baptist in Memphis, Indiana. Her husband has been transferred often, so she's had the opportunity to see and help plan candlelight services in eight different states, including Indiana, Texas and Michigan.
"One of the things that is the same from church to church is the desire to mark this very special season in the church," Conner said. "Other than that, the services can be really different from one another and churches should definitely put their own spin on things."
However, don't forget to include some of the traditional aspects of Christmas Eve candlelight services that everyone will recognize from past services.
Date and Time
The date is already chosen for you as you'll be having the service on Christmas Eve, but you may want to decide what time to hold the service. Traditionally, they are held in the evening, but there isn't a written rule on this. Just remember that families will be preparing for Christmas dinners and family events for the next day, so you'll want to choose a time that accommodates other plans the majority might have.
The obvious go-to speaker is a pastor, but there are times when one may not be available. For example, the pastor may need to travel home to another state for the holidays or have an ill family member. If your own church's pastor or a local fill-in can't be located, then some of the other speakers you might want to consider for your service include:
- Deacons and elders
- Seasoned church members
- Children - allow children of reading age to take turns reading verses from Luke 2 (the Christmas story)
- Youth or children's pastor
- Music minister
"If you can't find anyone willing to speak, consider moderating the event yourself and focusing more on the music or a small Christmas skit put on by the children" Ms. Conner shared. "One year, I couldn't find anyone who could speak at the service. I finally chose to be the speaker. I read a couple of scriptures and enlisted the help of others. The focus was on music, the candles and the reading of the scripture. It was short, simple and turned out to be a memorable service."
When it comes to music, you can either have the entire congregation sing along or you can have a special singer or two. Consider using these traditional Christmas hymns appropriate for Christmas Eve services, which should be readily available in most church hymnals:
Go Tell it On the Mountain
O Holy Night
Silent Night, Holy Night
Away in a Manger
You'll want to offer some noteworthy features in the service that mark this as a special occasion. "At one church I was at in Texas, we had a short play that went through the Christmas story and the teens in the church acted it out, complete with Mary, Joseph and a baby from the congregation to play Jesus," Ms. Conner said. "It added a lot of fun to the service and got the teens involved."
Other ideas for adding special items to the service:
- Sign language set to a beautiful Christmas song such as Mary Did You Know?
Poems written and read by church members
Special music by soloists
Children's choir singing
Reading of poems, such as Christmas Bells by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow or The Holy Night by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Scripture to Read
In addition to reading the story of Jesus's birth in Luke 2, here are some other versus that can work well for a candlelight service and other accounts of Jesus's birth:
- Isaiah 7:14 - A short reading about the virgin conceiving the son of God
Luke 1:30-35 - The story of Mary conceiving the Messiah
Matthew 1:18-25 - Verses that summarize Jesus' conception and birth
Isaiah 9:6-7 - A proclamation of Jesus coming to earth in flesh and a list of some of the names he is called
Micah 5:2 - A short verse about the city of Bethlehem and how it will be the place where the Christ-child is born
John 3:16 - A short verse that children memorize in Bible school that speaks of why God sent his son to earth
Zechariah 9:9 - A verse that speaks of rejoicing over the coming of Christ the king
Matthew 2:1-12 - The story of the three wise men visiting Jesus
The candles are obviously a main factor in this Christmas service, so be sure you thoroughly plan for their inclusion.
Type to Buy
There are special congregational, taper candles which can be purchased at any Christian bookstore or online through Christianbook.com or Churchproducts.com. The ones made specifically for a congregation come with a plastic or paper cup to keep the hot wax from dripping on attendees' hands.
Ms. Conner mentioned that she prefers the plastic cups, even though they are a bit more expensive, because the paper ones can sometimes leak and she sees them as a potential fire hazard.
It is best not to leave the unlit candles in the pews as they may get scattered about. Instead, just before the lighting, have ushers pass the candles out by handing the correct number to the first person in the row and passing the unlit candles down the row. Another set of ushers should light the first candle on each row and the person should light the candle next to him and so on down the row until all candles are lit.
Some ushers may still be passing out candles as earlier rows begin to light theirs. This will save time.
End of Service Considerations
You'll also want to have metal buckets for people to place their burnt candles in before leaving the building. One way to conclude the service is to light the candles, dim the lights, close in prayer and ask everyone to exit from the front row to the back rows, carrying the candles. They should then blow out their candle and place it in a bucket or you should have water in the buckets as they put the candles in them. This prevents accidents.
If attendance to your Christmas Eve Candlelight services has been traditionally low, there are some ways to increase engagement. Pastor Long shared what he thinks would work well for churches. "I feel like some churches do a great job of the candlelight services and some not so well. As with anything, the heart is the main issue. If you have a candlelight service and everyone is staring at their watches and in a hurry to get it done then I'm not sure the service is worth doing. "
If your heart is in the right place and so is that of your church members, then Pastor Long recommends trying something new. "I think a church would probably see more results from a church-wide Christmas party with a candlelight service to end the night."
Outlines for Specific Types of Services
If you prefer a traditional church candlelight service, use the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service Outline, which will walk you through the service from start to finish; you can build your program based upon the service outline. Otherwise, use the brief outlines below to help you plan a service that focuses in on a more specific type.
A carol service includes singing Christmas carols, but can also include poetry, hymns, and speeches or sermons. Planning a service based on carol singing is simple, as long as you organize a few things in advance.
- Choose which carols you'd like to sing, and print out enough copies of the lyrics for all the guests who will be in attendance or make sure you have PowerPoint presentations of the lyrics for any viewing screens in the sanctuary.
- Have a pianist or other musicians present or choose orchestral or instrumental versions of the carols and put them all on one tape or CD in the order you'll be singing them.
- Designate people to control the sound system, starting and stopping the music between songs as necessary and putting lyrics up on the screen, if using media.
- If poems or other readings will be taking place, have them ready for the speakers to recite.
If you're planning a Christmas Eve candlelight memorial service, here are a few things to consider:
- Guests can light and hold congregational taper candles, or you can provide votive candles with simple candle holders for each guest to light, and then take home with them in memory of their loved ones.
- Allow each attendee to say a few words about their departed loved one if they wish. Make this optional as some people choose to grieve quietly.
- Include some poetry or Bible verses that apply to both the loss of loved ones and the Christmas season.
- Allow for a moment of silence to let each person quietly reflect.
Religious Services Outside a Church
While many churches regularly hold candlelight Christmas Eve functions, you may want to plan a service outside of the church. Whether you are unable to attend a church gathering or would rather hold a religious service on your own, you can plan a simple candlelight service with these tips:
- If you know a pastor or minister who could lead the service, consider asking him to attend and give the sermon.
- Choose passages from the Bible that reflect on the Christmas season and what it means to your group.
- Select some hymns for everyone to sing together, and provide copies of these hymns for everyone to follow along with.
- If you'd like to include music with your service, ask for volunteers to play piano or another instrument, or gather recordings of inspirational music to play before, during and after the service.
- In addition to individual candles, pick up advent candles to set the scene.
Other Things to Consider
Once you've got the basics of your service planned out, and have created an outline, here are a few other things to keep in mind:
- Provide beverages or snacks after the service, allowing guests to mingle.
- If the service is to be small and personal, send out individual invitations and ask guests to RSVP to know how many candles you'll need.
- If the service is open to all, spread the word through your church or other groups, or consider placing a small ad in the local newspaper.
Celebrate the Season
A Christmas Eve candlelight service is a lovely way to start or end any Christmas celebration. Whether you decide to plan a traditional service or put something a bit more modern together, as long as you focus on the reason for the celebration, it will be a memorable event.