By Lindsay Peyton
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas in the Texas Annual Conference. Churches are finding creative ways to herald in the season – from hosting plays and concerts on campus to offering Christmas Bible Schools to the community. Congregations are finding unique ways to share the good news of Jesus’ birth.
Christmas Bible School at St. John’s UMC
There’s a whole new twist on VBS at St. John’s UMC in Rockdale. Instead of hosting a week-long session in the summer, the church offers three weekends, spaced four months apart – on Palm Sunday, Back to School and Christmas.
Rev. John Seaton explained that the idea was introduced by Rev. Sharon Sabom who served as an intentional interim minister at St. John’s for three months in 2021 during his sabbatical. “The success of the initial event in 2021 led the church to try an experiment with how it did VBS,” he said.
Church member Jennifer Patton organizes the sessions. She said that Christmas Bible School 2021 was the first offering. She began brainstorming for the first event that September.
The result was a fun-filled three days – with Christmas-themed music, crafts, dance, activities, games and meals in the fellowship hall Friday night and Saturday morning. A storyteller, dressed in full costume, enthralled children with the Christmas story in the sanctuary.
Then, on Sunday, teenagers participated in the sermon – performing a skit along with the pastor. “It’s like he’s preaching and then interrupted by these different characters,” Patton said. “To get to see the kids participate, it was really fun to see how animated they can be.”
She explained that while Christmas Bible School is usually reserved for children 5th grade and younger, older youth sign up to volunteer and perform in the skits. This year’s performance was “Shining for Jesus.”
“It’s about a star trying to figure out where it should be,” Patton said. “Eventually, it discovers a spot above the manger.”
The Christmas Bible School was held Dec. 2-4 and offered without charge to children in the community. Patton said participants come from all different churches in the area.
“It’s part of our community involvement effort,” she said. “When people come to our church to see their children performing on Sunday morning, it’s always a good thing.”
The church follows the service with a luncheon for the community and a visit from Santa. Then, photos of the children are sent to their parents, along with an invitation to Christmas Eve service.
Patton said that hosting a Christmas Bible School is easily replicable and affordable. She added that the offering is an ideal way to increase church visibility in the community and increase offerings for youth and families.
In addition, Christmas Bible School provides a fellowship opportunity for church volunteers – and helps children focus on the reason for the season. “There are kids who don’t really know the Christmas story,” Patton said. “This is a great way to witness – and to learn about Jesus being born.”
Celebrating through song at Williams Memorial UMC
Music director Anthony Graham began serving Williams Memorial UMC in Texarkana about a year and a half ago – and realized it was a perfect fit right from the start. “I was really happy to be at a church that goes all out for Advent,” he said. “I really love Christmas music.”
And music takes center stage during all the celebrations at Williams Memorial UMC. It all began on Nov. 27 with the “Hanging of the Greens” ceremony. Carols were provided by Williams Brass, and then special guest violinist Kiril Laskarov, Concertmaster of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, took the stage.
“It’s a really unique service,” Graham said. “You read scripture, as carols are played and folks from the congregation decorate the sanctuary.”
The annual Christmas Cantata is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 11 at the church, 4000 Moores Ln in Texarkana. Music from various composers will make up the program. “We will have some familiar favorites,” Graham said. “It’s a mix of old and new.”
The songs will continue at 5 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 18 for the contemporary service “Worship at Williams,” and then again for Christmas Eve, Saturday, Dec. 24. Services are planned at 4 p.m. with a Living Nativity, and at 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. with Lessons and Carols, a service of Scripture and song that dates to the late 19th century.
“The reason this format has stuck around for so long is because it works,” Graham said. “You can’t hear the message of hope too many times.”
He explained that the Christmas story, with baby Jesus born in a manger, “really is the hope of the world, a light in the darkness. And we are encouraged to share this message with the world.”
One way to do that is through song. “Hearing the message in Christmas carols – year after year – it never gets old,” Graham said.
Taking the stage at St. Luke’s UMC
St. Luke’s UMC in Houston provides a stage for several Christmas performances, Grace Roman
Associate Director of Music and Fine Arts, said. Already, there was the Conspirare Christmas concert on Dec. 2 and Family Christmas Concert on Dec. 3 featuring contemporary worship band “Ash Rising.”
Then, the church’s Tapestry Players presented Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” on Dec. 4 and Dec. 5. “It’s a sweet story about a boy growing up and reflecting on his memories of Christmas,” Roman said.
The performance line-up continues with “Caroling by the Columns” at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 9 on the church’s campus, 3471 Westheimer Road. Guests are invited to bring lawn chairs or a blanket – and some hot chocolate – to enjoy Christmas carols on the steps of the sanctuary. The concert, free and open to the public like all upcoming shows, features staff singers, Chancel Bells and Sonos, a subset of the youth choir.
The event resulted from the pandemic, Roman explained. “It’s born out of when we couldn’t do concerts indoors,” she said. “We started this in 2020, and it’s become so popular that we want to continue this fun tradition.”
At 4 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 11, St. Luke’s hosts “An old-Fashioned Christmas Concert with pianist Rob Landes.” Landes, organist emeritus at the church, will sing holiday favorites with the children’s choir.
“Christmas in the Chapel” is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 15. This year’s theme is “A Festival of Lessons and Carols.” St. Luke’s chamber ensemble, Credo, will present contemplative Advent and Christmas music and Scripture readings in the campus’ chapel.
The most eagerly anticipated performance of the season, she added, is the Christmas Festival at 8:30 a.m., 9:45 a.m. and 11 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 18. A 42-piece orchestra, comprised of top-notch professional musicians from around the city, will join the Chancel Choir, handbells and youth choir Pure Sound.
“People who don’t come to our church any other time of year come to the Christmas festival,” Roman said.
She explained that music enhances experiences and heightens emotions. “There is so much brilliant music written for this season,” she said. “Music also brings nostalgia and a sense of wonder. It adds to the beauty of Christmas.”
Roman said that music unites us all during Advent. “Music is a universal language,” she said. “It’s a way we can all connect with one another.”
A pillar at St. Luke’s is “a city transformed by the love of Jesus.” And, Roman explained, the church’s music ministry is definitely a way to spread Christ’s love.