“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
United Methodists whose church names evoke Christmas memories might dispute that familiar line from Shakespeare. From the biblically inspired “Bethlehem” to the folkloric “Santa Claus,” some United Methodist congregations use their Christmassy names for extra outreach during the holidays.
Bethlehem United Methodist Church in Hutchinson, Minn., for example.
“To bring Bethlehem alive at our Christmas Eve service,” said the Rev. Paul Baker, “we ask a family who has a new baby to play the part of the holy family during our service. The family comes forward as we sing ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ and remains up front while we read the Christmas Story from Luke 2.
“It is always moving to see a young family with a newborn playing that part.”
Bethlehem United Methodist Church, Franklin, Tenn., does several Christmas activities focusing around its name, according to the Rev. Ryan Bennett.
On Saturday nights throughout the year, the congregation hosts Room in the Inn, an interfaith hospitality ministry with the homeless.
“For the Saturday that falls closest to Christmas,” Bennett said, “we do a big Christmas dinner for the men, hand out gifts to each man, and have a special communion and candlelight Christmas service complete with accompaniment from our Bethlehem Bluegrass band just for the men we are hosting.At Bethlehem on Christmas, there should be room in the inn!”
The children also get involved through Graceworks Ministries, a Christian-based, nonprofit program that assists families in crisis.
“They do a program called The Manger,” Bennett explained, “where they take donations of new toys, and clothes and allow parents to come and shop for their children for Christmas.” The items are low-priced and affordable (such as a bicycle for $2) to give parents pride in purchasing their own gifts.In December, the children of the church “visit the Sunday school classes, pick up donated items and carry them to our manger in the sanctuary. From there, the presents go to The Manger. Members also bring gifts to place under an ‘angel tree’ in the church’s gathering space.”
On Christmas Eve, the 1,100-member church offers four worship services. “Three are candlelight services in different styles (traditional, contemporary and bluegrass),” Bennett said, “but before those, we have a children’s service. Each child gets to dress up and play a character in the Nativity as (someone reads the story of Jesus’ birth).It is a moving service.”
In the town of Thornton, Pa.,Bethlehem United Methodist Church spreads the word to “Watch the sky! Follow the light to Bethlehem for a unique Christmas celebration for the whole family.”This is the third year the congregation is hosting a three-day “Christmas at Bethlehem” celebration. A trio of searchlights marks the location of the festivities and sends a bright signal to the surrounding area of Thornton, about 40 miles west of Philadelphia.
Visitors to the church grounds find a live Nativity with animals, a bonfire, warm cider and music playing through the air. Participants are invited inside for fresh-baked treats, children’s story time and caroling. The beautifully decorated sanctuary hosts live music continuously throughout the evening, including piano, brass and harp.
And while Santa Claus isn’t in the original Christmas story, the congregation of Santa Claus United Methodist Church on Holiday Boulevard in Indiana goes out of the way to keep Christ in Christmas.
“In Santa Claus,” said Julie Schnell, administrative assistant, “Christmas has become a year-round event. During December, our town has a festival of lights, a Christmas parade, craft fairs and the Santa Claus Land of Lights. In the midst of all things Santa, we … do what we can to show the true meaning of Christmas.
“While we always strive to bring Christ to our community, we make some special efforts during December in conjunction with community events.” On the day of the community Christmas parade, the church sponsors “Breakfast with Santa” at the United Methodist campground, All proceeds go to a local agency which helps people in need.
“For several years,” Schnell added, “we have been a welcome presence at the Christmas parade by offering free hot chocolate and coffee to the crowd. It serves as another opportunity to offer a smile, warm drink and the love of Christ at a seemingly secular event.
“Our location provides us with unique opportunities to think outside the box as to new ways we can share God’s love with others.”
Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications.