The Best Christmas Ever

From the Dean

A regular article written by Phillip Jensen in his role as Dean of Sydney at St Andrew's Cathedral.

Originally Published:
4th January 2013

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Christmas 2012 turned out to be the best Christmas ever!

Who would have thought that we would have such a large congregation on Christmas night itself!  Nearly all our initiatives worked better than anybody expected.  In terms of congregational members’ involvement, evangelistic outreach, follow up contact cards, and conducting different gatherings, a whole new way of programming Christmas has been created for 2013.

To call it “the best Christmas ever” is a great claim that is of course slightly ridiculous.  However, from the perspective of the Cathedral this was the best Christmas in the ten years I’ve been Dean.  Even that considerably reduced and more qualified statement is still a very big claim.  Last year we had great numbers attending and the broadcasting of our Christmas Eve gathering by the ABC, gave us an unprecedented reach.  So what constitutes a better Christmas or a worse Christmas – or ‘the best ever’?

The most important aspects of Christmas were present this year as they have been each year for the last decade.  We read and heard of our Lord’s birth, sharing the great news of who he is and why he came into his world.  We sang his praises, prayed for his world and its continued needs, gave him thanks and welcomed in people from many nations and from every strata of society.  These basic and important activities are fundamental to Christmas and have not varied.

Other aspects of Christmas worked better in 2012 than previously, and gave us renewed vision for 2013.

1              We reached more people this year.

Over 5,500 people came into the Cathedral for one of our events in the Christmas week.

The students from James Cook University and the Conservatorium who missioned with us in December, contacted and shared the gospel with many more people.

We started new gatherings, especially the Friday and Sunday nights before Christmas and Christmas night itself.  These three gatherings combined saw over 800 people attend, the vast majority were not congregation members but people responding to advertising or invitations in the street.

2              We found new ways to reach people.

We went into the streets “scooping” - as the Beach Missioners would call it – inviting people the hour before meeting times to come and join us.

We used the postal service to blanket mail the postcode with our brochure, reaching into high-rise apartments that are often impossible to contact.

We conducted more gatherings rather than relying simply on the big ones on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

We continued to develop different kinds of gatherings for different demographic groupings.

Two of our Christmas events were live-streamed and the 2011 Christmas Eve gathering was shown on the ABC on Christmas morning.

3              We involved more congregational volunteers.

Building on previous years we had well over 100 volunteers engaged in organised tasks such as ushers, Bible readers, leafletters (a new single word replacing “those who gave out leaflets”), cooking ginger bread, leading in prayer, counting money, moving furniture, etc.

This does not include the choir and brass, who sang and played at many of our gatherings.

Nor does it include the many more members, who shared in the task by inviting friends and neighbours, praying for our gatherings, and greeting people in the pews around them.

It was great to see the different congregations sharing together in the common cause of hosting the city in our building over the Christmas festivities.  The use of diverse gifts in the common cause of the gospel was a wonderful illustration of true Christian fellowship.

4              At last we have found a method for follow up.

All previous attempts to get contact details from those attending have failed.  This year we only gave contact cards to visitors and asked for their help in telling us how they heard of our gatherings.

Almost 350 visitors have given us their contact details.

Nearly 1,000 visitors gave us valuable information about the best way of advertising.

5              Not everything went well.

One of my sermons missed the mark significantly as a congregation arrived that I hadn’t prepared for and couldn’t think quickly enough to extemporize.

One of our gatherings, conscious of the need not to go too long, was too short!

Some of our staff members were overworked as we opened more meetings.

While the numbers attending increased, and costs of running the programme rose, there was not a comparable increase in income.  Outsiders tend to view Cathedral gatherings as a ‘coin donation’ event.  It is the congregations dominated by our regular members that provide the most income.

One horrible idea crossed my mind on the afternoon of Boxing Day.  Walking past the Cathedral I saw the crowds outside – milling as sheep without a shepherd.  The fervoured fanaticism of the early morning bargain hunters was gone.  It was replaced by the lost wandering of “what do we do now”.  I wondered out loud “How can we use our location to reach such crowds?”  The response I got from friends appeared to me to question my sanity!

The next Christmas is always difficult to anticipate.  Comparing one year to another is problematical; attendances are affected by the day of the week Christmas falls upon.  There was not a uniform increase in our numbers.  At some gatherings numbers were down, while others were up.  Sometimes numbers are affected by events like the storm in the city at 10pm on Christmas Eve, which significantly reduced the numbers for the 11pm gathering.  However the pattern that we saw develop this year provides some clear guidance for next year.

 Nevertheless, it still can’t be ‘the best Christmas ever’: that is reserved for the first Christmas when our Lord and Saviour was born.  It was on the first Christmas (the first Nowell) “the angels did sing” to celebrate God becoming a man – to save not angels, but humans (Hebrews 2).