In Defense of the Holly-Lily Crowd

For the first time in more than a decade, I am not attending Sunday worship regularly. For the first time in my lifetime, I do not have a home congregation with whom I can mark the liturgical year. A recent change in my job and geography includes a work schedule that does not center around weekly worship responsibilities.

I have become -- oddly, startlingly -- a member of the "Holly-Lily crowd," those who are known for filling the church pews on Christmas and Easter but are scarcely to be seen in a sanctuary between the Christian high holy days.

Not surprisingly, my children's Sunday soccer games have quickly filled the scheduling void. I am missing every Sunday in Advent this December to sit on the sidelines and cheer, and it's a pretty good bet that any observance of Lent in the spring will likewise defer to soccer. This family's life has taken a distinct turn toward Holly-Lily.

It's a fascinating position for me: as a minister with a deep love for congregational life, I know every reason for investing my family's time and relationships in a faith community ... and as a soccer mom, I have obligations in support of my children that conflict with weekly worship.

In church circles, when pastors and staff and church members plan for the Holly-Lily influx (printing extra bulletins, for example, or preparing the overflow room off of the sanctuary), the feeling is usually less than affectionate. To congregants who support the church Sunday after Sunday, Holly-Lily folks can be easily stereotyped as slackers who want a good church without the hassle of participation. To pastors who are exhausted from extra holiday sermons and services, not to mention the stress of preaching for folks who hear only two sermons a year, it can be tempting to see the Holly-Lily crowd's financial gifts as the only blessing of their attendance.

But with soccer occupying my Sundays and Christmas right around the corner, I have a new and personal appreciation for the challenges of being one among many in the Holly-Lily crowd asking, "Where will we worship on Christmas Eve?" For those pastors and churchgoers who are fortunate to have established worship plans for Christmas, here are three reminders for welcoming the Holly-Lily crowd with grace:

1. Attending worship in a church that isn't (or is an infrequent) "home" is stressful. People long for connection and familiar space. This longing is keenly felt during the holidays, and it's often intrinsic to that Holly-Lily appearance in church. To compound the longing: there's a vulnerability when stepping into an unfamiliar space in which one is hoping to feel a spiritual connection. True, there will be folks who attend your Christmas Eve services just to "punch the clock" with God, but many will be looking for genuine relationship -- with God, with people of faith -- and they'll be feeling spiritually exposed in doing so.

What can the Church do? Welcome them. Welcome us. Sincerely and warmly. (Let's be honest: this should be a no-brainer, but for too many churches, it is not.)

2. Remember what you don't know. As I infer above, it's easy to invent stories about why certain folks only come to church for the Christmas and Easter holidays. Yet, if you haven't seen someone since the last major holiday, it's likely that you don't know the whole story! Life has been happening since the last Holly or Lily occasion: Families like mine are chauffeuring kids here-and-there on weekends, striving to shape their children's futures. Some folks are holding down a second job on weekends or pulling the third shift. And yes, some folks are catching their breath on Sunday mornings, perhaps with a few extra zzzz's or a slow cup of coffee.

What can the Church do? Ask. Don't pretend familiarity; engage with curiosity: "How have you been? Let's set a date to catch up over coffee." Or the more humbling and truthful, "I apologize, I should know your name. I'm so-and-so." It may not be popular, but distribute nametags in worship on Christmas Eve to encourage mingling.

3. Lapsed church participation does not equal lapsed faith. It might, but it doesn't always. (Remember tip #2: ask!) When I was serving as a local church pastor, life was all about church; it was easy for me to lose sight of the ways that faith struggles and grows outside of the liturgical cycle. But the assumption that a single Christmas or Easter service must satisfy a whole year of lapsed Holly-Lily spirituality hints of an ecclesial jealousy that spiritual growth should not happen beyond church walls. In fact, the Holly-Lily crowd may be shedding light on a logistical challenge: that our churches are best organized to support faith on Sunday mornings and the occasional Wednesday.

What can the Church do? Start with an internal audit: if a Holly-Lily individual wants to connect with your congregation after Christmas Eve -- for spiritual nurture as well as community (see tip #1) -- but is unable to do so on Sundays, what other opportunities are available? Once those opportunities are identified and supported in the congregation, share the good news with your Holly-Lily folks!

The holidays are an important time for remembering God's presence among and within us. Do not let this Christmas Eve slip by without welcoming God-With-Us in the infrequent but significant presence of the Holly-Lily crowd.