Whatever Happened to Christmas Pageants?

Churches don’t do Christmas pageants like they used to. Many have shifted instead to worship-driven celebrations of the season–and that’s a good thing.

I’m not knocking Christmas pageants! Who can resist the sight of kids in bathrobes and cardboard shepherd crooks gathered around a homemade manger? When a 2nd-grade girl introduces the doll she holds as baby Jesus, her proud parents can’t pull out their phones fast enough to record the moment.


The simple pageants I remember from my childhood didn’t stay simple

But in America bigger is better. The simple pageants I remember from my childhood didn’t stay simple. Through the decades of the sixties and seventies they expanded to include better sets, realistic costumes and well-written dialogue.

Things didn’t stop there. As churches saw the potential for larger crowds, pageants morphed in surprising directions. By the eighties and nineties, there were events like the Living Christmas Tree–a huge structure in the front of the sanctuary which, as its name indicates, was filled with singers.  Or high-profile productions like the Texas church that brought in professional actors from Disney World.  As a younger pastor I got in on the act when my church built a massive reproduction of a Bible opened to the Christmas story in the second chapter of Luke. Characters from the Christmas story stepped out of the Bible to deliver their lines, so we called it “The Living Word.”

Some congregations took Christmas pageants to such extremes that the church ministry itself became an afterthought to the annual pageant. Hundreds of volunteers, dozens of live animals, great music, professionally-written dialogue, acting coaches–no price was too much to pay because of the crowds of people who would hear the gospel presented through the pageant. The eleven months of the year that weren’t Christmas became secondary to the one month that was.

But over the last few years all that has changed. Churches don’t do pageants like they used to. Many congregations that just a few years ago spend money, time and resources in large-scale seasonal productions abandoned them. What happened?


Many congregations just grew tired of pageants

I think many congregations just grew tired of pageants. The strain and expense year after year wore the people down.

Another piece of the puzzle is the growing conviction that try as they might, local churches couldn’t come close to creating the kinds of visual effects that people expect today. Hollywood has spoiled us all, and while homemade costumes may have a certain appeal, they can’t come close to imaginations shaped by CGI.

There were also deeper causes. For one, the decline in American religious convictions following the 9/11 attacks when we saw that we weren’t as secure as we once thought. For another, the financial meltdown of 2008-9, with many people still to recover. The American church landscape we live in today is vastly different than it was a few years ago.

More than anything else, though, I think churches began abandoning pageants because they were no longer effective at reaching people with the gospel. Religious clichés don’t work like they used to. People today are longing for a direct encounter with Jesus more than watching a performance about him.

I saw that truth at the last pageant my church did, in 2010. After the concluding performance, I gave a gospel invitation and seventy-one people filled out response cards. But as we followed up over the next few days, we were disappointed in the results. Not a single person was interested in follow-up. No one wanted to have more conversation. No one wanted any further contact with our church. All this after five nights of performances with thousands of people in attendance.


Authentic faith is a community endeavor as much as a personal one.

I hope some of those decisions were real. But I realized through the experience how a congregation of people actively engaged in praising Jesus can connect the gospel to non-believers in ways that a performance can’t. Authentic faith is a community endeavor as much as a personal one.

Don’t get me wrong–anytime the gospel is presented people can and do come into a saving relationship with Jesus. The question is if pageants were the best way of doing that. Looking back, I’m not sure they were. That’s why many congregations no longer do them.

They’ve moved instead to Christmas celebrations around the theme of worship.


A Christmas Night of Worship

What does that look like? Many churches use the simple title of a “Christmas Night of Worship” and present an evening of classic Christmas music along with other praise music. A gospel presentation is included at some point. Decorations, sets, dialogue and costumes are minimal, if used at all. Instead, the service takes Christmas as its starting point then moves deeper into worship, unlike the old pageants which followed the opposite trajectory. It’s simple, authentic, personal and biblical. It also can move unbelievers toward Jesus because of the expression of worship they’re  middle of.

Many churches still do pageants, and do them well–the gospel is presented and people respond. Still, the mood of our nation has shifted toward engaging with more immediate expressions of spiritual truth. Christmas Nights of Worship connect with people today in ways that pageants never did.