A Christmas Eve Candlelight Experience
This is a complete plan for an unforgettable student-led Christmas Eve Worship experience that will have a profound impact on your whole congregation.
With this simple and inventive plan, your students can plan and pull off a powerful and profound experience tied to your church’s Christmas Eve service. With a little prep, and the right students in the right roles, this “darkness to light” service could turn into an annual tradition.
This youth-led experience is designed to “fit” prior to a traditional candle-lighting ceremony in your church’s Christmas Eve worship service. You’ll need to turn off all the lights in your worship space. Then, with music as the background, voices around the worship space will read aloud scripture passages about light. As they do, lights will appear all over the room, reminding us that no matter what darkness we’re living in, God’s light can never be extinguished.
There is no need to alter your church’s typical Christmastime sanctuary decorations, but it would be helpful to add additional candles for this experience. If you have lighted decorations (a Christmas tree, garland, a Christmas star, and so on), those will play a role in this service. And if your church displays an Advent Wreath, those candles can be used as part of the experience.
• Lighting Cues
—There are four cues for Christmas lights to be turned back on once the room has been darkened. Determine ahead of time which four Christmas lights those will be (for example, the Christmas tree, the garland, the Christmas star, or whatever lighted Christmas decorations your church uses).
You’ll need two or three stagehands to help run everything during this experience. On cue, they’ll turn off all the lights in the room, including the lights on the Christmas decorations, and extinguish all the candles but six (the four candles of the Advent Wreath plus the central Christ Candle plus one other candle). The room needs to be as dark as possible, although ambient light from exit signs, exterior lights, or other indirect light in the room is okay. Then, on cue, the stagehands will re-light specific lights (for example, the Christmas tree) to demonstrate God’s light in the darkness.
—You’ll need at least one (and, more preferably, several) good readers who can dramatically convey the script for this experience. Each one will need a flashlight or dim reading light, and each one should be positioned around your sanctuary in inconspicuous places. Each reader should use a microphone.
• Music and/or Musicians
—You’ll need student musicians to play the instrumental version (no singing) of “O Holy Night” throughout the experience. If you don’t have student musicians who can pull this off, consider using the song “Cantique de Noel” by Mannheim Steamroller, from the album A Fresh Aire Christmas. The song starts quietly with piano and builds—it works well as the background to the experience. For the closing, recruit a student singer/musician who can lead the congregation in singing “Silent Night” during the candle-lighting ceremony.
—Give a small candle to each person in the congregation as they come in to your sanctuary. These standard Christmas Eve candles are available from church supply stores, and often come with wax guards made of paper or plastic. Make sure all of your students who are leading this experience also have candles.
Before the worship service begins, light all the candles and turn on all the lights in your sanctuary, including any Christmas decorations you have. This experience works well after the Christmas sermon but prior to the congregational candle-lighting ceremony.
You’ll need to rehearse the rhythm and mechanics of this experience with all your student leaders, preferably at night. The stagehands may need small flashlights. All those assisting should move about as quietly and inconspicuously as possible.
This experience works especially well if the pastor’s message is focused on Jesus as the light of the world. Then have Student Leader #1 speak this introduction to the experience from memory:
On this Christmas Eve, among these lights and the lights we’ll light soon, I want you to know that whatever darkness is shadowing you tonight, God’s light will always shine. But during seasons of our life, it can be hard to see the hope and promise of Jesus’ presence in our life, can’t it? The darkness can be overwhelming—it threatens to extinguish the light.
Leader #1 then blows out one candle—but not one of the Advent Wreath candles. This is the cue for the stagehands to quietly move to the lights and candles and methodically begin extinguishing all of them in the room, as Leader #2 continues speaking. If your worship space has a projection screen, have the operator advance it to a black slide. All lights for the musicians or anyone else—especially up front—should be turned off. Once all the lights are turned off, the stagehands should stand by (in the darkness) to prepare to turn on the appropriate lights, on cue.
(Speaks while the stagehands are extinguishing the lights—it will get darker and darker in the room. Leader #2should be prepared to add other examples from the life of your congregation, if you so choose.) Sometimes family issues and conflict can make it darker.
(Pause) Sometimes challenges with our finances or employment make it darker.
(Pause) When we lose loved ones through death, it sure seems darker—especially if this is the first Christmas you’re experiencing without that loved one. (Pause) Illness and health issues can make it darker.
(Pause) Facing the concerns of aging can make it darker. (Pause) Wars and national crises certainly make the light seem dim and the dark seem deep.
(Pause) Sometimes the darkness comes from our sins and poor choices. When we reap what we sow, we can feel so far from God, and believe that he doesn’t care about us anymore. It feels so dark.
(Pause) Finally, fear of the unknown, or difficulty figuring out our path forward, can make things seem darker.
When Leader #2 finishes this part of the experience, only the Advent wreath with the Christ Candle and one other candle up front should remain lit.
Sometimes we feel forgotten, left out, unnoticed—like nobody cares. We feel abandoned and betrayed, and people we’ve loved and cared about do things that hurt us. And it feels even darker.
Leader #2 blows out the last non-Advent Wreath candle. Now only the Advent Wreath is lit. Leader #2 moves to stand behind the Advent Wreath, so it lights his/her face a bit.
Leader #2: Sometimes in the darkness, God seems far away, or not even there. Our doubts and hurts and losses feel so deep and so strong that it’s hard to see the hope we have in the beauty of Jesus. (Leader #2 extinguishes one candle on the Advent Wreath), Jesus’ love (second candle out), Jesus’ joy (third candle out), or Jesus’ peace (last candle out—only the Christ candle is lit now).
Leader #2: And sometimes… sometimes things seem so bad that it feels like Jesus isn’t there—and there’s no hope at all. (Leader #2 extinguishes the Christ Candle—the room is now in complete darkness.)
(From the darkness) But the greatest tragedy isn’t the darkness. The greatest tragedy would be if the darkness was permanent.
Allow for a few moments of silence in the darkness. Then have your musicians begin playing, quietly: “Cantique de Noel (O Holy Night)”—or play a pre-recorded version. Let the song play quietly for a few moments, then the Leader #3 begins.
Leader #3: (Read this calmly and deliberately—don’t rush it. Give the words and music the time they need.) “For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son…” And the angels said to the shepherds: “Unto you is born this day in the city of David… a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” (John 3:16 and Luke 2:11)
Wherever Leader #3 is positioned in the room, he/she lights a Christmas Eve candle and holds it up high as he/she continues…
“In him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (1 John 1:4). Throughout history, Jesus has been sending light into a dark world. In the first words of the Bible, we see God’s creative activity to spark the universe into existence: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep (Pause) while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. (Pause) Then God said… let there be light. (A stagehand lights Christmas Decoration #1—the Christmas tree, for example) And there was light. And God saw that the light was good” (Genesis 1:1-4a).
Leader #3 should pause as the music continues, then begin again…
God’s made sure his light would continue to go with his people, sometimes shining brightly for all to see—like a pillar of flame to lead them through the wilderness—and sometimes shaded by selfishness and sin. And then the prophet Isaiah spoke to God’s people, exiled in the land of Babylon, far from home, seemingly far from God’s light: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light… (A stagehand lights Christmas Decoration #2) Those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined” (Isaiah 9:1-2).
Leader #3 should pause as the music continues, then begin again…
The Gospel of John tells us that God’s light shined a new way through the baby born in Bethlehem: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being… The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:1-5). (A stagehand lights Christmas Decoration #3—Leader #1 then lights the Christ Candle up front.)
Leader #1: When Jesus grew up, he taught his disciples that God’s light shines through all of us, too. In his Sermon on the Mount, he said: “You are the light of the world… (A stagehand lights Christmas Decoration #4) …a city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand… (Leader #1 raises the Christmas Eve candle in the air) …and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light so shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father” (Matthew 5:14-16).
Leader #1 should pause as the music continues, then begin again…
There is light. There is light. There is Jesus. There is light.
The music plays a moment or two, then fades slowly as Leader #1 steps forward and speaks these last few words. While holding the Christmas Eve candle.
There is light! Friends, the darkness cannot defeat the light. Even the smallest light chases the darkness away. Whatever your darkness is tonight, I have good news: Jesus is born, and Jesus lives—his light can’t be extinguished. There is hope. There is light. There is Jesus. And even when you close your eyes for the last time… there is still light. Our candles tonight celebrate the light of the world—a light that can’t be extinguished.
Leader #1 now invites people to each hold their candle as the musicians begin to play softly in the background (or you play pre-recorded instrumental music). Have ushers come forward and light their candles from the Leader #1’s candle. The ushers, in turn, will light the candle on the end of each row. That person will pass the light to the next person in the row, and so on down the rows until all the candles are lit.
As candles are lit, the stagehands should re-light all the remaining candles that have been extinguished up front. It would be better, however, if the house lights remained off until the end of the worship service.
Once all the candles are lit, sing “Silent Night” together (if you have a screen, advance the slide off of “black” to show the lyrics.) At the end of the singing, have Leader #1 lead the congregation in prayer as the people look at their candle flames of their candles and the music plays softly underneath. At the end of the prayer, Leader #1 should invite everyone to blow out their candles, then thank them for coming and wish them Merry Christmas.
Stagehands can turn all the other lights back on now.