Thanksgiving is a time when people reflect on the things they have to be thankful for, regardless of their circumstances. For churches, it’s a powerful opportunity to direct people’s thankfulness to the one who truly deserves it: God.
But Thanksgiving is often an underrecognized holiday in churches. It might get a mention, a special sermon, or a potluck, but your Thanksgiving service could do so much more. And unfortunately, when churches don’t put intentional thought and planning into celebrating Thanksgiving, it can lead them to do or say the wrong things and not do or say the right ones.
Here are five mistakes churches make when celebrating Thanksgiving.
1. Assuming everyone has had the same experience
When you get along with your family, it’s easy to forget that’s not the case for everyone else. For some, Thanksgiving is a time when they may feel obligated to spend time with people who have deeply hurt them. Or they may feel extra lonely because their table is empty or they have nowhere to go and no one to be with.
The church should be a place where people experience healing. But if you assume everyone experiences the same idealized, Hallmark-style Thanksgiving, you might be adding insult to injury.
2. Not hosting or supporting a community meal
On a similar note: Many people in your community don’t have friends or family to gather with—or a place to gather. This gives your church a huge opportunity to be a place of community and belonging.
Other churches, ministries, or nonprofits in your area may already have plans to host a Thanksgiving meal for the homeless or the general public. That’s a chance for you to build partnerships by offering resources, facilities, or volunteers to help—and you’ll also capitalize on their efforts to promote the event.
If there isn’t already a public Thanksgiving meal in your area, your church can organize one. Invite members of the community to serve alongside your congregation, make new friends, and enjoy a meal.
3. Missing the chance to promote generosity
As Christians, we recognize that everything we have ultimately comes from God (Psalm 24:1, James 1:17), and as his stewards, we’re expected to use what we’ve been given (Matthew 25:14–30).
For the Christian, generosity should be the natural response to thankfulness, especially when that thankfulness is directed to God. Your Thanksgiving service is a great time to talk about the importance of generosity, reiterate what generosity looks like at your church, and even highlight some of the specific ministries or projects your congregation can financially support—especially if those funds directly impact less fortunate people in your community.
4. Focusing on a limiting definition of family
Spending time with your biological family is one of the first things that comes to mind when we think of the holidays. That’s perfectly fine. But as the church, we should also remember that we’re brothers and sisters in Christ, adopted into God’s family (Ephesians 1:5).
If you want your congregation to believe they’re part of your family—and God’s—your church needs to treat them as such. Maybe that means encouraging your staff and congregation to invite church members to their own Thanksgiving celebrations. Or hosting a Thanksgiving dinner on campus. Or simply taking a genuine interest in each person who steps through your doors.
However your church chooses to celebrate, don’t let people leave without feeling like family. Remember: your church might be the only family some people experiences this holiday.
5. Forgetting to thank your congregation
If you want your congregation to practice thankfulness, and you want to challenge them to think of all of the ways they’ve been blessed, why not start by showing them how they’ve blessed you and your community? You’ll affirm that you value what they’ve done for your church, model thankfulness, and help them see the impact of their service and generosity.
This is a chance to highlight your church’s accomplishments, with a focus on how engaged your congregation has been. You might talk about the number of people serving in various ministries or projects, the number of missionaries you’ve sent out from your church, baptisms, giving, etc., all of which can help encourage others to get more involved.
Make the most of this Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving isn’t the highest attended service each year. And the holiday never falls on a weekend. But it still presents your church with some unique opportunities to engage your congregation, show compassion, and connect with your community. Don’t let these opportunities pass your church by, and make the most of your Thanksgiving service.
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