A conversation with Pastor Luke Uran
First Free’s annual Christmas Traditions event runs from 4 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14. We’ll have a petting zoo, pictures with Santa, cookie decorating, an indoor snowball fight, a stage show, carolers, a kids’ story time and more. Each activity is designed to help families create new traditions and memories while weaving the Christmas story into it all.
We spoke with Lead Pastor Luke Uran about the event, its purpose and the opportunities it presents.
Do you remember how Christmas Traditions evolved into what it is now?
About three years before we started doing the event, a bunch of us were talking about what would it look like to do an outreach event well. We came up with this idea of a Christmas-themed event with different activities that could be taking place, kind of an all-hands-on-deck thing. I remember us saying, “Let’s make an event that is easy for families. So they can take part in Christmas traditions that their family already does, but let’s just make it easy for them.”
What traditions might not have been so easy for families then?
We wanted to do a one-stop-shop type of thing. For example, taking pictures with Santa. A lot of families do that, but rather than go to the mall and wait in line for a couple of hours, they can come here and wait in a much shorter line and get a picture with Santa. Or, going home and decorating cookies and then after that reading the Nativity story. What if we were to do all of that under one roof?
Even though we are a church that wants to focus on “go and tell” rather than “come and see,” we did want at least one event that opened our doors to the community, where we had people on our campus.
That has been kind of a departure from the way things have moved in recent years. What was your thinking behind the idea that we still needed one “come and see” event?
We wanted something that would bring people into the building, where we could invite them to our Christmas Eve service and future sermon series and other things. This year, we will be telling our guests about our Christmas Eve service as well as inviting them to our parenting conference that’s coming up in February. We wanted to have that next, purposeful step.
We also really want people to see our campus, to see our kids lobby, stuff like that — to break down some walls or preconceived notions that they may have about being inside a church building.
And maybe at Christmas, a church feels a little more accessible?
I think at this time of year people are more willing. Even for families who don’t go to church, going to church on Christmas Eve is still a tradition. So it’s one of those things where, for people this time of year, it breaks down a lot of barriers that they would otherwise have up.
You said recently, “Let the invitation extend beyond the reach of your hand.” Could you expand on that a little?
What I mean by that is as we talk about “Me to We” as a church, we want to have relationships in our lives with people who do not know Jesus. We don’t want people just to stuff things in mailboxes or put it under windshield wipers in a parking lot. Because I don’t see that as something that’s effective. Sure, it’s got a broad reach. But I don’t think that’s ultimately the way Jesus modeled evangelism.
One of the things that I want our people to understand, and my heart behind it, is to say: This is a great opportunity. Jessi and I have used it as this. To say to someone, “We’ve got pizza. We’ve got Chick-fil-A. We’ve got food trucks. Let me buy your dinner. Just come hang out with our family. Our kids can play together. The parents can talk while the kids are doing activities.”
It’s just that easy on-ramp. So, to have the invitation extend beyond the reach of your hand is really focusing on that idea: Inviting someone to something like is a lot more than just giving them a card. It’s praying up to the event. Maybe afterward it’s then taking them out for coffee the next week and saying, “So what did you think? Is there anything you think the church could improve on? What did your kids like? What did you like? What did you not like?” Continuing the conversation in that way.
So again, it’s just being purposeful with it. It’s not being flippant. Like I said in church a few weeks back, it’s not just going to Woodman’s and throwing a stack of cards in the air and seeing what happens.
What kinds of responses have you heard over the last few years from people who have attended but weren’t part of our church family?
Everyone is always so appreciative of the way First Free has historically, and is still doing, events. That has included things like the low-cost or free concerts at Summerwood, Christmas and Easter events, the Patriotic Celebration, Trunk or Treats … and now Christmas Traditions and the excellence with which we do this. Winning people to Christ is an excellent, praiseworthy thing. We see this as an opportunity to do that.
It’s fun to go on to Facebook and see people’s comments. We’ve heard lots of encouraging things. This is one of those events where the people who are serving together here at the church have an opportunity to truly interact with those who are here. It’s not just throw a piece of candy in their bag and keep the line moving. At Christmas Traditions you can actually have a conversation and love the people of the community who are here visiting. That’s why it’s important to me.
What message do you have for our church leading into this? What should we be praying about and considering?
First, with us being a multigenerational church, this is an amazing event for you to serve with your kids and your family. And that’s something families do take advantage of in a big way. It’s incredible to see. So that’s the first thing: Serve with your whole family.
The second thing is, remember who we are serving. When we come here, we are serving Jesus, who says, “Whatever you have done for the least of these brothers and sisters you have done unto me.” We don’t know what people are walking through our doors with. We don’t know how big of a blessing this is to them to be able to bring their families to this.
Third, this is one of those opportunities we have. It’s the Parable of the Sower. We are sowing seeds. We are praying leading up to the event. We’re praying during the event and we’re praying after the event, that God would allow those seeds to fall on good soil. And that those seeds would take root and grow for his glory, not ours.
So ultimately those are the three primary things I would say to people who are considering serving or are on the fence about it. It’s so fun to see the community come, to be under our roof in this way, to celebrate the Christmas season. And it’s so great to come together as a community, as a church, continuing to go, tell and show the love of God here in Rockford.
Jim Killam is a journalist, author, teacher and terminal Cubs fan. He and his wife, Lauren, live in Rockford and work internationally with Wycliffe Bible Translators.