All posts in “christmas”

Christmas Eve Service 2019

Join us for one of our Christmas weekend services at our main campus. Enjoy music with a full choir and orchestra, a time of singing carols, and an inspiring Christmas message from Pastor Josh Pardee.

Childcare available for kids age 5 and under.

Christmas Traditions 2019

Christmas Traditions 2019

FREE all ages

First Free Rockford hosts their fourth annual Christmas Traditions event from 4 to 8 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 14. Each activity is designed to help families create new holiday traditions and memories while weaving the Christmas story into it all. See below for details, and visit the website at

  • FREE photos with Santa by Bobbi Rose Photography
  • LIVE t-shirt printing by Rockford Art Deli
  • LIVE kids stage show
  • Petting zoo with camels, donkeys and sheep
  • Horse-drawn wagon rides to s’mores at campfire
  • Indoor snowball fight
  • Plus more fun family activities!
FOOD available for purchase
Christmas Traditions 2019

Christmas Traditions: Pray, serve, give

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.


Headshot of Lead Pastor Luke UranDo 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.


Angel Tree opportunity is here

Starting Sunday, Dec. 1, First Free Rockford is again participating in Angel Tree, a program sponsored by Prison Fellowship. The program delivers gifts, a gospel message and personal message of love to kids on behalf of their incarcerated parent.

This year, more than 7,000 churches and groups have committed to serve more than 300,000 kids across the country. First Free is one of five churches in Rockford, and one of eight in Winnebago County, taking part, said Angel Tree Program Specialist Danielle Kruger.

Tomah Crabb’s son, Bernard, is incarcerated in the Lincoln (Ill.) Correctional Center. For the past several years Buddy, as he’s better known, has signed his kids up for Angel Tree.

Tomah, of Rockford, takes care of Buddy’s kids.

“We’ve been through a lot since he’s been in prison,” she said. “He’s lost his dad.”

On a Saturday before Christmas, the Angel Tree gifts arrive for the kids: clothes, toys, “things that they like,” Tomah says. The gifts are already wrapped, with the kids’ names on them. Their predictable response: “Can we open them? Can we open them?”

“I love it, because it helps out a lot,” Tomah says.

The kids also know their dad had a hand in the gifts. It’s one way of making a hard situation a little better.

• • •

We spoke with Susan Schumacher, who organizes the Angel Tree effort at First Free.

What’s it like to get to be part of this program? And for you, what’s it been like to help people even realize that the need exists? 

Andrew and Susan Schumacher at last year’s Angel Tree preparation.

There is a lot of shame for children of prisoners, plus the longing and sense of loss. Children can feel forgotten and overlooked. The Angel Tree program lets them know that they are loved, and reminds them of Jesus’ love for them. Each child receives colorful materials that present the gospel in an age-appropriate way. Plus, each family can request a beautiful, free children’s Bible.

How many families is First Free helping this year?

We will be serving 56 kids in 16 families.  Also, the Angel Tree organization asked us to partner this year with Christ Tamil Church (Wheaton) to deliver their gifts in Rockford for them. They are purchasing gifts for 8 families and will bring them to us for delivery.

What are the dates people can take part?

People can select their Angel children from the tree in the lobby beginning this Sunday, Dec. 1. Gifts should be wrapped and returned to the church by Tuesday, Dec. 17.

Volunteers are needed to help pack the gifts at 9 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 18. We also need drivers to help deliver them at 9:15 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 21. Interested volunteers can contact me by email : sueschu13 [at] hotmail [dot] com or call the church at 815-877-7046.

Any other long-term plans for First Free’s involvement in this?

I would like to develop some kind of an ongoing outreach program in which we continue contact with the children and invite them to youth activities at our church.




Handel’s Messiah: ‘Our gift back to Rockford’

Choral Union’s performances date back 74 years

Rockford Choral Union has performed Handel’s Messiah every Christmas season since 1945. This year’s choir includes 112 people. It’s open to anyone who wants to participate and commit to the rehearsals. Singers live as far away as Rochelle to the south, Janesville to the north, and the western Chicago suburbs.

“The nice thing is that we have a lot of people who have been with the group for a number of years, and now we are starting to see more and more young people singing with the group,” says second-year conductor Michael Beert. “So it becomes more of a mentor-student situation.”

Cherice Ullrich (left) and her mom, Cindy Jensen, sing during a rehearsal last year. Photo courtesy of Rockford Choral Union.

Multiple churches and denominations are represented.

“It used to be just a Lutheran Choral Union and we found that we would have Catholic, we would have Missouri Synod, we would have Assembly of God, we would have pretty much any denomination joining us,” Beert says. “And so we thought, why are we calling ourselves the Lutheran Choral Union when there are fewer and fewer Lutherans? It’s great that it’s interdenominational.”

Seven people from First Free Rockford are part of this year’s choir: Lynne Berglund, Sandra Hogan, Cindy Jensen, Keith Johnson, Sasha Pogwizd, Cherice Ullrich and Art Upmann.

The choir and guest soloists are accompanied by a 15-piece chamber orchestra.

Here’s part of our conversation with Beert, who is a renowned cellist and a music professor at Rock Valley College. His wife, Rachel Handlin, is concertmistress (first-chair violinist and instrument-playing leader of the orchestra).


This is your second year as conductor. What was it like last year, stepping in?

“The first thing I told them was, I am not a choral person. I haven’t really sung since high school, and that was a while ago. I know the piece, but from the bass up. From the cello parts. I know how it goes, but there were a lot of words I was learning last year and I’m still learning this year.

“This is all new to me. There are so many things you have to do in a rehearsal such as working on diction, working on the duration of the notes, working on the dynamics. The three D’s as (now-retired conductor) Nat Bauer told me.”


Michael Beert. Photo courtesy of Rockford Choral Union.

As a cellist you know Handel’s Messiah very well. What is it then like to conduct it versus playing it?

“They’re both a challenge. Because the cello part is constant. You feel like you’re strapped into your chair and you don’t get up until 2 1/2 hours later. Conducting it has a whole different set of concerns. You are always thinking, what is the next piece? What is the next tempo?

“The easiest thing for me to do would just be to sing along with them. I found, much to my chagrin, that I get carried away with the message. I get carried away with the bass part. I need to not do that.”


What does the work mean to you personally? Getting to conduct Handel’s Messiah has to be really special.

“It is. What I learned from Nat Bauer, the previous director, is that not only is this a great piece of music, with all these wonderful fugues and recitatives and arias, but how Handel put this together beautifully with the text, going all the way from the Old Testament book of Isaiah to Revelation. And then on top of that you have a five- or six-minute “Amen” chorus at the very end.”


What does it mean to you, message-wise?

“I have found a greater appreciation for Isaiah and his prophecy. It runs the gamut. Handel composed this piece in just a matter of weeks and that in itself is amazing. But for him to think, ‘What is the perfect music for what Isaiah is talking about?’ The opening tenor recitative and aria is Isaiah’s message of comfort to Israel. They’re in Samaria, in exile. He’s talking about warfare, strife, all these valleys and mountains that must be overcome, and he just gives you calmness. At the same time he is trying to tell the people of Israel, ‘Your time will come. Peace will come to you.’ Even though there is great conflict.

First Free Rockford member Sasha Pogwizd sings in Handel’s Messiah. Photo courtesy of Rockford Choral Union.

“Handel does an old trick that goes back hundreds of years before, where you take a text, and you somehow try to shape that text musically. For example, ‘Every hill and mountain shall be made low.’ He has the tenor (soloist) go up and down to imitate the valleys, the hills, the mountains. He just word paints so beautifully. …

“Early on, it’s Isaiah in the prophecy. Then it’s the birth, then it’s the strife of the crucifixion, the passion. Even during that, Handel sets us up in Isaiah: Yea, even though all of this is going to happen, there is a greater promise there. And that’s there throughout the entire thing. The choruses at the passion are really strong. And then with the resurrection he gives you the Hallelujah Chorus. It’s just like the clouds have opened up.

“Following that, we get into the third section which is all from Revelation. And he gives us probably one of the most beautiful arias, I Know That My Redeemer Liveth. A great message of peace again.”


What does it mean for the community to have a chance to come and hear a work like this every year?

“The way the Choral Union looks at it is, this is our gift back to the Rockford community. They’ve always felt strongly about that. This is our 74th year. The first performance in Rockford was in 1945, really as a way to celebrate the end of the war.

From one of last year’s performances. Photo courtesy of Rockford Choral Union.

“The way I feel about it, it’s like if you had a jewel or a cello or something special. You’re only the caretaker of it and you’re going to pass it on. I don’t know how long I’m going to be there, but it’s my job, very much like the president of an organization, to make sure it continues. It’s important. This kind of tradition is not just something that ‘those old people’ do. No, it’s constantly being reborn.

“These people have devoted so much time, energy, and care. Some of them have it memorized, to perform it and to really try to minister not only to themselves and the people around them, but to the audience. We need to make sure that continues. It’s a beautiful thing.”

• • •

Performances are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, at Emmanuel Lutheran Church, 920 Third Ave. Admission is free; a free-will offering is taken during each performance.

» More information


vintage record player with snowflake pattern

Christmas music: candy canes and lumps of coal

Want to fill your house with great Christmas music, but maybe not the same old stuff you’ve listened to for decades? Or, do you want to know which timeless Christmas albums to avoid at all costs? Either way, we’ve got you covered.


The A side

Here are three newly released albums we think are worth your time.


Sing! An Irish Christmas – Live at the Grand Ole Opry House

Keith and Kristyn Getty

This live album’s 19 tracks radiate joy and worship. Most of the songs are familiar, but carry a fresh sound that’s part Celtic, part Nashville and part contemporary worship. (You have not heard Sleigh Ride until you’ve heard it played like a sea shanty on Celtic instruments, but also with banjos.)

The Gettys are a husband-and-wife hymn writing team who split their time between Nashville and their native Northern Ireland. This is their second live Christmas album, following 2015’s Joy — An Irish Christmas, which also became a PBS TV special.




Sandra McCracken

One of today’s best songwriters / hymn writers turns her contemplative lyrics and storytelling to her first Christmas album. Joyful standards like Go Tell It on the Mountain and Joy to the World are here, but this album is a lot more than background music during Christmas dinner. On original songs like The Space Between, McCracken confronts loneliness and longing that can accompany the holidays.

“I hope for my music to help stir people to ask the important questions, to bring comfort and hope, and to help people sing together,” she told CCM Magazine. “A Christmas album is all the more reason to do just that.”



Liturgical Folk

A retired Anglican priest and a church music director have written more than 50 hymns together since meeting in 2015. Now they turn their attention to Advent music with a collection of nine new hymns.

From their website:

“Music is vital to Christian worship. It’s no wonder, then, that music is near the heart of the worship wars. The generations divide along fault lines of stylistic preference. When music is commodified to serve the people, it becomes entertainment. Music is supposed to be a service of the people, not a service to the people. This paradigm shift will help us defer our own musical tastes in worship and to consider what makes others sing. It will take a willingness for mutual appreciation, but in time our hearts will blend into one. A church may even discover its own unique musical expression!”



The B Side

Christmas music runs the gamut. For every O Holy Night, there are dogs barking Jingle Bells. So, we listened to a few ill-advised efforts so you don’t have to. These albums make excellent white-elephant gifts, but that’s about all. The Bottom Five:


William Shatner: Shatner-Claus

Here’s Shatner’s dramatic reading of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to a group of uncomfortable-looking kids. It soon gives way to a musical ending we can’t even begin to explain.

Roseanne Barr sings the Christmas Classics

Asking the musical question: Why?

Michael Bolton: This is the Time / The Christmas Album

Holiday stylings from the man who sings like he’s caught in a hydraulic press. We include this pick to represent every famous singer who slapped together a Christmas album to hear the ring-ting-tingling of the cash register.

Star Wars: Christmas in the Stars

Amid bizarre songs about Wookies, 18-year-old John Francis Bongiovi sings R2D2 We Wish You and Merry Christmas. The future Jon Bon Jovi was paid $180 … which was $179 too much.

Jingle Cats: Meowy Christmas

If you love cats, this should put a stop to it. Here’s not-so Silent Night.

Christmas Eve Services

Christmas Eve Service

Christmas Eve Services at First Free Rockford

Join us for one of our 3 identical Christmas Eve services at First Free Rockford as we celebrate the hope that we have in Jesus Christ.

Service Times:

  • Sunday December 23rd 8:30am
  • Sunday December 23rd 10:30am (Kids programming available)
  • Monday December 24th 6:00pm (Childcare up to age 5 available)
Christmas Eve Services

Christmas Eve Service

Christmas Eve Services at First Free Rockford

Join us for one of our 3 identical Christmas Eve services at First Free Rockford as we celebrate the hope that we have in Jesus Christ.

Service Times:

  • Sunday December 23rd 8:30am
  • Sunday December 23rd 10:30am (Kids programming available)
  • Monday December 24th 6:00pm (Childcare up to age 5 available)
Christmas Eve Services

Christmas Eve Service

Christmas Eve Services at First Free Rockford

Join us for one of our 3 identical Christmas Eve services at First Free Rockford as we celebrate the hope that we have in Jesus Christ.

Service Times:

  • Sunday December 23rd 8:30am
  • Sunday December 23rd 10:30am (Kids programming available)
  • Monday December 24th 6:00pm (Childcare up to age 5 available)

Angel Tree Program: Giving the Gift of God’s Love

First Free Rockford is proudly participating in the Angel Tree program again this year, delivering gifts and the message of God’s love to children in the Rockford area whose parents are in prison during the holiday season.

Our church has participated in this program for more than 25 years in partnership with Prison Fellowship, a nonprofit Christian organization whose mission is to restore those affected by crime and incarceration. There are more than 2.7 million U.S. children who have a mom or dad in prison, according to the organization, and churches and community organizations throughout the country have already committed to serving more than 275,000 kids this year.

Angel Tree Coordinator Susan Schumacher, a Belvidere resident who’s been attending First Free for nearly 30 years, found a personal connection in this project. She had a loved one in prison and saw the devastating effects an experience like that can have on families.

“We do this out of compassion for the children,” she said. “The program gives us an opportunity to share God’s love by helping to meet the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the families of prisoners.”

You can help by picking a tag off the Angel Tree in our lobby. This year, we have 17 families with 45 children we’re helping. Each child will receive two gifts – an article of clothing and a toy or other fun gift, as well as an age-appropriate booklet about the gospel provided by Prison Fellowship. The families give us suggestions to help personalize the gifts even more.

Grab a tag, shop for gifts, wrap them and turn them in by Dec. 11. We’ll package the gifts on Dec. 12 and deliver them to families on Dec. 15. Let us know if you’d like to volunteer in any way. It’s a beautiful tradition we are excited to participate in again this year!