Bridge events are relationship-building events designed to draw the “unchurched” from your community into relationships with members of your church.
For the longest time, the Annual Fall Festival was our biggest evangelistic bridge event. We invested a huge amount of time, money, and volunteers to pull this festival off every year. But we stopped. Why did we stop doing the Annual Fall Festival?
- We weren’t hitting our target.
- Fall Festivals are a dime a dozen.
- Wise Energy Management.
- We were capitalizing on the wrong season.
In 2013, we refocused our resources on a Christmas event – Santa’s Wonderland. It wasn’t easy but it soon became ORBC’s largest cultural bridge event.
In the beginning, I received a message from one of our families stating they were leaving our church. They were outraged. Why would we use Santa Claus, an obviously secular Christmas character, as an invitational hook for the community? “Pastor, don’t you realize that if you rearrange the letters, Santa spells Satan! Why would a church promote such paganism!?”
Of course, this reaction is a bit extreme. But many Christians feel uncomfortable with the idea of using Santa Claus for a Christmas outreach.
Why did we choose Santa’s Wonderland instead of a living nativity?
1) We wanted to use the CULTURE to build a BRIDGE.
It’s good to have a historical perspective on how the church has handled paganism over the years. As the gospel advanced geographically over hundreds of years, the missionaries were winning people over with rich pagan cultures. It was common for these people to use feasts and celebrations as a rhythmic part of their community life. In response, the medieval church decided to retheme these holidays to celebrate their new-found faith in Christ. This was a better approach than telling these new converts to abandon their seasonal celebrations and stop having parties.
In other words, they not only converted the people, but they also converted their parties! Using cultural icons where applicable can be an incredibly effective evangelistic strategy if used appropriately.
Side note – Santa’s legend grew out of Saint Nicholas of Myra, a godly Christian, not satan.
2) We wanted to attract our target.
For Oak Ridge, our target is “unchurched” families. With that in mind, we needed to come up with a Christmas outreach experience that spoke directly to our target without using the classic bait and switch methodology often employed by evangelicals.
For example, many unchurched families have attended a church-sponsored event that used FUN as the bait. Once inside, families were cornered into high-pressure evangelism – a “turn or burn” presentation.
We didn’t want to do that. Instead, we created an outreach for families that would communicate, “No, really, this event is totally designed to simply be a fun experience for your family.” And mean it.
Using Santa was a strategic decision.
Santa’s Wonderland communicates that this is not a religious event, but a “holiday fun” experience. This has the double effect of attracting the unchurched while also deflecting Christians from other churches who are just looking for a religious event for their family. There’s nothing wrong with the former. But the whole idea of an OUTREACH event is to create an experience designed to be a front door to the church for our target.
3) We wanted to do something no one else is doing.
If you want to reach the people no one else is reaching then you have to do what no one else is doing. Right?
In our community, we found that no one else was organizing a FREE holiday experience for the family. Many families spend significant money to see Santa Claus and snap a holiday photo. At Oak Ridge, we wanted to create a powerfully immersive experience for the entire family – for FREE.
- The entire North Pole set complete with dozens of Santa’s elves
- Photo booths to capture the moment
- Holiday Characters in full costume such as Elf, Olaf, Frosty, Elsa, and more.
- Arts & Crafts
- Storytime with Mrs. Claus
- Favorite Holiday Movies
- Cookies, candy, snacks, and hot chocolate.
- And, a visit from Santa Claus with a free photo op!
4. We wanted to demystify the church.
You only get one chance to make a first impression.
One of the most critical elements of a successful outreach event is to show the unchurched that church people are not weirdos. Seriously. We’re normal, fun-loving, family-centric people who have been changed by the love of Jesus Christ.
Our goal with Santa’s Wonderland is to blow families away by their experience so that they leave saying, “We have to come to check this church out!”
And that is what we did.
Santa’s Wonderland has become one of the most effective evangelistic outreaches in our church’s history. We have connected dozens of new families whose first exposure to Oak Ridge has been through an old guy with a white beard in a red suit.
This year looks a little different for Santa’s Wonderland due to the COVID restrictions. We are bringing Santa’s Wonderland to the streets…literally.
Families can enjoy the frozen wonderland in the comfort, and safety, of their own vehicles as they drive-thru the makeshift Christmas village.