Mark D. Roberts

In this post I want to tell you about a great Thanksgiving tradition. Yes, yes, I know Thanksgiving Day comes a week from Thursday. But I’m putting up this post in the hopes that there still might be time for some of you to act on what I’m about to recommend.
I’ll admit to a not-so-hidden agenda. I want to commend this the tradition I describe in this post to you as something you might wish to add to your yearly Thanksgiving repertoire. I guarantee that it will pay rich dividends in delight and expanded gratitude.
I can boast about this tradition without hesitation because it’s not something I invented. Rather, I inherited it when I came to Irvine Presbyterian Church. It was a choice fruit of the ministry of my predecessor, Ben Patterson. What am I talking about? A Thanksgiving Eve Worship Service.
When I was an associate pastor at Hollywood Presbyterian Church, we had a Thanksgiving day service. From 10:00 to 11:00 in the morning we gathered for prayer, song, and a brief sermon. Though I loved this service, the timing was inconvenient for many, who missed the service because they were cooking or driving to grandma’s house. Thus, in my first year as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I was pleased to experience the tradition of a worship service on the night before Thanksgiving.
For the seventeen years I participated in that service, and it was one of my favorite events of the whole year. Why? Well, for one thing, because of the timing of the service, my celebration of Thanksgiving began in earnest at 7:00 on Wednesday evening. Thus my celebration of Thanksgiving was longer and fuller than when it started on Thursday morning. Moreover, I liked beginning my personal Thanksgiving celebration by remembering God. I have nothing against watching the Macy’s parade, eating turkey, and getting together with family, mind you. But I was glad to give God first place in the festivities. It seemed as if I was finally getting things in the right order when it came to Thanksgiving.
Another thing I enjoyed about our Thanksgiving Eve service was the multigenerational, family dimension. We included children from about four years of age on up. Many of them had a chance to participate, as I’ll explain in a moment. The presence of children meant that we had to plan a service with their interests and capabilities in mind. We included music that they knew. The sermon was short and relatively child-friendly. It usually involved interaction with the congregation, sort of a whole-congregation children’s sermon, if you will. With children present, the sanctuary was a little noisier than usual. But there was something wonderful about having the whole church family together on Thanksgiving Eve.
The content of our Thanksgiving Eve service was pretty simple. In the hour-long service we sang hymns (including “Now Thank We All Our God” and “Great is Thy Faithfulness”) and songs (including Matt Redman’s “Blessed Be Your Name” and “Let Everything That Has Breath”). There were Scripture readings and prayers.

Perhaps the central element of the service was an “open mike” time when we asked members of the congregation to share briefly that for which they were thankful. Children expressed their gratitude for their parents and pets. On the other side of life, I remember when one man thanked God for fifty years of marriage. Usually there were moments of laughter, like several years ago when my five-year old daughter thanked God for paper. (She was serious and upset when people laughed. She did have a point!) There were often tears as well, as when an elderly woman once thanked the Lord that her recently deceased husband was in heaven and suffering no longer.
Our other special tradition involved writing on a small piece of orange paper shaped like a pumpkin. We received our “pumpkin” when the service began. Then, throughout the service, we wrote down on the paper things for which we are grateful. Near the end of the service we brough our pumpkins forward and placed them on the communion table as part of a giant cornucopia. In this way every person participated tangibly and actively in shared corporate gratitude.
Following the worship service we had an informal reception, with hot cider and snacks prepared by folks in the church. It was a pleasant time of conversation and shared gratitude.
I would strongly recommend that all churches consider adopting the tradition of a Thanksgiving Eve service. I realize that some churches already do this. But many are missing out on a fantastic experience.
If you’re a lay person in a church and you’d like to encourage your pastor to adopt the Thanksgiving Eve Service tradition, you might send this post to your pastor. If it turns out that your pastor is unable to do this service because of family plans or whatever, it could easily be led by others.
I have lots of pastors who read this blog, so here’s my personal word to my colleagues: Our Thanksgiving Eve service was not only one of the best things we did as a congregation, but it was also one of my favorite services of the year. I got out of it far more than I put into it (partly because my sermon was short, and partly because the service was so rich). Believe me, the last thing I want to do is to make your life busier and crazier. But I am convinced that a Thanksgiving Eve Service promises returns far greater than the investment of time required for planning and leading.
If you don’t have time to plan a Thanksgiving Eve Service for this year, put it on your church calendar right now. You’ll be glad you did!

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