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A Great Thanksgiving Tradition

By Mark D. Roberts | Tuesday, November 17, 2009

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!

Topics: Thanksgiving |

10 Responses to “A Great Thanksgiving Tradition”

  1. Tim Cook Says:
    November 17th, 2009 at 9:12 am

    Been there…done that…Mark is 100% right. The service was, and remains, a blessing. In my opinion, the turkey even tastes better the next day.

  2. Rev Dave Says:
    November 17th, 2009 at 9:24 am

    I’m proud to report we will be doing our sixth Thanksgiving service next week. I picked it up from the church I did my internship, and over the years it has expanded into one of our ecumenical services in our little Wyoming community. We should have people from our Presbyterian Church, the Assemblies of God church, the Episcopal Church, and a couple of the baptist churches participating (and a LDS musician playing). For the past few weeks, we’ve had the participating churches collecting thanks from their congregations and we’ll be putting them together as part of the prayers of the people (an idea I found online.)

    But the best part of the whole evening is this: we invite folks to bring their favorite pie to share afterwards, and we celebrate with those. Last year the counter in the fellowship hall was literally filled with pies, and a good time was had by all. What could be better than giving thanks and feasting?

  3. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    November 17th, 2009 at 9:38 am

    Thanks, Time and Dave. Wow! I love the pie idea. That is fantastic. Almost worth a trip to Mountain View. How’s the weather up there these days?

  4. Wickle Says:
    November 17th, 2009 at 11:30 am

    My church always celebrates Communion on a Wednesday night (for various reasons not relevant right now), and in November we shift it to be the night before Thanksgiving. It’s an amazing service, during which we move the chairs so that they’re in semicircles, and we invite people to talk about reasons for which they’re thankful. It’s is one of the most open, sincere, community-binding services around. People tend to go deep, and while a few are thankful for general things, most are very specific and powerful. Anyone who attends and doesn’t break into tears at least once has issues …

    In other words, I agree completely. It’s a great opportunity to make sure that Thanksgiving remains Thanks-focused, and that we remember to Whom we’re thankful, rather than letting it degenerate into Turkey Day.

  5. Ben Says:
    November 17th, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    I guess I grew up in a rare place because I am a 33 year-old Presbyterian pastor who grew up going to a Thanksgiving eve service in Tempe (Phoenix) every year growing up. In fact, I can’t remember a time not going to one, to me it was like Christmas Eve, we always had one.

  6. Mark Daniels Says:
    November 17th, 2009 at 9:58 pm

    I once heard a pastor share the eleventh commandment: “Thou shalt steal good ideas.”

    I obeyed that commandment when I first read about this Thanksgiving tradition of Hollywood Presbyterian several years ago.

    Thanks for all the good work you do on this blog and happy Thanksgiving.

    God bless!

    Mark Daniels

  7. boat fenders Says:
    November 19th, 2009 at 1:56 am

    I hope Everybody Enjoyed in this eve named Thanksgiving Tradition.

  8. r4i Says:
    November 19th, 2009 at 2:02 am

    I love traditions and holidays and celebrating! - it keeps us alive and together and happy. Cultures around the world have goddesses - another thing I appreciate.

  9. J.Falconer Says:
    November 20th, 2009 at 3:57 pm

    Rev Roberts, family & friends, Thanks for your thoughtful spiritual Thanksgiving piece. Loved the current Texas church traditions & Texas photos. Can’t beat the Southern states for friendliness. The Texas photos made me wish to visit a different southern state-Florida. One of my best memories a few decades ago while you were at Irvine, CA how you remembered to bless & pray for all the different age groups–babies to elderly(Keen-agers) Thanks also when you can include your families activities on the computer-Linda, Nathan & Kara. Happy Thanksgiving!!!All!!

  10. Fred Cottingham Says:
    November 21st, 2009 at 8:17 am

    I just had to add to the encouragement for a Thanksgiving Eve service. Our (EPC) congregation in Englewood, CO has been participating in a joint Thanksgiving Eve service with several other neighborhood churches in our area for several years.

    It is always a joyous and enjoyable time, and a great opportunity to share with our neighbors.

    My wife and I sing in our choir, and this year we expect to be singing with at least 5 other choirs in our joint service.

    This year we will have Methodist, Presbyterian (PCUSA and EPC), Lutheran, Greek Orthodox, and a Korean (I’m sorry, I don’t know their denomination) church participating (that I know of, there may be others).

    May God bless your Thanksgiving this year, and in the future.

    Fred Cottingham


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