TAMPA — It worked for Easter, so Relevant Church in Ybor City is trying it again for Christmas.
The nondenominational church launched its “Christmas Is Near” campaign two months ago, patterned after a similar event it led during the 2012 Easter season.
On Monday, the congregation will learn just how successful it was in getting the word out when it hosts a mega-holiday family festival and “the largest outdoor Christmas candlelight service ever” in downtown Tampa.
“If we could get 2,000, maybe 3,000 people to come out, we’ll be happy,” says Paul Wirth, senior pastor. “I know it’s an extremely busy time of year, but this is something that’s never been done before.”
The free event at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park will have lots of entertainment — including pictures with Santa, photo booths, food trucks, train rides and half-off tickets for ice skating — but also a spiritual Christmas message with a Christian service.
Relevant Church, which describes itself as “casual and contemporary,” is bucking the national trend that shows a downturn in church growth, particularly with urban congregations. Founded in 2004, it has outgrown several locations: a private home in Temple Terrace and rented space in a downtown Tampa hotel and the Italian Club in Ybor City. The church now claims 600 members and meets in a free-standing building at 1704 N. 16th St.
The congregation invested $30,000 in the festival, calling it “our Christmas gift to the community.”
Church members have been wearing T-shirts proclaiming “Christmas Is Near” as conversation starters, and they’ve posted yard signs in neighborhoods and street corners all over the city. Elf mascots carrying signs have been popping up at local community and sporting events.
Social media is playing an important role as well. “Christmas Is Near” has its own Facebook page, website and YouTube video.
Earlier this month, members were part of the Rough Riders Holiday Parade, walking along the downtown route with a giant lighted ornament balloon with the event logo. The tethered balloon now floats above the church building in Ybor City.
“The idea is to get the community talking about it. They see the signs, the T-shirts and balloon, and it opens the door to questions,” Wirth says.
Relevant has earned a reputation for attention-grabbing projects, such as “The 30-Day Sex Challenge” series and its community Mother’s Day home renovations for needy families.
Wirth says the church’s Easter event — which drew more than 5,500 people — was one of the biggest gatherings at Curtis Hixon park. That better-than-expected turnout encouraged the church to host this holiday extravaganza.
The Monday date was selected because most families have their own traditions on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
So far, the only glitch is the ditching of real candles. Though Relevant Church got approval from the city and the fire marshal, Wirth decided the possibility of windy conditions was “too risky.” Instead, worshippers will be given LED lights to simulate the candles.
He’s already got his message ready for the service, which will include music from the church’s house band and videos.
“Too often we look at Christmas as an ending point. After all the presents are opened, there’s this real letdown feeling,” he says. “But for God, it wasn’t an ending. The birth of Jesus was the beginning of it all. So I’m asking people to reset our traditional way of thinking and to celebrate the joyous start to the new year.”
As for the weather, Wirth says he’s resisting looking at the forecast.
“Some things are just out of our control,” he says. “We’ll leave that to the higher powers that be.”
RELEVANT CHURCH CHRISTMAS EVENT
WHEN: 5 to 9 p.m. Monday
WHERE: Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, 600 Ashley Drive, downtown Tampa
INCLUDES: Kid Zone from 5 to 7 p.m. and 8 to 9 p.m., featuring interactive games, train rides, face painting, pictures with Santa, ornament decorating and more. Half-price ice skating at the rink. Candlelight service with music, videos and a Christmas message from 7 to 8:15 p.m. Food trucks will be on site for the event.
COST: Free (except for food)
PARKING: Poe Parking Garage, 800 N. Ashley Drive; Regional Royal parking lot, 1200 N. Tampa St.; Sykes Building Parking Garage, 400 N. Ashley Drive; and free street parking.
BRING: Blankets and/or lawn chairs
INFORMATION: www.christmasisnear.com; call (813) 242-4800