Christmas is near.
And members of Relevant Church in Ybor City want everyone to celebrate with them.
In October, the church launched a guerrilla advertising campaign, utilizing everything from T-shirts to YouTube to attract people to its Christmas festival and candlelight service, happening Monday at Curtis Hixon Park.
To hype the event, Relevant brought a 30-foot helium balloon to the downtown holiday parade. The church band played at the mayor's tree lighting ceremony. Members dressed as elves and passed out cards to people on the street.
If this sounds familiar, it's because Relevant is replicating its 2012 "Easter is Near" campaign. In April of that year, more than 5,000 people attended the church's Easter Sunday event, featuring music, food and games. Children hunted eggs and visited with the Easter Bunny. Tampa Bay Rays second baseman Ben Zobrist hung out with fans. Relevant pastor Paul Wirth spoke to the crowd on a rock-band style sound stage.
Wirth will do it again Monday, only this time by candlelight. And he will tell a different story.
"This time of year, people are running around preparing for Christmas and buying gifts, and then when it's over there is this big letdown," Wirth said. "We want people to realize that Christmas is about a beginning. That was the whole reason Jesus came, to give us a new beginning. We want people to leave this event feeling fresh and ready for a new year."
Before the service, attendees can go ice skating, squeeze into photo booths and make stockings to take home. There will be kiddie train rides and photos with Santa. Wicked Witches, Disco Donuts and American Wiener are among the food trucks scheduled to dish out eats.
Wirth said staying on message amid the hoopla takes effort. He understands not everyone who attends necessarily wants to hear about Jesus. Relevant just wants to reach as many as possible, he said.
To get the crowd's attention, children's activities will cease 15 minutes prior to the Christmas service. A string quartet will accompany Relevant's band to ease everyone into the spirit.
"Hopefully when people hear the music they will kind of start to settle in," Wirth said. "If it's like Easter, most people just kind of get into it. Maybe not everyone will but that's okay. It's about serving the community."
Relevant's festival and activities begin at 5 p.m. The service begins at 7. Admission is free. Ice skating is $5. For more information, visit christmasisnear.com. The YouTube video featuring an elf popping in on people at inopportune times is worth a visit to the website.
Sarah Whitman can be reached at [email protected]