Christmas is not (just) for evangelism
Posted by Ros Clarke, 31 Jan 2019
In the third of our mini-series challenging some of the ways we celebrate Christmas, Ros Clarke considers whether we should be scaling back our Christmas evangelistic efforts.
The choir is silent. The candles have been lit. The soprano lifts her voice for the opening line of Once In Royal David’s City. You look around you, delighted because the church is full. Maybe for the first time this year, the church is full. Every seat is taken. Every pew is squashed full. You’ve even brought out the uncomfortable plastic chairs from the back room. They have come to sing the old, familiar carols of their childhood. They have come because they like to celebrate Christmas with a visit to church. They have come because their parents, grandparents or children wanted to be there. But they have come! And in amongst the carols and candlelight, there will be readings from the Scriptures and you are going to preach a sermon and they will hear the good news of the gospel.
I don’t know how many evangelistic Christmas events you run at your church: carol services, crib services, Christmas craft events, school services, Christingles. It is a time of year where there is no end of opportunities to invite people into our churches and often they will be willing to come. That is a wonderful thing, but I wonder if we are always using our limited time and resources most effectively in December. It’s hard to find time to reflect on that in December, so I offer these thoughts now, in plenty of time for your 2019 planning!
First, I want to ask whether you are teaching your congregation ‘milk’ or ’solid food’ about the incarnation?
Christmas is the time in the church year where we remember the nativity. The birth of Christ, told in Matthew and Luke’s gospels. Everyone knows the story, and it’s a great story with a journey, with a baby, with kings, even – at a push – with animals. But of course it’s not just a great story. Those birth narratives are part of God’s word, useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. Do you preach them to your congregations to teach them and train them, or do they only come out for evangelistic carol services?
We need solid teaching on the nativity, but Christmas is about more than the nativity. Christmas is about the incarnation. It’s the Word made flesh. It’s the eternal Son, fully God, taking on flesh and becoming fully human. The incarnation is one of the most important, most foundational and most difficult doctrines to understand. It is essential to our doctrine of God and our doctrine of humanity. The incarnation is the basis of our doctrine of revelation and our doctrine of salvation. It is not trivial. It is not childish. It is the most profound mystery of all.
That is what we are celebrating at Christmas. And so I want to ask whether your celebrations help your congregation to grapple with the doctrine of the incarnation? Do you take time to explore what it means for Jesus to be fully human and fully divine – and what it doesn’t mean? Are you helping them to avoid falling into serious error on the nature of Christ? You might choose to teach all this at another time of year, which is not a problem in itself. But at the very least are you making sure that what the church is hearing, singing and praying at Christmas is consistent with what you have taught them is true, so that it builds them up in their faith?
Second, I want to ask how effective Christmas evangelism is?
Christmas evangelism reminds me of the parable of the sower. There’s a lot of seed being strewn all over the place, but I wonder how much of it lands on good soil. Because, as I’ve said earlier, people come to church at Christmas time for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with Christ. Of course, as the gospel is faithfully preached at those events, God can work miracles. He can turn the hardest-hearted person to him in an instant. And of course, he can use Christmas evangelism as simply one step along a path towards faith, sparking an initial interest, causing someone to pursue a niggling doubt, to ask questions, to join a course and so on.
But given the amount of time, money and effort many churches expend on Christmas evangelism, I think it is worth asking whether it is all that effective. Or at least, whether all of it is effective. When you look at the people in your church who have come to faith over the past 5 years, how many of them have Christmas evangelism as part of their story? Maybe it’s obvious when you do this exercise that God really is using your carol service, or your toddler party, but not the Christingle or the crib service. Maybe it’s obvious that the school service is a great way that God is bringing people to know him.
And maybe it’s not.
And if not, maybe it’s time to stop and think about where you are focussing your evangelistic efforts as a church. Would it be wise to cut back on the Christmas programme? Are there some events that have run their course? Are there other kinds of outreach that could be more effective? That might reach different people? That might find better soil? That might not need to happen in the first three weeks of December?
Third, I want to ask whether you are giving enough of your time and resources to pastoring the flock in that month every year?
You have responsibilities to your congregation which don’t disappear for a month every time December rolls around. Your responsibilities to teach them, train them, guard them, care for them, strengthen them are still there. They still need you to preach them the word, Sunday by Sunday – before Christmas, and the week after. They are still as vulnerable to the lies of the world and the wolves masquerading as sheep even when the tinsel is up and the presents are wrapped.
More than that, they still need caring for as they go through all the normal struggles of life, but more so. Christmas is a time when people are stressed because they are too busy, because they are struggling financially, because their loneliness is exacerbated, because family tensions are heightened, because the weather is awful. Christmas is, sadly, a time for many funerals, and a time when many marriages break down.
Is your diary too full during Advent to give time to the members of your church who need it? Are you too exhausted after Christmas to cope with the fallout from the season? Do you need to re-prioritise?
Fourth, I want to ask if you are doing too much?
Which brings me onto my final question. Are you doing too much?
As a church, are you working too hard, stretching yourselves to breaking point? Are you filling everyone’s diaries with more and more events, at a time when they already have diaries full with all kinds of extra commitments?
As a minister, are you working too hard, stretching yourself to breaking point? Are you filling your diary with more and more events, at a time when your family and your church family also need you to give time to them?
Are you all fed up with Christmas by the time Boxing Day rolls around?
Here’s my radical solution:
Let’s reclaim Advent as a season of waiting, preparing and longing for the Lord’s return. Let’s recognise that secular Christmas has taken those weeks for itself and everyone will be busy then with all kinds of family and work and school commitments. Let’s not add to those burdens by making that the busiest time of the church year too.
But then, let’s reclaim the church’s Christmas. That is, let’s celebrate Christmas beginning on Christmas Eve and ending at Epiphany. Let’s enjoy that time to remember the nativity, to wonder at the incarnation, to celebrate Christ’s coming into the world for our sake.
Let’s work hard at evangelism because we care about the lost people in our parishes, but let’s not forget the needs of the people already in our churches. Let’s remember that our end goal is not to see our church buildings full of people whose hearts are hard to the Lord, but to see our church families being built together into a spiritual house for the Lord.
Ros Clarke is the Associate Director of Church Society and Course Leader of the Priscilla Programme
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