Apparently, it’s just one of those long-standing Christmas traditions. More people will come to services this Christmas than at any other time of year. And the majority of those people will not come back for another 12 months. Is this inevitable? Do we simply shrug and accept it as a sad reality? Or is there something we can do to make those people think it might be worthwhile to come back sooner than next Christmas—maybe even next week?
Some of the answers are obvious, though not always easy: a genuinely welcoming community; liturgy that is done well; music that delights the ear and the heart; and quality refreshments afterwards, for a start. All those require the enthusiastic co-operation of the church community. But I want to address another component of the service that is primarily the responsibility of one person: the sermon.
How do we preach this Christmas in such a way that the hearers say, “Wow! That’s amazing. Maybe I need to come back and hear more,”—instead of, “Ah yes, the boring sermon. Another reason I gave up on church 20 years ago. I remember it so well.” Here are some modest suggestions:
1. Name people’s hang-ups—whether or not we share them
Many people outside the Church assume that church folk do not think like them, and certainly don’t understand the doubts and reservations they experience around church stuff. To name those things helps people relax: “Wow, the preacher knows how I think, and seems to think it’s normal!”
What should we name? Here are just a few:
*Difficulties with the historicity of the story: “Many of us have a hard time believing things happened just the way they’re described in the story.”
*Difficulties with adult belief: “We think the Christmas story is OK for kids, but not for adults.”
*Difficulties with church: “Many people have had bad experiences with church, and that’s deeply sad.”
*Difficulties with the incarnation: “To say ‘he came down to earth from heaven’ makes it sound as though Jesus was an alien being visiting from another planet.”
*Difficulties with faith: Mark Twain said, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t true.”
Of course, we can go on to address whatever the problem is, but we need to start by naming it as a legitimate concern. Otherwise the hearers are always thinking, “Ah, but if you knew my particular questions, my doubts, my experience, you’d understand why I’m not here more often.” If we can disarm those reservations, it increases the likelihood that our hearers can hear the good news.
2. Speak from the heart—and take time to find it
John Stott says somewhere that, although he loved to preach the atonement and did so frequently, he was careful not to use clichés in doing do. Each time, he would seek to be personally reminded of the reality of the cross, and to find fresh ways of talking about it that would engage both him and his hearers.
The same is true for the incarnation (and, I suppose, ideally for all Christian truth). I would suggest that our sermon preparation is not complete until we ourselves have been touched afresh by the reality of God become a human being, until we feel the utter goodness of the Good News, and our sermon-in-the-making is more than words. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks,” says Jesus. Let’s make sure our hearts are full to overflowing before we speak. People recognise authenticity—and they recognise when we are just saying the words without feeling them.
3. Avoid theological jargon
C.S.Lewis says there is a place for in-house technical language in every profession or social group. We can’t manage without it: it can be precise and efficient. Once we step outside that specialised community, however, our language has to change. In particular, explanations tend to take far longer. Lewis suggests that most in-house words require 10 everyday words in order to explain them. He adds that if your job is to communicate with outsiders—especially in the name of Christ—then suck it up (I paraphrase): take that extra time, and don’t grudge it; use those 10 words (unfamiliar though they may be), and don’t look for short cuts. For example:
*Talk about “the author writing himself into the script of the play” rather than “the incarnation”—this is a C.S.Lewis analogy (10 words instead of two)
*Talk about “Matthew’s biography of Jesus” rather than “the Gospel of Matthew”—it’s not obvious to an unchurched person what “a Gospel” is
*Talk about “the story” rather than “the text” or “the narrative.” Avoid academic terms—unless your congregation attracts a lot of university folk, of course.
This kind of translation is actually a good discipline for us. Apart from anything else, it’s what missionaries have always done.
4. Do something surprising—even if it’s outside our comfort zone
We live in a multi-media age. Sadly (for those of us over a certain age at least), words alone seldom stick in the memory. Our sermon is far more likely to be remembered and discussed over Christmas lunch if it is more than words. Why not consider things like:
*Having a roving microphone in the congregation. Ask questions that invite a one- or two-word answer. “What comes to your mind when you think of Christmas?” is simple and sure to get people involved. Don’t ask for stories or you might never get your microphone back.
*Preaching from the aisle rather than the pulpit. People in the Western hemisphere feel (perhaps since the 60s) that informal equals sincere, and formal equals inauthentic. There is really no rational basis for it, but it’s worth remembering.
*Having a new Christian say (briefly) how his or her view of Christmas has changed. A personal story from an “amateur” can carry more weight than the views of the “professional.”
*Including a short dramatic sketch on the subject of the sermon. (As I write this, I remember one such at Trinity Anglican Church in Streetsville (Ontario), over 10 years ago. Even now I find it moving.)
*If you have the technology, showing an appropriate video clip. The website textweek.com has a tab called “movie index,” which offers lots of good ideas.
And if some of these suggestions seem somehow beneath our dignity, let’s remember that this is after all the festival of the humiliation of the Word.
5. Show how the Gospel makes a difference
Postmodern people don’t care whether Christianity is true, but they are interested to know whether it works. It’s a legitimate question. After all, it is “by their fruits”—not by their compelling arguments—that “you will know them.”
So how might it affect our hearers’ lives if they believed that God really became a human being? How might the most amazing event in history cause them to see the world differently? How might they treat their spouse, their colleagues, their in-laws, their neighbours, differently? How might leisure or work or sex seem different? How might life be more joyful? And, to be honest, how might life be more difficult? (There is always a cost to believing).
Of course, it will help if we can say too how the incarnation (forgive the technical term) has changed—and is changing—the way we and our congregation live.
Preaching at Christmas is a challenge, but one worthy of the season. After all, if we believe that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” the sermon can be a sacrament of that same Incarnation—not just talking about God, but by our preaching giving the hearers a taste of the God who enters our world, who participates in our language and our culture, who speaks to us “right where we are,” to affirm us and challenge us at the depths of our being.
Whether our guests actually come back the week after Christmas is their responsibility before God, not ours. Our responsibility is to be faithful in representing the Gospel as best we can—and then to leave the rest to the God who loves them enough to come to earth for them.