The Ghost of Christmas Past (or “Christmas isn’t what it used to be…

Stuart Cashman sent me this yesterday and I thought it made some valid points. Stuart is my colleague in IPC and the Minister of Immanuel, Brentford

Ecclesiastes 7:10
Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this. (ESV)

“Christmas is our biggest evangelistic opportunity of they year…”
That is the line I’ve heard all my adult life. It is the line I’ve used with my congregations in the three churches in which I have served over the last 15 years in paid ministry.

However, it is a line I no longer believe. I’ve finally decided I need to point out what I suspect we all really know in our heart of hearts: Christmas is not our biggest evangelistic opportunity of the year in 21st Century London, nor probably in most of the UK.

And in case anybody accuses me of doing what the Preacher tells us not to do in Ecclesiastes 7:10, I also want to say this is not necessarily a bad thing. Rather it should be a call to us to get back to our theology and live it out fully.

I should also preface all this by saying that is is entirely anecdotal and subjective. I have done no qualitative research on this at all!

Here are some of the problems with thinking Christmas is our biggest evangelistic opportunity.

  1. Getting someone to a carol service is not the same as communicating the gospel with them meaningfully. 

Even when people did want to come to carol services, they came for all sorts of reasons. Often these were a mixture of nostalgia (“It makes me feel all Christmassy”), tradition, (“I always did this a child, and we always had pigs in blankets with our turkey”), love of music and aesthetics (“That was a wonderful carol concert!” – a line I heard every year after the beautiful carol services we put on in a previous church served in), or simply to be sociable and have an evening with friends.

Whatever their reasons, they weren’t really in a position or mood to hear a message about sin and redemption. They were really only ever likely to want to tune in to a “feel good” message no matter how hard we tried to preach the gospel.

My evidence for this is how few people I know of signed up for Christianity Explored courses and such like over the years after carol services. Of course, there were exceptions, but I’ll come to those later.

2. A Carol Service is just one of variety of “Christmas Experiences” on offer, and it now feels a lot less Christmassy to most people than having an Egg Nog Latte or going to Santa’s Grotto.

In London at least, by the time Halloween is out of the way and November starts, shops are full of Christmas stuff, coffee shops are selling their seasonal drinks, and people are booking all their “Christmassy” experiences. They’ll take their kids to Santa’s Grotto, Lapland (near Ascott, not near Helsinki), ensure they are ready for the school Christmas shows, or music group concerts. Other adults are looking for the best Christmas markets, diaries are being filled with Christmas parties, for work, for the  Tennis Club etc, then there’s all the shopping to do, the relatives who drop in at short notice….. the list is nearly endless.

In the midst of all the “festive fun”, the music, the lights, the tastes and smells, an invitation to a  carol service is just one of a hundred “Christmassy” offers out there. In a competitive market, it only has an appeal for certain folks. And even then, its not as much of an appeal as it was even five years ago.

My evidence for this is the number of people we invited who said they’d come but then didn’t. It wasn’t malicious on their part. It was just other things came up, and at the end of the day a carol service just wasn’t as important to them as seeing the reindeer or the Christmas lights in town, or whatever it was. Which leads on to my next point…

3. Fewer and fewer people in the UK have a tradition or background of going to church at Christmas. 

I’ve known this for ages of course, but it came home to me afresh this year. I heard two young men (aged 18 & 24) having a discussion. One asked the other, “Do you go to church at Christmas?” to which the older one replied with some shock, “No! Why?” His incredulity was not because he is a staunch atheist deeply opposed to Christianity. Rather, it was as if he didn’t understand the whole nature of question. It would have made just as much sense if the younger man had asked him, “Do you go fly fishing at Christmas?” “No! I never go fly fishing, so why would I do it at Christmas???!!!”

We need to face the facts that for an increasing majority in this country, especially the younger generation, Jesus Christ has as much to do with Christmas as fly fishing or sun bathing or …. (pick your own random activity). So why would someone suddenly go to church when they don’t go at any other time of year?

I have reached the ripe old age of 45. When I was a child in the Scottish Borders, most people would go to church or a school carol service each year. That is simply no longer the case, nor has it been I suspect for most people in the UK under the age of about 25 (I have not statistical evidence for this so I maybe wrong!). I fear that with our Carol services and Christmas outreach we are ready to reach the culture as it was 10+ years ago, not today.

So am I falling in to the trap Ecclesiastes warns us against, lamenting the past and sliding into doom and gloom? No! I’m reminding myself to come back to what we truly believe the bible teaches about God, the gospel and our universal human need.

  1. The Universal Human Need

The surge in popularity of the Christmas Jumper, strangely, points to this. What is the point of a Christmas jumper? Isn’t it to make people laugh (and maybe provide a bit of warmth)? In the midst of the darkness of the world and this time of year, there is a need for people to party. Recently, an Irish priest called for Christians to find a new word for “Christmas” because Christmas has been “hijacked”. He went on to add, “But non-believers deserve and need their celebration too, it’s an essential human dynamic and we all need that in the toughness of life.”

While I don’t agree with him about finding another word for Christmas, he is right to observe everyone needs a time to celebrate.

But isn’t that exactly what as Christians we should be doing? We have something to celebrate! To us, a Child is born, to us a son is given and the government will be on his shoulders, and of the increase of his government and of peace there shall be no end. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.”

In the way we celebrate Christmas we need to show – as churches, in our families and as individuals – that we have something bigger and better to celebrate than mere escapism.

2. The Gospel

The gospel is still true.
Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God became a tiny human infant, born in poverty with a trough for a crib. He was a refugee as an infant before, growing up in an occupied territory in the Middle East. Having made the universe in the beginning, he ended up making tables for a living; having had a throne in heaven, he had no where to lay his head on earth; having been worshipped by angels he was rejected by his own people and betrayed by his friends; having raised the dead he willingly succumbed to death himself. On the third day, God the Father raised him to life again and set him as the God-man on the throne of heaven. There to this day, he prays for his people, rules over all things for the sake of his Church, extends his rule as the gospel goes into the world, and waits until all his enemies are a footstool for his feet.

He did all this to redeem for himself rebels and sinners, to make them his perfect bride, and to establish a whole new creation for all who will believe in Him and bow to him. So as his people, we are to long for his return in glory and live as those who expect it by proclaiming this message and living lives shaped by it.

This is the only message that connects with our deep, universal, human need. However popular or unpopular carol services are, this is the message that we need to communicate with our words and show we believe by our lives and worship together as churches.

Therefore, evangelism is not a once year foray into the world to invite people into our carol services. Rather it is a daily investment in our communities, our workplaces, and our neighbours, out of love for them and love for Christ.

As Paul told the church in Colossi (Colossians 4:2, 5-6)

Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. … Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. (ESV)

One of the things that encouraged me this Christmas is that the guests who did come to our carol service were, by and large, people who previously had some contact with the church. One had come to a parenting seminar. Others had come to a summer barbecue. It struck me it is th faithful “walking in wisdom towards outsiders” the other 364 days of the year that meant some were willing to come to a carol service. Now we need to let our “speech be gracious, seasoned with salt” so we can carry on those conversations.

When I think about people who have signed up for Christianity Explored courses after carol serves over the years, it is because they had meaningful relationships with Christians who lived wise lives before them (usually at work).

3. God
As I think back to carol services past, we invested huge amounts of time and energy in them as if somehow we actually thought people would respond to the gospel because our music was so good, our preaching so engaging, our mulled wine so tasty, that people would fall down on their knees and cry, “Surely God is in this place!”

Alas, it never happened like that.

However, if we remembered that no one comes to Christ like that, we shouldn’t have been surprised! What does it take for anyone to come to Christ? 2 Corinthians 4:4–6

[T]he god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.  For what we proclaim is not ourselves [with our wonderful music, our eloquent preaching, or our fantastic Christmas hospitality], but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

All we need is a miracle, which is what we all needed to believe in the first place. So lets pray on for that miracle and remember we are co-workers with God as he builds his church.

 

Concluding thoughts….
So am I saying we should give up on Christmas? No, not all!  I loved our carol service. Members of our church worked hard to decorate the school hall so it looked beautiful (really!). The musicians did a fantastic job, the folks providing the food produced 5 different types of soup, loads of bread, tables laden with mince pies, stollen, Christmas cake and all sorts of other goodies (gluten-free and ‘normal’), mulled wine (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), and I preached as clearly and winsomely as I could. And I can guarantee that all the people the Lord wanted there were there, and his word will not return to him void but will have achieved the purposes for which he sent it out.

We billed the service as a “celebration or lessons and carols” and we began with a call to worship, because after all, our carol service is not a concert to entertain our guests, it is a service of worship to glory and please our God. Our guests are very welcome, as they are every week, but they are not the primary audience, merely onlookers. I believe God was glorified through it, and that was the intention for course.

I hope next year we’ll do pretty much the same. I also hope and pray that in the meantime in 2018 we will “walk in wisdom” before our neighbours and colleagues as we wait for the appearing of our Lord and Saviour. This should mean investing in their lives, loving them so much we share with him not only the gospel of God (and invitations to events) but our very selves (1 Thess. 2:8)

May he, in his grace, build his kingdom even though us, and not just at Christmas but from January to November as well. Christmas may not be what is used to be, but if the causes us to reflect and faithfully live out the gospel for the rest of the year, that is not bad thing.

 

Stuart Cashman.

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