By way of introduction, here’s an anecdote: My church holds a Beer and Carols service in the function room of a local pub every Christmas, and I think this is wonderful. We do carols folk-style, with me on fiddle and usually guitars and mandolin, and lots of people come along because it’s an event at a great local pub, and get to sing songs about the birth of Christ and be around people praying and talking about God becoming one of us, and all of that’s fantastic. But …
I had a few conversations in the preparation for the event that could be condensed down to something like this:
Matt [our vicar]: We should get the kids to sing Away in a Manger again, that was great last time [when it was unprepared and my wife made me do it].
Me: Do we have to? I can’t stand Away in a Manger.
Matt: Ah, but you can’t approach it on a theological level, you have to just experience it.
Me: The tune’s a dirge, the words are pants and I don’t believe any child under secondary-school age can understand them. Plus they’re in bad English.
Matt: Yeah, but most people that come to this thing don’t want to engage deeply with with the theological meaning of Christmas, they want to drink some beer, sing some carols they know and engage in some nostalgia. You’ve got to give people what they want to some extent.
And this takes me to the heart of this post. I’m a churched, thinking, fairly well-read, ‘intellectual believer’. At Christmas, I want to talk about the significance of incarnation, and what points the Gospel writers were making by including angelic messages to women, or Zoroastrian astrologers, or the deaths of innocent children, in their accounts. I don’t really want to rerun crib scenes which I know owe more to uninformed later tradition than to either Biblical or historical authenticity. I also have knee-jerk political responses to some well-known carols:
O little town of Bethlehem …… How emptied of people, oppressed and divided by military occupation we see thee lie
Once in Royal David’s city … stood a big dock-off wall largely surrounded by abandoned houses and illegally settled land.
But, at Christmas our churches are filled with the unchurched as at no other time. And those people want a collective celebration of tradition and nostalgia that’s acceptable to their grandma and accessible to their kids. We should give it to them in large part because: a) we should love them as our neighbours b) if we give them an insider-facing discussion of things outside their usual frame of reference they’ll justifiably feel affronted and won’t come back c) if we give them an evangelisation package thinly wrapped in a couple of carols they’ll feel attacked and won’t come back.
But at the same time, we should discuss incarnation and those passages – all of them, not just the ones in the Nine Lessons and Carols liturgy – at Christmas, because Advent is different and if we don’t think about them at Christmas we won’t any other time in the year.
So do I have any helpful suggestions, or am I just going to complicate the hardest-work season of the year for pretty much anyone involved in a church by making it the most overthought as well?
Well, I think the church needs to rediscover the season of Christmas. How we interact with those we don’t usually have through the doors takes precedence on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, quite clearly. But those like me who need a bit more intellectual and spiritual meat out of Christmas can be told to wait for the (usually two) Sundays in Christmas, and to spend that time with the Incarnation once the congregation has more or less returned to being people who are comfortable with being in church and the God-chat.
Realistically, whichever the biggest Christmas service is (often Christmas Eve, or a carol service a few days earlier) is probably the biggest evangelism opportunity most ordinary local churches have. But it’s also a tricky one to handle. What we can’t do, for the reasons outlined above, is turn it into some kind of ghastly seeker service with an altar call. Let’s put it this way: if you do that, it won’t be the church’s biggest evangelism opportunity next year. We must allow the people in general to celebrate Christmas with us – and that probably includes syrupy Victorian carols (this year I got asked to play some of them slower … sigh), well-known readings in old translations and even a Nativity play unrecognisable to either Matthew or Luke. BUT. We also have to make it clear why we do all this – why it matters to us as Christians more, and in a different way, than to those for whom it’s chiefly comforting and artistically pleasant routine. Not just as an add-on, a few words thrown in near the end that don’t join up with the rest of the service; but it should be clear from how we do Christmas that we love all the old stuff, and the familiarity, and the tradition, chiefly because God loved us enough to leave perfect happiness and become one of us, a very ordinary human baby, to heal our relationship with Him, when we couldn’t possibly manage to reach out and heal it ourselves. And maybe that’s a message those of us in the running of Christmas – practising for two big services back-to-back and making sure we can play the descant verses, if they’re musicians like me – need to remind ourselves of, as well as our Christmas congregations.