Should we preach at Christmas services?

David Walker, Bishop of Manchester, has done some research on the distinctive needs of occasional attenders who might come to Christmas services, but don’t attend the rest of the year. This appears to be an important group; I have noticed this year how many people are reporting increased attendances at carol services, and we saw the same at St Nic’s in Nottingham.

Some things were slightly surprising about this group.

Typically, two-thirds positively believed in specific details of the Christmas story: the shepherds, stable, and Wise Men. All but a tiny proportion of the rest were unsure. Only 13 per cent, however, felt that the facts were more important than the mystery. Half felt closer to God at Christmas, and yet more thought Easter to be, for them, the more important festival.

But other things were less surprising.

They were noticeably pluralist: they were far more likely to agree that all world faiths lead to God than that Christianity is the only true religion…On moral issues they were progressive: only 28 per cent disagreed with ordaining gay men as bishops.

(I wonder why a bishop labels this view ‘progressive’—or even why this is an important question to ask occasional church-goers at all…?). In other words, this is what you would expect to find in a respectable fringe group who think positively about church.

Out of this, David offers some helpful advice.

  • Don’t update the words of well-known carols to fit your theology…
  • Be imaginative. Use poetry, prose, and art…
  • Welcome people, but respect their personal space…
  • Mention other special events coming up in the calendar…

But in amongst them is one extraordinary suggestion:

  • If there is to be a sermon (and at carol services, it really is not a good idea)…

Not a good idea? Really? Here is a group of people, open to Christian things (possibly because they have attended church in the past) but without regular commitment—and it is not a good idea to preach? This is a very odd suggestion, for several reasons. First, it is not very Anglican. If you look at the ordinal and the 39 Articles, it is clear that the Anglican understanding of ordained ministry is that it is one of both word and sacrament—that preaching is as important as mystery, explanation as important as experience. (That is why, as Andrew Atherstone points out, it is historically odd that we are very happy with the delegation of preaching to lay ministers, but feel uncomfortable with delegation of eucharistic presidency to lay ministers.)

It is a particularly odd suggestion in relation to Christmas. The Christmas story itself is full of announcement and proclamation—indeed, if there is one thread running through every aspect of this multi-faceted story, it is that of proclamation. Gabriel to Zechariah, Elizabeth and Mary, the dreams of Joseph, the angels appearing to shepherds, the Magi to Herod—how odd it would be to have no proclamation regarding a story of successive proclamations.

And what a story we have to proclaim. Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005—and is an atheist. Yet he loves to celebrate the Christmas story:

Nothing draws me more to religion than Christmas. That is not because I lose my atheist faith but because I intensely dislike all the commercial baggage and babble that surrounds the festival. So, in a spirit of protest, I shall try to attend at least one carol service and possibly a midnight Mass, too, as well as listening at 3pm sharp on Christmas Eve to the Radio 4 broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge.

All religions have stories at their heart. Christianity, to my mind, has the best: an omnipotent God who chooses to be incarnated as a human, born in the most humble circumstances imaginable. Whether or not we are believers, we should all celebrate that story in the coming days and ponder its meaning.

Pondering the meaning of this remarkable story is going to be a lot harder for occasional visitors unless there is some explanation or exposition of the story itself. The carols on their own will not do this.

So why would David Walker resist this? There are, perhaps, two clues in his article. The first comes early on with the only other reference to preaching.

There has always been a type of mission that ignores context, and simply struts its stuff. It is best illustrated by those who stand in city-centre streets, clutching microphones and tracts, and harangue shoppers and commuters with their favourite Bible verses.

If this is your understanding of preaching, then no wonder you suggest avoiding it. But the best response to bad use is not no use—it is good use. There was a brief but wonderful example of this last week on the One Show. The final scene came from carol singing in All Soul’s, Langham Place, and Matt was talking to the Rector, Hugh Palmer.

HP: Giving appeals to our common humanity—I suspect the people who gave came from all faiths and none.

Matt: And that’s at the heart of the Christmas message that you would like to give…?

HP: Well, we often talk about charity beginning at home. But I think that charity begins with God, the good God, who is highlighted at Christmas. He looks and doesn’t just see children in need, but a world with all kinds of needs, and gives extravagantly, and not with a cheque, but gives himself, Jesus, and that’s the heartbeat of Christian giving. We don’t give so that God will give to us. We give, we love, because he first loved us—and that’s Christmas.

Matt: Well, thank you for that message…

It was a superb example of a concise, contextual and clear exposition of the Christmas story—to someone who came with rather different assumptions but some sympathy and openness.

The second clue about this reluctance to preach arises from the research questions. Although the attenders have been asked about the details of the Christmas story, and some broader questions about belief in God, they don’t appear to have been asked about the meaning of this story. Again, this is curious, since the New Testament stories themselves are laden with meaning and significance. As we can quickly tell, they are no mere recounting of facts. This tells us something important about this kind of research: the assumptions you put in are going to be the assumptions you get out. So if you don’t think that explaining and understanding the Christmas story is a priority as you start the research, your conclusions might just miraculously confirm this!

(Something similar has happened with the research into ‘ordinary theology’. It turns out that the majority of ordinary Anglicans don’t have a particularly orthodox understanding of either who Jesus is or what he achieved. And apparently, to take this seriously we don’t need to teach about orthodox Christian faith—we need to redefine it to include these views!)

Underlying this appears to be a lack of confidence that the story itself is compelling and attractive. If the Star Wars phenomenon tells us anything, it is that people love a good story. And there is no story as engaging and compelling as the story of the Word made flesh.

So, this Christmas, do preach. Make it contextually appropriate. Make sure it sounds like good news to those who might not have heard it before. Make sure you hold out the compelling truth of the story, and how it promises so much more. Make sure you focus, not so much on what people did or what we should do, but what God has done.

But whatever else you do—preach!

This article first appeared on Ian Paul's blog, Psephizo, and we are grateful for permission to reproduce it on Fulcrum.

15 thoughts on “Should we preach at Christmas services?”

  1. If I am atoned for my sin and have a saviour who died for me and I understand the doctrine, but no one loves cares for or befriends me, what did Christ die for! For if you have everything but not love? Not sure if that’s a doctrine , or just an example from Christ as to how we should live. Of course doctrine is important, but it is equally important rather than more important. It’s all about balance. I have just read Robin Oakes book on God on the Streets his insight is valuable he did not put doctrine first he put his faith and God first, he never once used the word doctrine. But he used the words alongside a lot. The expounding of doctrine is about
    at-onement Christ resurrection and the second coming is the Hope of things to come, but we would not hope for that if we did not first experience God’s presence in fellowship. But I understand from an academics perspective it is difficult the original sin is a bit deep for a Christmas introduction to the faith , Christ may have died for us but it takes a while to under stand for most it is a complex issue.

  2. Happy New year Phi The most important part of the doctrine is friendship and fellowship, expounded through many different mediums for some it will be formal and others informal, we are taught “in the beginning” was the word that clearly shows us that the word is followed by other things and actions. The next bit is about discernment, even for new Christians or prospective Christians because God lead us all differently.

      ‘The most important part of the doctrine is friendship and fellowship…..’.
      I am afraid I disagree with you on that point. Doctrines are truths about God, Christ, the world, ourselves etc. Drawn from the Bible. Like the doctrine of Original Sin, the doctrine of the atoning death of Christ, the doctrine of Christ’s resurrection and ascension and second coming, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the doctrine of the Last Judgment. These are among the primary, objective truths (true for God and true for us) of the Christian faith. I agree that the doctrine of the fellowship among all Christians is an important doctrine but not ‘most important’.

      Phil Almond

  3. I really am not sure that sharing and proclaiming are different. I certainly understand your point about formality and informality, but sharing and proclamation can be formal or informal, Christ was.never as I understand the gospel formal in his approach. He drew people in because he was informal in his approach he got alongside. It is true also though preaching does not have bad connotations for all but it does for many with its often predictability. I have of course heard some excellent preaching in all kinds of settings and I have shared in all sorts of settings. But preaching has got bad connotations. Proclaiming the word is not a status issue, ie God can use anyone he even used me once, he may still be recovering. : 0) I am not averse to hearing a sermon but I do think that they are deep and confusing for a newcomer, and that Christmas is supposed to be about sharing God’s Love in the purest sense through meeting the needs of those who approach him in prayer first and foremost, and of course sung prayers through music, it is a time for comfort and peace, it has been and is hard fought for, The Lord gives us rest at such times as Christmas is not intellectual preaching and debate, that happens here. Preaching does not still the soul but stirs it.Sharing comforts the soul. Proclamation feeds the soul” In the beginning was the word” I heard it when we shared, I knew it when you cared
    So I can proclaim that Jesus is my Lord and Saviour given to be shared! At Christmas time and throughout the year. Even when it’s difficult. You can invite someone share Jesus , but if you formally preach when they need Jesus as friend they will be lost

  4. A herd of cattle lumber along together; a flock of sheep have a tendency; few have even heard of a clowder of cats because each does exactly what he likes anyway. Pastors here talk about Nones and Dones, and a few have reached out to the Emerging. Some there study the *ordinary theology* of the unchurched, and others are launching a movement for ecclesiological ethnography. So far, the takeaway from all of this is that the congregation for a carol service is not a herd, or a flock, but a clowder. Yes, one should somehow get fresh words of faith into those services, as Ian says– even a museum says something about why its collection matters– but the preaching appreciated by herds and flocks will not do. Cows are attentive, sheep are patient, but cats are curious.

    One cannot pour water into a bubbling spring. The obstacle is not so much unbelief as a temperament that is steeply inclined to keep possibilities in play, to judge ideas by the characters they inspire, and to work life’s meaning out for oneself. Crazymaking as this is for an evangelical anxious to close the deal with one great, converting sermon, cats are cats. And if one magnificent discourse does move some from drift to the roll, one has a clowder of prospective evangelicals to pastor. This is not inconceivable– a congregation need not be a regiment– but it is hardly the usual model.

    A painting instructor once made me paint something solely in a colour I viscerally loathed. This is an old trick to jolt young artists out of unconscious limitations in their palettes that are holding back their imaginations. Should preachers drawn to evangelicalism by their taste for doctrinal clarity, zealous discipleship, etc likewise convene more festival services for cats until they figure out how to preach to them? After all, from the cats’ point of view, that would show much more faith than just holding them twice a year.

    • Thanks Bowman, for a really useful congregational metaphor! Like all metaphors however, one can overstretch it. My personal take is that cattle and sheep have a deal with humans in which they give, ultimately their lives. Cats on the other hand always, always take and I have seen several posts in other places where clergy sometimes own up to resenting the Christmas one-off visitors, who swell the coffers little and commit nothing while being entertained by the enormous efforts of the church.

      No, I would never give up on the special effort to reach all our community with the message of incarnation, of the God who cares, but designing a liturgy to reach cats effectively is indeed an even more challenging task than I considered it before. And that, after worshipping on Christmas morning breaking all rules of theatre assisted by both a donkey and small children! Happy New Year!

  5. But Roy the point is about Sharing the Gospel. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel? Do you think we might be seeing different interpretations of preaching? Preaching has come to have a negative connotation for all, Jesus shared the Gospel Paul shared the Gospel it is in the recognition that once you preach the gospel woe to you if you do not uphold or practice what you preach! Preaching is teaching and teaching the teaching is for people who can understand, much like the rule of tongues should only happen if it can be interpreted. Sharing the gospel means it is experienced by all it is experienced by the preacher and the listener, it does say woe to me if I do not preach the gospel, does that negate sharing the gospel? We are equal in christ we share in the suffering as well as the joys, some have more joy than others mind you but that’s a different kind of sharing . Evangelist preach the gospel but they need to live it too. That is why being a preacher is so difficult, for the woe is in if the gospel is not preached when the preacher feels they are losing faith, as we heard and shared with Justin Welby recently. I pray that his call was not unheard and that when he preached that he meant what he said, which I am sure he did. Throughout all of history there have been the equivalent of Herod of, all over the world. Right from the time of challenging those who would rule by violence through greed usually over land. So Christ came and showed us , he shared what love could do.. Most of us have experienced that love even if some have not recognised it as so. So let’s share the Gospel as Christ taught us at the point of need for an individual as well as the crowd to build up and not break down . May the Lord enable us to discern when it is appropriate and when it is better to get alongside.

    • I think there is category confusion here. A difference clearly exist between “sharing” and “proclaiming”. The Scriptures clearly point us to at least three levels of “Word ministry”: the informal word and life of every believer, the informal when gifts of teaching, counselling and advising are exercised by all kinds of Christians in every day life including blogging and posting on Fulcrum! But there is a third level of formal “proclamation” which is clearly seen in the Acts of the Apostles and expected of all lay and ordained ministers tasked with the privilege and responsibilty of public communication of Christ. Tim Keller has written by far the best book in the recent past on preaching and develops all of this clearly (see his “Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Scepticism”).

      Since this thread is all about preaching Christ in Christmas Services when large numbers of unconverted people are present it is an issue not just about informal “sharing”, which of course is vital, but of the necessity of formal proclamation. Missing this out is missing a duty and privilege entrusted to all Gospel ministers. If it is left out because we do not feel preaching communicates we need to revisit our Scriptural mandate. It is wrong to say that all preaching is teaching and therefore unintelligible to non Christians. Some, but not all preaching is teaching Preaching Christ clearly, Who He is, What He has done and what He may do for us is strongly declarative and proclamatory. In such settings we need proclamation backed up by convincing Christian living, yes. But verbal proclamation is God’s chosen way to wing home His word and to call us all to encounter a living Christ.

      Nor is true to say that all preaching “has come to have a negative connotation for all”. The reality is that good quality of preaching is still very high on the list of “must haves” for members of living churches. Simply because it is in hearing God’s word we changed and formed. Preachers are by God’s express will and choice his messangers tasked with communicating to all will listen. “How shall they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10.14)

      • I agree, there is confusion here over what ‘preaching’ should (or does) mean. However, i am not so sure that Roy can quite so clearly delineate specific categories of ‘Word Ministry’. Some years ago when I was working on the use of early computer based means of teaching and information sharing ( remember Prestel?) one insight I found helpful was the concept of ‘gossiping the gospel’, based on the verb lalein – seen mainly in the market place interchanges in Acts. Proclamation ( kerussein) and bearing witness (marturein) are the other important verbs in this context, but we I suggest have come to invest proclamation (preaching) with an overlay of our expectations of what it ought to involve. Paul in Romans 10 seems to me to give us the clue as to the content – which is to ‘bring good news’.
        Bringing Good News in a Carol Service can clearly be done in many and various ways – and it doesn’t have to be a separate slot with someone talking up front – although it could be in the right circumstances.

  6. I have never understood how it makes any sense to have a church packed full of people and not to preach. If the Good News we are celebrating is not worth proclaiming then we must really ask ourselves why we believe, whether we believe anything at all and what we believe. Over decades I have known many who have come to faith in Christ through Christmas time preaching. Yes, of course, be contextually sesitive but failing to preach on such occasions is so obviously contextually insensitive. And as Paul said “Woe to me, if I do not preach not the Gospel” (1 Cor 9.16).

  7. Yes Mike you are right, with the right gospel readings and the right music etc the atmosphere of reception can be created, it’s the nurturing afterwards which is not so easy to maintain. But it is important that the gospel is received through multiple senses ie sight hearing and practicality, because we are whole human beings, it’s all about the Wholeness in Christ. We have to remember though that we cannot create that but we create the opportunity for God to do that. It is difficult sometimes to get that balance for all. I thought the balance on Christmas Eve for the midnight service on TV was right. Preaching does not form community, sharing however does.

  8. I have cringed so many times when well-meaning evangelicals feel they have got to give a short (and often it is not!) run down on sin, judgement and salvation and usually end up destroying the positive atmosphere that has been created up till then.

    It certainly is possible to introduce items into the carol service with a sharper point to them – I for years used visual material of some sort – TEAR Fund is a good source – and poems and other music that gave people something to think about.

    And then followed up by a gentle invitation to make contact in some other way if they wish to.

    People don’t come to carol services for a sermon, but well chosen readings, songs and other material will preach the gospel for you.

  9. I agree entirely that it is not a good idea to “preach” at christmas, captive audiences merely fulfil the indulgence of the preacher. However to s h are is a beautiful and captivating thing which sows seeds not just for the occasion day week or year but for life. How do you share with a lot of strangers what Christ offers,? Well you get alongside, you have pastoral workers in the pews who have Hankies wet wipes bits of paper and crayons in the family service, in an adult service tissues wet wipes mints etc water in the pews would be a good idea , the preacher always has water whilst people in the pews often thirsty do not. It is in the small acts of care that people feel acknowledged to start with and then part of the group.They are just the practical issues. The service should not be used as a guilt inducing thing i.e. we know how hard the world is, we don’t need to be told at christmas before we go home to eat. Also rushing people out after the service, whilst . I appreciate the clergy have families and a home and dinner to go to they also have many friends and much social support, the person who attends or family that attends may have none of that, but at christmas they are drawn to try and be part of the Christmas story. My worst new year for this was Westminster Abbey where whilst looking at the plaques I was ushered out of the Abbey because they wanted to go home, there were many behind me like sheep in a cattle grid being shoved out. I had travelled 350 miles I wanted with the family to savour it take it in and know who I was praying for. There were people in th e ‘re with me we are not talking about an hour after everyone had gone but about 15 mins in amongst the crowd. So that brings me to the next point it is pointless telling people from the pulpit at christmas how much they mean to God and how much they should share then the regulars huddling with their families leaving strangers awkwardly looking round wondering where the exit door is, it is equally pointless stopping them at the door when that should have been earlier in the sharing you walk together to the door. For the lack of social interaction in the church people may as well watch it on tv or listen on the radio.

  10. Not sure why Ian Paul only quotes part of Bishop David’s point about preaching. to avoid misrepresentation here is the full wording:

    If there is to be a sermon (and at carol services, it really is not a good idea), let its words be directed to unfold the mystery, drawing worshippers into it, and thus closer to God. Do not attempt to expound doctrine, or teach your parish’s views on some theological controversy.

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