We’ve seen them. We know them. We’ve shaken our heads over them, worried about them, prayed for them. Who are they? They are the “C&E” churchgoers—they turn up at Christmas and Easter, but that’s it. But do we simply shrug and accept this as a sad but inevitable reality? Or is there something we can do to persuade them that it might be worthwhile to come back sooner than Easter—maybe even next week?
Some of the answers are obvious—a genuinely welcoming community; liturgy that is done well; music that delights the ear and touches the heart; and quality refreshments afterwards, for a start. Those things take an enthusiastic congregation. But there is another part of the service that is primarily the responsibility of one person: the sermon.
So here’s my question for preachers: How do we preach at Christmas in such a way that the occasional visitors 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.
Name people’s hang-ups—whether or not we share them
Many people outside the Church assume that church folk don’t understand their doubts and reservations 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 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.”
We can address those issues, but we need to start by naming them as legitimate concerns. Otherwise the hearers are always thinking, “Ah, but if you knew my questions, my doubts, my experience, you’d understand why I’m not here more often.” If we can disarm those reservations, it can make people feel included, not left outside.
Avoid religious jargon
Every profession has its own vocabulary. We need it to be precise and efficient. Once we are among ordinary people, however, our language has to change. Have you ever had a doctor diagnose your symptoms without you understanding a word? That doctor obviously never learned the noble art of translation.
Religious professionals also have their own special language—which seminaries are very good at teaching. But when we are trying to communicate the best news in the world to people who have never heard it, we need to translate that language into everyday speech. For example:
Instead of using the technical term “incarnation,” talk about “the author writing himself (or herself) into the script of the play.”
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, but they understand “biography.”
Talk about “the story” rather than “the text.” Only scholars talk about “texts” (apart from the phone kind).
Do something surprising—even if it’s outside our comfort zone
We live in a multi-media age. 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 our culture feel that informal equals sincere, and formal equals inauthentic. It’s not necessarily the case, of course—but it’s what people assume.
Including a short dramatic sketch on the subject of the sermon. I remember one such at Trinity Anglican Church Streetsville many years ago—even now I find it moving.
If you have the technology, showing an appropriate video clip. The website textweek.com, which includes lectionary resources, has a tab called “movie index,” which offers lots of good ideas.
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.
Speak from the heart—and take time to find it
This is maybe the hardest, and so I mention it tentatively. 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 pray that our hearts are full to overflowing before we speak. People recognise authenticity—and equally they recognise when we are just saying the words without feeling them.
Preaching at Christmas is always a challenge. But if we believe that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” the sermon can be a sacrament of that same incarnation—with our words offering the hearers a taste of the love of that God who enters our world and speaks to us “right where we are.”
Will the Christmas & Easter attenders come back next week? That’s up to them in their relationship with God, of course. Our job is simply to represent the Gospel as best we can—and then to leave the rest to God. After all, if God loved us enough to come to earth for us, we can trust God to look after it.