I’ve got to be honest.
I went to a Christmas play at a one of the largest churches in the state the other night, and I was impressed. I walked out of there thinking about how stunning the lights, sound effects, voices, decorations and details really were. But I also walked out of there with disappointment in my heart.
While there was one song sung about Christ, the message wasn’t about the saving light of Jesus. Instead, it was funny. It was full of pop culture references. And, of course, complete with dazzling aesthetics. But while the 3,000 people in attendance that evening might have been entertained and to some extent, warmed, they missed out on an opportunity to hear the gospel and be led to Christ. So it got me thinking about how we, as the leaders of our churches, should navigate this time of year. Here’s where my introspection led me.
The Pressure to Appeal
Christmas can be a hard time of year pastors. There’s a lot of pressure because we know we’ll have so many guests in the building and so many eyes (especially new ones) watching us. If it isn’t someone’s Grandma coming in from New York or someone else’s cousins flying in from Michigan, then it’s a church member’s neighbors or extended family joining them. However it shakes out, Christmas is a very busy time for churches – and it makes pastors feel the heat.
We want to make our guests laugh, and make them comfortable. We want them to feel the love of the Lord, feel welcomed and encouraged. But these desires that are rooted in love and care can go too far. They can skew our messages. They can even make us lose sight of our calling, and cause us to distort (or altogether avoid) the truth of the Bible that we have committed to share.
So just because it’s Christmas (or perhaps all the more reason because it’s Christmas), we can’t build our messages by trying not to offend or not bringing the reality of the truth. The book of 2nd Timothy captures the heart of this matter as follows: “I solemnly urge you in the presence of God and Christ Jesus, who will someday judge the living and the dead when he comes to set up his Kingdom: Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching. For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths.” – 2nd Timothy 4:1-4
There’s a lot to unpack and absorb there, but it’s also straightforward. This Christmas season, I want to challenge all of us to reflect on our own teachings. How are we preaching the Word of God? Are we correcting, rebuking and encouraging our people with good teaching? Or are we instead trying to tell them what they want to hear?
Diluting our Saltiness
Let me be clear in all of this. I’m not saying we can’t enjoy the fun of the Christmas season, or that we have to avoid laughter, decorations and a reference to The Grinch, Clark Griswold or other relatable analogies in order to do things God’s way. But we must remember that we will be speaking to people who may only come to church this once. Are we actually preaching the gospel and leading them to Jesus, or are we merely putting on a performance in order to get some “oohs and ahhs”, a few laughs, or even heart-stirring family moments?
Matthew 5:13-16 says: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” The only way salt can lose its saltiness is by dilution. The same is true for the Word of God. And so often, I fear we water down our message so people will approve of it.
I know all too well that it’s easy to get scared of offending our audience. But we have been called to bring the truth and not shy away from hard messages, rather allowing them to set the tone for the Holy Spirit to bring conviction. So this Christmas season, I want to invite you to search your own heart. Consider how you’re preaching, and whether it’s time to recenter on the gospel.
After all, the gospel is – by definition – Good News.
It shouldn’t be changed, but instead should be shared with warmth, humility and clarity. As long as we remain gentle and present the Word honestly, we can walk away from the stage feeling like we did what we were called to do. And then? We leave the results in the hands of God, which is where they should be anyway.