It's Christmas season once again, and churches everywhere are preparing for the onslaught of "ticket punching" Christians who only show up for Christmas and Easter.
Worship leaders are practicing "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" and "Silent Night." Pastors are polishing up sermons that will be sure to include descriptions of Baby Jesus surrounded by wise men in the stable.
We will give them what they want. Aunt Mary will have tears in her eyes and say, "It's so beautiful." Even crusty old Ralph from down the block will show up -- if only to impress his new girlfriend -- and say, "I love these old songs. Just like when I was a kid."
They will file out, contemplative, looking rather repentent.
And we won't see them again until Easter ... or next Christmas.
At first blush, we might be tempted to say, "Well, we gave them our best shot. They had the greatest story ever told, the pageantry. Heck, we brought out violins and flugel horns for 'Deck the Halls.' We'll never reach these people."
On the other hand, maybe we need to hit them with the unexpected if we even want to get their attention.
The story of the prodigal son might resonate with this crowd. How about the woman at the well and her conversation with Jesus about "living water?" David and Goliath? Heck, how about David and Bathsheba? The story of Job? Noah? Jonah?
Maybe these people don't come back because they feel like they've heard it all before and, well, it never made any real difference in their lives.
Think about it. They hear that 2000 years ago a baby was born who fulfilled a bunch of prophercies even OLDER than that (prophecies that Jews don't seem to believe were fulfilled). This Jesus guy told some great stories, healed a bunch of people, but ticked off the wrong folks and was crucified for it. Oh, and he died for MY sins, and I wasn't even BORN yet.
What they need is more of a global introduction to Christianity.
My best example comes from the Alpha course -- a worldwide course in Christianity offered by many churches.
The first talk given to participants -- many of whom are lapsed Christians, agnostics or atheists -- is "Christianity: Boring, Untrue and Irrelevant?"
In about the time it takes to give the usual Christmas sermon, the Alpha course plunges head-on into such questions as:
-- What does Christianity have to do with life today?
-- What am I doing on Earth?
-- What is the point of life?
-- Where am I heading?
That first talk summarizes who Jesus is and concludes: "Christianity is not boring; it is about living life to the full. It is not untrue; it is the truth. It is not irrelevant; it transforms the whole of our lives."
I've been involved in three Alpha courses and you know what? After that first talk, 90 percent of the participants come back for the next one.
Those who stick out the whole 10 weeks learn the historical proof that Jesus lived, they learn what He said about himself and the evidence that it is true.
One of my favorite talks uses a famous quote from theologian C.S. Lewis to tear down any claims someone might have that Jesus was a great moral teacher, but nothing more:
A man who is merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic - on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg - or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. -- (Mere Christianity [New York: Touchstone, 1996] 56).
The Alpha course goes on to address why Jesus died, how we can be sure of our faith, why we should read the Bible, how should we pray, who is the Holy Spirit, how can we resist evil, how should we tell others about our faith, and how can we make the most of the rest of our lives.
Christianity is a rich tapestry that is anything BUT boring, untrue or irrelevant. Yet we let people breeze in and out of our churches on Christmas and Easter without receiving any inkling of the dramatic power and resonant TRUTH Christ has to offer.
It may be too much to expect pastors to set aside the Lectionary and truly evangelize this Christmas. It may be too much to expect even the most loyal Christian to be willing to give up the pomp and pageantry, the familiar songs and blessed stories that go with Christmas.
But maybe, when we see someone new in church this Christmas, we can introduce ourselves, get their names and maybe a phone number.
And our New Year's resolution could be to get them back to an Alpha course so they can learn, as Paul Harvey likes to say, "The rest of the story."
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Very refreshing idea, Al. One that I would enjoy experiencing. Since most churches offer more than one service to their parishioners, perhaps one could be devoted to this type of teaching - who knows how it would turn out. At any rate, it's worth praying about and reading your article certainly provided the food for thought needed. Well done! Yours in Christ, Karen
Al, what a great angle to come from. If a church knows that they will have a good number of "C & E" visitors at that time, it really is the perfect opportunity to share at least something beyond the baby in the manger - an opportunity to plant seeds. Good point made. Love, Deb