It used to be that Christmas began when Santa Claus passed the reviewing stand in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. It used to be that the first strains of Christmas carols played on the Muzak on the following Friday morning. It used to be.
However, for most churches, Advent will begin this year on December third, the first of the four Sundays before Christmas.
But, like it or not, for most of the US, Advent began on or just before Halloween. The Big Box stores began to display an aisle or two of Christmas decorations next to the Halloween masks and the bags of candy. Smaller stores followed suit shortly thereafter. This is the first year I’ve noticed that Christmas lights are twinkling on the houses in many subdivisions two weeks before Turkey-day.
Of course, the rest of this article could be given to a rant about how the church needs to take a stand against the commercialization of Christmas and it’s time for the church to go on the offensive to put Christ back in Christmas.
But what’s the point? As the end of the year looms just ahead, there are no indications that the church has done any better this year over than the last several years. We’re likely to have lost yet another million members from our churches by the end of the year. Fighting the Christmas rush isn’t going to change that.
As you get your church ready for the holiday season, here are some things to keep in mind that could make a real difference in your community.
Die on the Right Battlefield
I think it’s on page 1 of the Momma’s Manual: “Child, make sure you choose your battles wisely.” The church has been good at picking fights, but it hasn’t been very effective at choosing its battles. We keep picking fights we can’t win instead of choosing battles that really, really matter. Christmas commercialization is demoralizing, but the church doesn’t exist to fight Wal-Mart. The church doesn’t exist to end poverty, feed the hungry, house the homeless, end the war, or even to lobby for equal rights for anybody. All these are good causes, but Jesus wasn’t born in a manger and didn’t die on a cross for a good cause.
The only battle the church has been called to fight is the battle for the souls of the MIAs. Wesley changed the culture of England by doing just that. He didn’t lobby against anything. He didn’t institute soup kitchens for the poor or advocate for the rights of the exploited workers. Instead, he took the gospel to the down-and-outs. The battle he fought was for souls. Period. The results were amazing, but he didn’t shift his focus when the tides began to turn. For the church, there’s only one battlefield worth dying on.
In many churches I’ve worked with, relevancy means projecting worship choruses on a big screen while the worship band thumps the newest beat and the pastor wears a sport’s jacket over a t-shirt to preach.
But the fact is, relevancy does not equal adopting culture. Relevancy means responding in ways that are meaningful to those in the culture. Remember the first paragraphs and the launch of Christmas at Halloween? Well, relevancy doesn’t mean ignoring the trends. It doesn’t mean adopting the trends. And it doesn’t mean ranting against the trends.
Being relevant means you first have to note the trends and then respond in a way that is meaningful to those living the trends. The fact that some people are already decorating their homes may mean that the trend of a longer Christmas season is being widely accepted. In some ways this shouldn’t be surprising. It was only a couple of weeks ago that the World Series was conflicting with the basketball season and the opening of football season all at the same time. These “extended seasons” are simply a reality that we ignore at our peril. Finding out how they’re impacting your community and responding in ways they can hear (and see and feel), is what makes a church relevant.
“Life is difficult.” Scott Peck’s famous words state the obvious, but sometimes it seems that the church hasn’t quite “got it.” Promises of health and wealth seem far removed from reality, and yet it seems you can’t find a televised or radio-ized evangelist with a different message. And though you may not advocate such doctrines, never forget that this is one of the prevailing images of Christianity…a people out-of-touch with reality.
The church can’t cure all the ills of society. It can’t even cure all the ills of its own members. But the church can offer real respite from the travails that cloud people’s lives by advocating, teaching, and modeling real spiritual disciplines. Virtually everyone in North America claims to be a spiritual being, and yet there is a great hunger for spiritual practices that make a difference in life. The church is poised as the potential leader in satisfying this hunger by getting serious and offering a respite of the spirit.
During this holiday season, consider offering classes out in the public eye that connect spiritual practices with real people. Consider teaching beginning and advanced meditation practices, labyrinth prayer walking, prayer-bead making (and related prayer practices), journaling, and so on. Market these classes as opportunities to change the holiday season into a holy-day season.
But don’t stop with offering these classes to the masses. Until the church gets serious about its own practices, she will continue to flounder. Take the time this season to coach your people beyond the typical Advent Devotional from the Bible Book Store (or your computer). Coach them into fasting, prayer walking, journaling, and into accountability groups. Mentor them until these have become spiritual habits.