But this I know: Christmas preaching brings anxiety [for preachers]; imagining the Christmas and Easter persons in your pews; making sure that you articulate the right doctrine about the incarnation; worried that you might miss some sort of evangelical moment; thinking that this sermon has to hit it out of the park.
Karoline Lewis, “Christmas Preaching,” 12/22/17
Welcome to the Roll to Disbelieve Christmas Special!
First I heard one person talking about it. Then a few more. And then tons. I think I’ve heard like a dozen people so far talking about just how militant and weirdly pushy Christmas services are this year. So me being me, I got curious–was it just our imagination, or was this a trend? I’ll show you today–and then offer up some suggestions for dealing with unwanted preaching in general.
The Psychology of the Christmas Service.
It can be agonizing — planning your “special” Christmas sermon. Some people are expecting a feel good bit of “ho-ho” sermonizing. Others are expecting a humdinger of a sermon “because all the unsaved people are visiting!” . . . The humdinger crowd is right — a lot of people are sitting in your pews that day that won’t be in a church the other 51 Sundays of the year.
Daniel Threlfall, “5 Tips for Preparing for Your Christmas Sermon,” 11/2013
A service, in religious terms, is the formally-organized worship ceremony put on by a Christian group. (Catholics call certain services Masses as well.) The service is presided over by the group’s leader(s) and usually follows a fairly set routine: recitation of church business, singing (observed or communal), a sermon, maybe a Communion ceremony, and then a bye-bye wave so everyone can go to the buffet restaurant.
More and more often, some church leaders insert politics and condemnation of their tribal enemies into their services, further radicalizing and politicizing flocks that are increasingly growing dangerous in their belligerent rage and their tribalism.
But there’s one service that has always traditionally been free of all that mess. That service is one in which Christians at least pretend to be all about love, compassion, and concern for those who Christians have largely always marginalized.
That’s the Christmas service.
The Christmas service typically happens on the Sunday right before the holiday. If the 25th is on a Sunday, then so much the better–but obviously that only happens every so often. (Some churches will do their Christmas service on the 24th regardless of what day it lands on, too; Catholicism often calls the 24th service a “vigil,” just to make things more confusing.)
Churches that typically don’t go in for fancy frills during the rest of the year will blow their wad on the Christmas service. They’ll decorate their buildings with poinsettias and other such Christmas-themed plants. They’ll hang lights and put up Christmas trees. They’ll print special keepsake bulletins for those attending the service. Maybe they’ll even have a choir concert, or they’ll have the church’s Sunday School kids learn and perform a special set of songs, skits, or dances.
Christians know that if any non-church-attending Christian goes to a church at all, chances are they’re going to visiting for Christmas.
And usually, it’s a fairly safe evening.
How That Christmas Service Usually Goes.
I’m NEVER the “walk up to someone and start talking about Jesus” kind of pastor. Ever. Unless it is Christmas Eve and Easter. For those days I turn into a street evangelist on crack and helium, just handing out Invite Cards like that final scene in It’s A Wonderful Life where George is going around kissing everyone. It’s totally out of character for me, but I make myself do it. Why? I’m cashing in my chips. I’ve invested all year in people and it’s time to cash in my credibility chips with them.
Senior Pastor Central, “3 Free Ways to Double Your Christmas Eve Attendance (and why it matters),”
and yes, that’s a screwed-up rationale
Typically, pastors–being well aware of how many people will be in their buildings who don’t normally go near them–will pitch a service that love bombs attendees with how kind, gracious, cheerful, happy, joyous, community-minded, and generally “Christlike” this group is.
The service itself will run remarkably like a elementary-school music recital. The church-business part of the service will be quick and largely perfunctory, and the non-performance part of the evening will be brief and hope for the best before getting to the singing.
So generally you’ll be hearing a lot of Christmas carols–but usually they’re the ones that Christians feel are particularly Jesus-y, like “O Holy Night” and “Joy to the World,” both my own personal favorites. You are very unlikely to hear “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” or “Christmas at Ground Zero,” or for that matter my personal un-favorite, “Jingle Bell Rock” (my elementary school at the time had 9-year-olds doing remarkably similar dancing as in this movie; I saw the choreography, was horrified, and staged a revolt on the spot).
For many church visitors around this time of year, choral presentations are their big motivation for being there–my aunt-the-nun used to love going to the huge Mormon temple near her town because they turned their entire campus into a winter wonderland and had the big Tabernacle Choir singing. You might also get lucky and hear a holiday handbell concert.
The sermon itself will be brief and visitor-friendly. It’ll stress the joy of Jesus’ birth and put a religious spin on a holiday that is becoming less religious by the year. Preachers might stress the hope they (mistakenly) think their religion offers the people of the world, or the need they (mistakenly) think people have of a Savior for various reasons.
Then there’ll be more singing and finally a gracious farewell to the visitors–amid hopes that they will become members of the church. I’ve seen a lot of churches set up a little table near the door containing stacks of free Bibles and booklets for visitors, along with a bowl of peppermint candies. Many churches also offer a sort of post-service fellowship with hot cocoa, coffee, and baked goods, for those who want to linger a bit longer (wise: most of these churches will have packed-to-bursting parking lots).
All in all, the service will be designed with non-members in mind, and it will be designed to coax those visitors into thinking that this Christian group is very nice and maybe it’d be nice to become a member too.
But Is This Year Different?
Calvin, wide-eyed: Wow, the story was different that time!
Hobbes, wide-eyed: Do you think the townsfolk will ever find Hamster Huey’s head?
First it was just one person.
Then it was another, and another.
Then suddenly a whole bunch of people were saying that this year’s Christmas service was verrrrry different than they’d expected.
Instead of going the Jesus Aura route (which is to say making visitors think that this group exemplifies the virtues that most people mistakenly think of when they think the word Christlike; Christians think that when they behave like that, it creates a sort of shiny bright halo around themselves that attracts non-Christians like whoa), these churches are instead going the Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God route.
Instead of celebrating Jesus’ birth, these pastors are instead taking their captive audiences for granted by screaming at them about Hell and their need to convert to the pastor’s own most-correct-of-all-flavors of Christianity.
Instead of enjoying their family members and friends, who’d accepted their loved ones’ church invitations expecting the kind of Christmas service they’d always enjoyed (or at least endured with good grace), they got the hard sell from the most desperate salespeople imaginable. On our last post, Infinite Automaton shared a really WTF, eye-popping account of a pastor who took his one opportunity to interact with non-members to rail about his tribe’s loss of dominance in American culture. And that’s a very common story all of a sudden this year.
Now, granted, people tend to suffer from confirmation bias; if we’ve got something on our mind a lot, we notice that thing more often when it happens and may think it’s more common than it really is. So I didn’t want to just sit back and think this was a general trend without gathering what evidence I could find.
So I looked into it.
Is This a Trend?
Pray and dialogue with your music leader about the gospel. Testimonies are powerful. Use choir members or others to share their stories. And having the pastor make a direct gospel appeal is mandatory.
Ted Traylor for NAMB, “5 Ways to make Christmas evangelistic,” 11/15/17
And yes, gang, it does turn out that fundagelical pastors are starting to seize at any opportunity they can find to cram their threats and come-ons down the throats of anybody they can get to sit still for five minutes to hear it all.
Over at the truly unfortunately-named NAMB, which stands for the North American Mission Board but which obviously invites some comparisons that you’d think fundagelicals would want to avoid, we find a November 2017 post about how pastors can use their Christmas services as an evangelistic tool. Since NAMB is one of the arms of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), this blog post is talking to one of the biggest groups of church leaders on the planet–along with all the churches that call themselves nondenominational but are basically Southern Baptist (as that humor site points out).
Though Thom Rainer, another SBC leader, takes the same evangelistic tack as NAMB does, he keeps it much lower-key and does not explicitly suggest the use of hard-sell evangelistic come-ons to a Christmas audience that he knows will contain lots of non-members. Nonetheless, he clearly views the occasion as an important potential evangelism contact.
Over at Sermon Central, a site where Christian leaders can purchase canned sermons for their own use, we see a whole tag for “Christmas Evangelism.” On that tag, we find a scattering of sermons from years past that focus on things like “The Christmas Light That Brings Hope” and vignettes about the various characters named in the Gospels’ Nativity story. But there’s one from a couple of weeks ago that decidedly looks different from any of the few other sermons tagged as “Christmas Evangelism.” This one, called “Christmas Preparations,” was written by the very evasive-sounding Derrick Tuper, who bills himself as a “full-time Minister” (rather than a pastor) of a church in Syracuse. And he’s never, ever heard a fundagelical talking point he didn’t embrace wholeheartedly.
Derrick Tuper’s sermon is chock-full of Bible verses (since non-churchy people are totally going to care about that, right?)–and full of insistences that people need to “prepare” for Jesus’ Second Coming, which is a dogwhistle to fundagelicals about the end of the world. His sermon sounds absolutely excruciating, especially because of his constant exhortations to be “prepared so we can help to prepare others for Christ.” Yep, that’s totally what visitors want to hear on Christmas!
Over at the United Methodist Church, a mainline denomination that, according to La Wiki, “embraces both liturgical and evangelical elements” and which is also the second-biggest Protestant denomination in America (after the SBC), we find “Evangelistic Preaching Helps for Christmas Day.” Its suggestions are aimed at audiences who are “Christian, pre-Christian, and de-churched.” Its beginning goes thusly:
Each Christmas season, the flurry of gift giving creates a sense of anticipation to receive a special gift. This Christmas, why not receive the gift of Jesus Christ, our “special delivery” present?
Like the other sermons do, this Jesus Juke advises pastors to end with an appeal for people to convert and join their group. It’s from 2010, however, so maybe they were just getting ahead of the curve.
One sees a similar tactic going on over at the United Church of Christ, which printed “sermon seeds” for the Christmas season that ominously warn audiences that “God will hold us accountable” for all the naughty things people do.
At Ministry Matters, James Howell suggests that pastors use their Christmas sermon to take potshots at what he calls “popular atheism.” On that note, he also insults Bart Ehrman, which I’m guessing is something he doesn’t realize actual atheists will notice.
And over at our own Patheos evangelical channel, we see a Christmas sermon reprinted from some Anglican church that includes all the common tropes in all the stories I’m hearing about hard-sales Christmas sermons this year, right down to the threats about Hell and Judgment.
But I also saw a number of Christmas services that didn’t go that route. The pastors officiating those services stuck to the tried-and-true format that Rev. Clancy summarized thusly:
There’s no sermon on Christmas Eve. No one wants to hear a sermon on Christmas Eve. They want to hear the Christmas story, sing the songs they sang growing up, and end the service singing Silent Night by candlelight.
Is It Intentional?
So yes, I do think there’s evidence to suggest that Christmas sermons have begun to be way more evangelistic this year.
That said, I don’t think that it’s a turn taken intentionally. I don’t think there’s some dark cabal of evil pastors getting together to decide, as a religious monolith, to make really hard-sales Christmas sermons from now on. With the marked exception of the SBC and its various mouthpieces, I’m seeing this move on a scattershot basis by individual pastors and maybe some smaller groups (like that Sermon Central outfit).
But I do think that pastors and other church leaders are starting to feel desperate. They simply don’t get the opportunity to preach at captive audiences very often anymore, and they’re feeling more and more rejected by society. Remember, these are people who very often think that the ends always justify any means they feel they must take. So whatever the reason might be for them to happen onto a captive audience, they’re going to ride it like they stole it.
I’d definitely take this information on board when considering whether or not to visit a church for the holidays next year. You may end up subjecting yourself to a very, very unpleasant time!
Worse, I suspect this trend will continue and become more extreme. We’ll see if I’m right–but not to toot my own horn here, I haven’t often been wrong so far about this religion.
Recent anecdotal evidence also reveals that pastors are doing very similar stunts with weddings and funerals, which are two other occasions when large numbers of captive-audience attendees will be there who aren’t members of those ministers’ churches.
So… be forewarned.
Suggestions For Those Facing Unwanted Evangelism.
First and foremost, be aware that yes, this is a thing that could happen at any point when you, an unchurched person (or a member of the “wrong” religion or flavor of Christianity), put yourself into a captive-audience situation with a fundagelical speaker. When controlling people get really desperate, there’s literally no low that’s too low for them. They’ll give an altar call at a funeral; they’ll take advantage of your desire to make nice with your relatives at Christmas as an opportunity to preach about Hellfire and damnation. Don’t be surprised when it happens, is all.
Second, be aware of how much unwanted hardcore evangelism you’re willing to tolerate. Bait-and-switch fundagelicals count on audiences’ innate desire to be polite and not rock the boat. Like any other predatory people, they know that you’re culturally conditioned to be “nice” even when you’re furious. They’re counting on you to sit there till they’re done talking and to absorb the message they’re trying to give. Your tolerance level for these shenanigans is up to you to decide.
Third, if your limit is reached, decide what you’re going to do. This might be as simple as telling your companions that you’re leaving, and making as graceful or ungraceful an exit as you care to make. Your action might be that you will disengage from the sermon and start playing on your phone. Be creative if you like–remember, you are the one being imposed upon; you don’t owe that church or that preacher a thing, not even your courtesy. They’re the ones who are at fault here.
Fourth, you might need some roleplay to help you say things more easily in the situation. If you have a trusted friend who can “run lines” with you, that might make it much easier for you to be assertive in the moment–especially if you’re not naturally very assertive. (Or use a mirror!)
And fifth and last, be very vocal about the bait-and-switch you experienced. Write about it on social media. (#IDidntAskToBePreachedAt?) Christians operate in a culture where members aren’t allowed to discuss negative experiences they have, lest they be accused of being “divisive.” So blow the lid off that dark corner.
Merry Christmas, friends! And be of good cheer. Predatory and nonconsensual preaching is a sign of the coming downfall of Christianity. They wouldn’t be doing it if they weren’t totally panicking. They may get considerably worse in coming years as they get even more desperate, but that, too, is something we can take grim satisfaction in seeing.
And it’s a shame they seem to be going that route, too, kinda, because handbells are boss.
Enjoy an hour of Christmas-themed commercials from the 1980s. Surprisingly watchable.
Happy Holidays! I hope you spent today with the people you love most. And we’ll see you tomorrow on our next regularly-scheduled post.
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