Preaching on Christmas may be one of the trickiest challenges faced by a preacher. Whether you're holding forth on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day or the Sunday before Christmas or all of the above, the challenge before you is an imposing one.
What I've just said is neither obvious nor intuitive. It would seem that preaching on Christmas is about as good as it gets. After all, the message is an upbeat one. Who doesn't like peace on earth and a baby in a manger? Moreover, almost every sanctuary will be full at Christmastime, something that energizes most preachers. So why am I saying that preaching on Christmas is so tricky?
Two Challenges for Christmas Preachers
I will mention two challenges among many. First, there is the challenge of diversity. The fact that Christmas services attract a wide variety of people makes preaching a complicated assignment. Depending on the configuration of Christmas services at your church, you may very well be preaching to 3-year-olds who can't wait to open their presents and to 80-year-olds who heard the Christmas message a dozen times before you were born. Most of the faithful will be present, but so will many who rarely enter a church. How can you expect to speak meaningfully to such a wide range of people, with such different attention spans and such varying understandings of Christian faith? How can you say anything of value when young children are wiggling and senior adults are secretly thinking "Been there, done that"?
Second, there is the challenge of familiarity. Though many who attend worship services around Christmas are not well-versed in the faith, many know the story of the birth of Jesus by heart. The basic message of Christmas—the birth of the Son of God, the Savior—is nothing new. Yet people tend to want preachers to say something novel, to share some new insight into established Christian truth. At the same time, as a preacher, you feel an obligation to reiterate the basic good news of Christmas.
Preaching the Word to People
At this point, I can imagine someone reading this column saying, "Look, don't worry so much about the challenges of diversity and familiarity. Just focus on the truth. Deliver the good news of Christmas and don't worry so much about the rest." I am in partial agreement with this word of admonition. Preachers, including me, can worry too much about how people will respond to our message. Our primary calling is, indeed, to preach God's truth, not to make sure our listeners have a positive response.
But, at the same time, we are called to preach the Word, not in a vacuum, but in congregations of real people. Our sacred task is to communicate the good news to people who desperately need to hear it. So, we must take seriously both the message we share and the people who are to receive it, even as we remember that it is the Holy Spirit's job to bring conviction and renewal through preaching.
With this in mind, let me share how I dealt with the challenges of diversity and familiarity during my sixteen-year tenure as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church.
Responding to the Challenges of Diversity and Familiarity
First, as I prepared my sermon, I pictured the diverse congregation that would be hearing it. I envisioned the young children and families who would fill the sanctuary for the first two services on Christmas Eve. I remembered seeing families sitting together at the later services, including spouses who never came to church and collegians who had given up their faith since leaving home. I pictured the "post-party" crowd that would join our 11:00 p.m. communion service, many still in their fancy clothes and reeking of too much eggnog. I thought of the faithful core of the church, those who would be gracious no matter what I said, but who hoped for something that would invigorate their love for the Lord.
Keeping in mind those to whom I'd be preaching on Christmas Eve helped me prepare a sermon that spoke to a variety of needs and interests. I made sure that I presented the basic good news of God's love in Christ, so that those who did not know the Lord might be introduced to him. Yet I sought to offer something for people who were hearing their fiftieth Christmas sermon as well as for those who were hearing their first. All of my Christmas Eve sermons in a given year were based on the same text and developed the same theme. But my two, child-friendly sermons for the early services were considerably different from my decidedly adult-friendly sermons for the later services.