Two Ways News is a weekly collaboration between Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen – a newsletter and podcast on a topic to encourage gospel thinking for today (subscribe at twoways.news).
Is it the Season to be Jolly?
TP: Phillip, how do you feel about Christmas, and this time of year?
PJ: Christmas has always been an issue of ambivalence for me, basically all my life. As a child, I loved Christmas, but when I got converted as a teenager, I realized that Christmas was part of the cultural Christianity out of which I had just been converted. And so what do I now do? Have nothing to do with Christmas?
Even as a teenager, I had terrible trouble coping with carol services in our church. I found them very strange. One week we had the Masonic service, the next week we had a carol service—and they were pretty much the same. They both seemed to be a distortion of the gospel I’d just been converted by.
But more recently, I spent ten years as the dean of a cathedral running multiple carol cervices and Christmas services every year. So there’s a shift over a lifetime!
So like I said: ambivalent. I find Christmas difficult.
TP: At one level, it’s the one time of the year when there’s a kind of permission to talk about Christianity and Jesus. And so Christians feel like we want to jump up and down and make the most of it. And yet the nature of the mention that Christianity gets at this time of the year seems increasingly to be contentless.
PJ: We don’t really have permission to speak about it. I think we ruin people’s Christmas when we speak about Jesus. It’s no longer about him.
We were away on holidays a week or two back, and Helen wanted to send some Christmas cards. And so she went to the local post office, but couldn’t find any Christmas cards that were actually Christian—they were all about Santa Claus and reindeers and everything. But not Christianity.
Then, when she went to buy some stamps, she asked for the religious stamps for this year and the post office lady said, “Well, there really aren’t any this year … although I do have this one with ‘Noël’ written on it”. Which of course means nothing to most people.
So Helen was about to settle for the Noël stamps when the lady said, “Oh no, hang on, I do have a religious one. It’s got a reindeer on it!”
That’s what it now means for Christmas to be religious.
In fact, in some places it’s quite explicitly a rejection of any religious content. One major Australian retailer has as their theme this Christmas, “The season is the reason”. They have intentionally gotten rid of any other reason for the celebration of Christmas, and for giving gifts. Forget Christ. The only reason is that it’s this season of the year.
And there are many other examples.
TP: So whatever Christian structures or foundations there may once have been for this holiday season, they are now leaching away or being actively removed. How do we respond as Christians to a society that’s changing like this?
PJ: Well you’ve got to understand it—and understand what has happened.
In the mid-20th century, what we had was cultural Christianity. It celebrated Christmas with nativity scenes and Santa Claus. It was all kind of muddled in together.
At that time there was also convictional Christianity, which celebrated the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ—that God became man as the prelude to Easter when he was crucified and rose to establish the Kingdom of God.
But I think most people celebrated a kind of confused Christianity. That is, we celebrated the incarnation with joy, but we also blended in the totally non-Christian, irrelevant Christmas event, with its Santa Claus and presents with baubles on them. It was all confused—although in one sense it didn’t matter all that much because … well fun is fun. And fun is a good thing, because food and drink and celebration are God’s good gifts to be received with thanksgiving. And so we celebrated something wonderful by eating magnificent puddings with threepenny bits in them (which you can’t do now because modern currency would poison you).
TP: So it was joyful fun, with real Christian content in there somewhere, but also confused.
PJ: Yes, people still did believe in Jesus Christ. It was a time when many people would still be offended by the spelling ‘Xmas’.
But it was also confused, with lots of irrelevant and non-Christian elements mixed in, so that when our society shifted away from cultural Christianity, Christmas got destroyed for conviction.
Today, our society very much wants to keep Christmas. For one thing, we’ll never give up our public holidays. But we enjoy the family fun of getting together, and commercially it’s the most important money-making time of the year for many industries. We’ll keep Christmas.
But having secularized our culture, we’ve de-Christianized Christmas. It’s now all about the children, and the presents, and the big family lunch. The nativity scenes have now almost completely disappeared. It’s all Santa Clause and reindeer flying across the world.
TP: How do we respond to all of this as Christians?
PJ: Well, Christians have always wanted to use Christmas to preach Christ—and good on them for doing that. That’s what we try to do.
But I’ve noticed over the years that I’ve hardly ever met anybody who was converted through Christmas services or carol services.
Now, our level of pragmatism is not such that we’d want to say, “Well, therefore let’s not do it because it doesn’t work”. But on the other hand—why is it that we’re not really seeing people converted?
I think it’s because we’ve compromised our message so much. We we sing carols about the deep, deep winter, and snow upon snow, and silent nights, and little Lord Jesus no crying he makes. And even when we read a wonderful passage like John 1:1-18, the average non-Christian with no knowledge of the Bible will find that almost incomprehensible. We run services on Christmas Eve because the family lunch on Christmas Day is actually the major event, and we need to work around that.
I think we’ve tried too hard to accommodate to Christmas in order to preach Christ.
TP: So now you’re sounding a bit like the Grinch who stole Christmas from Christian ministry. It’s not worth bothering with because it has very limited results, and we just end up accommodating ourselves to the blandness of the season.
PJ: Well, I did say I was ambivalent. That’s the negative side. But you’re asking me for the positive?
TP: That’s my role in life, isn’t it?
PJ: Well, we’re still celebrating the incarnation in our churches, and that’s what we should do. But to celebrate anything—including the incarnation—means fun and food and friends and family. And so we should rejoice and enjoy the great news that God has become man in order to save the world by his death and resurrection.
But we mustn’t confuse that message or get distracted by the message the world is willing to accept. So I don’t want to see Santa Claus in the church. Or ‘Jingle Bells’ as a kids’ carol. Let’s not allow that nonsense to confuse the gospel and message we have.
And yes, Christmas is a marvellous time to be with non-Christian friends. It’s a sociable time in our society. It’s easy to invite your neighbours to carols in the park. Now, I might not hear very much gospel in the park, but I’m going to build my relationship with my neighbours—to talk about the gospel in some other context, some other time.
And if you invite people to a carols event that your church is running, they might get to meet other Christians who are there, and see that the minister is an interesting man to listen to, and so on. It’s almost what the advertisers call ‘product placement’.
So Christmas still has an evangelistic advantage to us, but it’s more of a relational advantage—not so much a gospel-content advantage.
TP: So it’s often hard to give a clear, thorough, compelling gospel presentation as part of a carol service. But in a sense, it’s not the aim. The aim is more like ‘engagement’. To help people take a first step.
PJ: Yes, it’s a step towards that opportunity to actually explain the gospel seriously and at some length. But in inviting them to that first step, we don’t want Santa Claus and reindeers—that’s a distraction, and makes taking the next step only more difficult. I want them to come in and hear that we are joyful about God becoming man, rather than what the world is saying.
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