On Christmas Eve and Christmas morning in just a few short days, millions of Americans will head to church.
For some, it will be the continuation of a weekly tradition to a church they have gone to for years and for several Christmases past. For others it may be the one time other than Easter Sunday they listen to a pastor deliver a message.
Everyone in those groups, and many of those who may come for a myriad of other reasons, are already familiar with the basics of the Christmas story. The virgin birth of Jesus as the son of God in a Bethlehem manger has cultural significance beyond depth of faith.
How, then, do pastors approach this message knowing they will likely have their largest audience of the year? And because of its familiarity, how do they offer it up in engaging and inspiring manner? Several pastors shared their thoughts on delivering a Christmas sermon with Everyday Christian.
Randall Gruendyke, Campus Pastor, Taylor University, Upland, Ind.
The pastor at this Christian college located 70 miles northeast of Indianapolis, Gruendyke emphasized the importance of not getting overly anxious about the familiarity of the story.
He said there were three key factors to keep in mind:
1. Diversity. While there are plenty of Christmas texts on which to preach (and to preach for many years!), thinking beyond the accounts in Matthew, Mark and Luke can be helpful. For instance, John 1:1-18 describes one of the preeminent purposes for Jesus’ incarnation – to explain the Father. Philippians 2:5-11 unfolds the depth of our Lord’s humiliation (the First Advent) and the height of his glorification (the Second Advent). Isaiah 9:6-7 anticipates the breadth of Jesus reign in time and eternity. Genesis 3:15 contains the “proto-evangelium”, revealing that the hope of the incarnation is found in one of the earliest chapters of the Bible. Showing people that Christmas is found beyond the first three books of the New Testament helps bring the story of the whole Bible into sharper focus.
2. Confidence. Because the Christmas story is so well known, some pastors feel compelled to embellish it – to “dress it up”. So, instead of preaching a Christmas passage, there’s a temptation to recount Christ’s nativity from the perspective of a fictitious shepherd boy or wondering angel. This approach reflects a lack of confidence in the sufficiency of God’s word preached. When accompanied by careful exegesis, prayerful preparation and the power of the Holy Spirit, the many angles of this well traveled story can remain perennially fresh.
3. Repetition. While some think that hearing the same story over and over is a bad thing, it can actually be good! It can be good for learning purposes – repetition allows the preacher to examine multiple aspects of the Christmas account. It can be good for retention purposes – repetition helps listeners remember the story and its many facets. It can be good for evangelistic purposes – repetition builds confidence in a congregation to expect a clear exposition of the Christmas story to which they can bring their unsaved friends.
He added that he thought pastors should rely on the sufficiency of the message’s substances to hit home with all Christians regardless of where they are on their faith walk.
“Paul exhorts the Colossian church, ‘As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him…” (2:6) – that is, the way one begins in Christ is the way he gets on in Christ,” he said. “So, when it comes to preaching, what’s good for the new believer is good for the old believer. That means a Christmas text preached responsibly in its context can be used by God to mint a new believer or strengthen a seasoned one.”
Derrick Harkins, Senior Pastor, 19th Street Baptist Church, Washington, D.C.
Harkins serves as senior pastor at one of the oldest and tradition-rich churches in the nation’s capital. It added to its long legacy when it hosted President Obama and his family for a service during the inaugural weekend in January.
Harkins said the Christmas story is rich in all the different angles to approach it from.
“As familiar as the Christmas story is, I find there are many vantage points to consider,” he said, “whether it is from the viewpoint of Mary or Joseph, or the shepherds, or even the innkeeper. Telling the story from these different angles can engage people in a fresh encounter with the timeless truth of Christmas.
“If someone says, ‘I never thought about it that way before,’ I can hope they have been encouraged to understand their own relationship with Christ more fully.”
There are also ways to frame it in a contemporary context without losing the meaning.
“Christmas is also an important time to understand how we engage the larger culture,” he added. “People are always looking for an understanding of how to navigate through the stresses and challenges of the Holiday season. Explaining how being in relationship with Christ anchors us, not only for Christmas but always is part of what we can proclaim. Yet even with creative ways of telling it, it still must be the Good News that the Word became flesh.”
Harkins said that it’s important people see Mary and Joseph as otherwise nondescript of their day and the story as evidence that God can work in anyone’s life.
“For all the beauty and sacredness of the Christmas story, I think it is important to remind people that it is the account of God coming into a redeeming relationship with very ordinary people,” he said. “In the same way that He seeks out shepherds in the cold and darkness, He is able to reach us where we are.
“In my understanding Mary is significant because in the eyes of the world she would be seen as unimportant. She is a very young, vulnerable woman for whom God had a special and fulfilling purpose, as He does for us all. Making sure people understand how relevant and accessible the Christmas story is to each of us makes the point that the gifts of Christmas peace, joy, redemption, and deliverance from sin and sorrow are available to us all.”
Bob Kellemen, RPM Ministries, Crown Point, Ind.
Kellemen is a Christian counselor, writer, seminary professor and published author. In church settings he was senior pastor at Uniontown Bible Church in Union Bridge, Md., counseling and discipleship pastor at Church of the Open Door in Elyria, Ohio, and equipping pastor at Frederichtown Baptist Church in Walkersville, Md.
Kellemen said he enjoyed digging deep into different parts of the Bible beyond the traditional Gospel birth stories to create meaningful connections.
“As a senior pastor, I would typically share a four-week Christmas-themed series each year,” he explained. “Like all of my messages, I wanted them to combine truth in love—to relate Christ’s changeless truth to our changing times. Like all pastors, I knew that I needed to communicate to a diverse audience: believers who had heard me preach numerous Christmas series in the past and new seekers who had never heard me and perhaps had rarely heard any biblical preaching.
“The Bible is always timeless and fresh, so it is our calling as pastors not to mess up the freshness. I typically thought about messages from several study and delivery “angles.” I could and often did “expository” messages—preaching verse-by-verse, section-by-section through a Christmas-related passage. This alone could give a pastor decades of ‘fresh’ material. You not only have the obvious Gospel birth announcement passages, but you also have the Old Testament prophetic passages. And you have the New Testament theological passages on Christ’s birth and sinless life.”
Pulling in commonly understood pieces of popular culture, when applicable, was also a big help.
“Like any pastor, I always tried to relate timeless ancient truth to modern life. So one year I did a series of Christmas messages with titles related to Christmas movies. I’ll never forget, and many of my parishioners from years ago still remember, when I began the sermon with a three-minute memorized, dramatic re-telling—complete with British accent—of ‘A Christmas Carol.’
“‘Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.’ This introduced a Christmas message on how the sinless life of Christ brought eternal life to all who receive Him by faith through grace. Periodically I would repeat how we, like Old Marley, were as dead as a door-nail. Where do we find new life?”
Paul Prather, Pastor, Bethesda Church, Mount Sterling, Ky.
Paul Prather has been a pastor in Mount Sterling, located about 35 miles east of Lexington, for more than 30 years.
He said the familiarity of the Christmas story is a blessing in and of itself.
“I find it a help that most listeners know the Christmas story,” he said. They come to church already prepared spiritually and emotionally to hear a sermon on that subject, and I don’t really have to repeat all the basics, because the tale is familiar.”
Focusing on different perspectives is good, he agreed, but just as important is stressing that it is a message of hope for all.
“I try each year to look at the Christmas story through a different lens,” he said. “That is, one year maybe I’ll look at how things might have appeared to Joseph, given that he was as human and confused and frail as you and I. I may talk about how the grotto smelled and what sounds Mary and Joseph would have heard. I might examine the part of the Nativity story that concerns the shepherds. Another year, I might talk about what various theologians and astronomers have made of the star of Bethlehem.
“I try to keep it fresh, but I also try to keep it upbeat, to encourage those, whether Christians or non-Christians, who need a message of grace.”
Erik Cooper, Co-Pastor, City Community Church, Indianapolis
Cooper and his co-pastor Nathan LaGrange are celebrating their second Christmas Eve service together at City-Community. The church meets at the Central Library in downtown Indianapolis focusing on inner city issues.
He said delivering the Christmas message is a natural extension of what they ordinarily try to do in reaching new believers.
“I think with every week at City Community Church, we try to move beyond the ‘obvious’ or assumed answers, so Christmas should be no different for us,” he said. “I did always find it interesting that Christmas and Easter attendees will hear the same two message topics every year. But I think our philosophy has always been to push beyond the story or just conveying the ‘information’ into forcing people to see their own lives through the lens of Scripture.
“I’m not sure we always do it well, but I think it’s always more engaging when people can find themselves, their daily lives and perspectives in the message. We’re not just here to convey information, we’re here to facilitate transformation.”
It’s an approach Cooper feels is rooted in Jesus’ ministry.
“We approach every week as if we’re speaking to a room full of unbelievers, because that seems to us to be the way Jesus addressed the crowds – through parables, stories, things they could relate to their everyday lives,” he said. “What we’ve found is that aiming for these kind of people actually includes everyone, but if you only shoot for ‘believers’ you’re bound to miss some. Our hope is to simply move them one step closer.”
Taylor University: http://www.taylor.edu/
Nineteenth Street Baptist Church: http://www.nsbcdc.org/index.html
RPM Ministries: http://www.rpmministries.org/
Bethesda Church: http://www.bethesdachurchky.org/
City Community Church: http://www.citycommunitychurch.com/