Thursday, December 22, 2022

The Meaning of Christmas

The following was an article I wrote for my local newspaper, "Keith County News." I wanted to share it here with you for those who don't get the paper.

In its broadest sense, most of us who have spent any time around the Christian faith know that the “reason for the season” is Jesus. Of course, as studies and surveys have shown, fewer and fewer people are being raised in a church and so the only reference, maybe, that they have is what they see on TV or hear from a friend or family member who tries to pressure them into coming to Christmas Eve services when they come to town. 

There is much I could say about the true meaning of Christmas. I could complain about Christmas decorations showing up at Wal-Mart towards the end of August. I could complain about how commercial the holiday has become, how it’s become all about the presents and the decorations, and making Christmas look like some idyllic movie utopia about falling in love at a ski resort or English castle. I could do a deep dive into the gospels of Matthew and Luke which tell us the Christmas story and explain the theological meaning of those events. I could talk about the historical development of the holiday and how Jesus likely wasn’t even born on December 25th. For the first couple hundred years after Christ’s resurrection, Jesus’ birth wasn’t even celebrated. The Christian faith has always focused more on the seasons of Epiphany, Lent, and Easter.

I could talk about all that in more detail, but you have likely heard it all before. The truth is, though Christmas is about Jesus, I have come to find that what that means is a bit different for everyone. The meaning also seems to change depending on a person’s circumstances year by year. For some, the birth of Jesus is a celebration; the birth of a child is a joyous event that must be celebrated. For others, Jesus may be a light in the darkness of their grief and despair. And yet for others, the birth of Jesus may represent liberation and salvation from oppression. 

For Mary, the mother of Jesus, he represented the fulfillment of the promises of God to show up for the lowly, as well as the hope for an entire people. In Luke 1:46-55, as Mary is visiting her cousin Elizabeth, she burst forth with a song of praise for all that Jesus represents. “With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. (vv. 46-47, CEB)” “He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant. (v. 48)” “He has shown mercy to everyone… (v. 50)” “He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. (vv. 51-52)” She goes on to talk about God filling the hungry with good things and coming to the aid of Israel. 

The meaning of Christmas has changed for me throughout my life. In my youth, it was less about Jesus and more about family gatherings around my grandparent’s living room. After the evening meal, the whole family would gather in the living room to debate who was going to pass out the presents. My grandfather, meanwhile, would sneak off to his bedroom and don the Santa costume, which was handmade, and he would sneak out the back door, walk around the front of the house, and jingle the large bells attached to a leather strap. Inside the adults would all stop and say “do you hear that?” All the kids would listen and pretty soon everyone would shout, “Santa.” Then there would be a knock at the front door and we would let Santa in to pass out presents. No one seemed to realize that grandpa wasn’t there. 

As I grew up and started attending Church on a more regular basis, the meaning of Christmas started to take on a much deeper and richer meaning. Combined with the Christmas’ of the past, each year adds another layer of meaning. This year, I am finding the birth of Jesus to mean something different. 

Many of you reading this likely know that we Methodists have been having some conflict, both nationally and locally. It has been hard and painful. But as we have been journeying through Advent, Christmas has taken on a meaning of unification and hope for a future that is filled with good things. For me, Jesus is a light in the darkness, and a hope that no matter the struggles and conflicts we face in this life, Jesus comes bringing healing and wholeness. “What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.” (John 1:3b-5, CEB)

My hope and prayer is that you all find the birth of Christ meaningful in your own way this year. Merry Christmas!!!

Friday, December 16, 2022

Rethinking Traditional Church

What do I mean by traditional church? I mean what I assume most people think of when they hear the word church; Sunday mornings sitting in pews, singing hymns, and listening to a twenty-minute-plus sermon. Traditional church also includes some form of Sunday School for children and adults, and then some form of service/charity work in the community. In the traditional church, 80-90% of the energy put forth by the pastor and staff goes toward worship and discipleship, while a much smaller percentage goes toward charity and justice work. 

I think it's time to begin rethinking this "traditional" model of being the church. Why? Because it appears that this model of church has quit being relevant to the majority of people in the United States. According to a 2020 Gallup poll - before the pandemic - only 47 percent of those in the US said they attend a place of worship. That is less than half, a sharp decline from Gallups first poll in 1937 which had seven out of ten people claiming to attend a house of worship.1 Traditional church has been in decline for years and the pandemic has only served to accelerate this trend. 

I think it's clear to anyone who is paying attention that the world has changed and is continuing to change at a speed that has likely never been seen before throughout history. Yet the church has been extremely slow to change itself. I don't mean to say that the church needs to change its theology necessarily, but the way we share the timeless truth of Christ's life, death, and resurrection should change with the times. But at the same time, how do we do that in such a way as to not alienate those who have grown up with traditional ways of worship and still find great meaning and relevance in it still?

I have been spending a lot of time lately reading and exploring this idea and I find that I have more questions than answers. I was attending an ecumenical church conference called Mosaix a few weeks ago and one of the sessions I was a part of talked about a model of doing church that flips the traditional script of the church on its head. The traditional model says, let's produce amazing worship with great music and preaching so people will want to come to our church, then we can plug them into small groups to help grow them as disciples so that they can go out into the world to serve and bring more people into worship. This new model flips the script by suggesting that instead of spending eighty percent of our energy on worship, we spend eighty percent of our energy on serving and building connections outside the church, then bring them into small groups, and then worship. Traditional worship is the last thing to introduce people to instead of the first. It's an interesting thought. This is called a missional model of church.

I was reading an article from NPR today, which is where I got the information about the Gallup poll results mentioned above. The article is titled, "As attendance dips, churches change to stay relevant for a new wave of worshippers." The article talks about how many people looking for faith communities are burned out by traditional religion and how traditional church isn't connecting with everyday people. The article focused on a faith community called Battlefield Farms. It's a faith community centered around a community garden where folks come together to feed others. They also pray and sometimes worship around a campfire. The thing I found interesting about the article was that the church's center was around building a community around service. Worship and bible study are part of who they are, but it isn't their primary focus. 

I was listening to episode seventeen of the Church is Changing podcast yesterday and they were talking about the changing church as being smaller, more relational, and centered around the community outside the walls of the church building. They talked about Pastors changing their role from primary doers to facilitators, permission givers, and equippers of lay-led ministry. I'm intrigued by this and would love to engage in conversation around this idea. You can listen to the episode here

Anyway, these are some of my initial thoughts about rethinking the traditional church. I plan to begin engaging my congregation after the first of the year in these conversations. I believe God is doing something new in the life of the church, I just don't have it all figured out. So I look forward to the ways the Spirit will speak through these conversations. Feel free to comment below.