The Christmas season is one of Bishop Ken Carter's favorite times to preach when he was a church pastor in North Carolina. He has a three-inch binder stuffed with sermon ideas,quotes and poems that he has collected over the years in honor of the season. Some of the papers there contain original thoughts that were later published; others reflect the thoughts of other religious leaders or mainstream artists.
Carter sees Christmas as the beginning of the New Year, full of opportunities to make new disciples. "The most effective churches see Christmas Eve as a way to meet new people and talk about what they will do during the next year," he says. It also is a good time to dedicate an offering to a mission that targets the congregation's local community, he adds.
The Christian year begins with Advent, a season of passive waiting and active preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ. Christian congregations find the liturgical framework useful in planning worship, mission, fellowship and education. The strength of this scheme lies in its biblical depth and traditional grounding; the weakness can be the result of a kind of predictability and even rigidity.
It also is the case in life that what was once simple can become increasingly complex over time. And so I offer a brief guide to the essentials of the season for pastors and church leaders, with an aim toward simplification. You could make additions or subtractions to this list, but it is a place to begin.
1. If you are a preacher, consider giving sermons over the next few weeks that are briefer by one-third. This will allow space for the music of the season, which is generally more expansive, as well as silence and the ritual of lighting candles. You will still have the opportunity to communicate the core of the gospel.
2. If you receive offerings in Advent, consider having them go exclusively to a mission that occurs beyond your local church: a local homeless shelter, a prison ministry or a global initiative, for example. Find some creative way to cover the institutional needs of your local church (this will likely occur through pledges) and clearly communicate the missional focus of your congregation over the Sundays in Advent.
3. Do not hold administrative meetings during the month of December unless absolutely necessary. This will create space for two new offerings: a time of centering prayer, held once and perhaps midweek, and a service on the longest night of the year, Dec. 21, that focuses on grief, loneliness, depression and lament. These two simple services will benefit the more introverted members of your community who may be thirsting for just such an experience.
4. Choose one spiritual exercise and get started with it. The following are excellent resources: Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals; Child of the Light (Upper Room); Daily Feast; A Disciple’s Journal; and Watch for the Light. I am suggesting that you choose one of these and not every one of them!
"The most effective churches see Christmas Eve as a way to meet new people and talk about what they will do during the next year."
5. For every party that you attend, engage in an extended time of exercise (walking, running, yoga, etc.). And for every elaborate meal that you enjoy, either fast or enjoy a very simple meal the next day for balance; for example, a bowl of cereal or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
6. Get to know the range of music related to this season. There are excellent Christmas recordings by Ray Charles, Bruce Cockburn, Diana Krall, Bela Fleck, the Chieftains, Kathy Mattea, James Taylor, Emmylou Harris, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Louis Armstrong, Robert Shaw and John Fahey, among others. Yes, there is a great deal of kitsch (I would include Neil Diamond and Barry Manilow in this category), but I acknowledge this to be a matter of personal taste. I try to add one new recording each Advent – this year I am enjoying Bob Bennett’s Christmastide – and I listen exclusively to Christmas music during this season. As the days approach Christmas Eve, I always listen to A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (King’s College, Cambridge). And I confess that I am addicted to Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown soundtrack.
7. If you are a parish minister, or live in a family with multiple church responsibilities on Christmas Eve, you might consider exchanging gifts on Jan. 6. This is consistent with the Orthodox tradition, and is related to our observance of the Epiphany of the Lord. A friend who had joint custody of his children after a divorce and was not physically present with them on Dec. 25 began this practice and later shared it with our family. My wife and I have both been practicing clergy, with as many as seven services between us on Christmas Eve. And so we made the shift to Jan. 6 as a time to share gifts with each other and our children, and we soon discovered a benefit that you might have already anticipated: The end of December is an excellent time to shop for loved ones!
8. Do not take a default perspective on the culture of Christmas that is negative or combative; here I have been influenced by Andy Crouch’s Culture Making. Look for connections with the natural generosity of your neighbors outside the church, the innate curiosity of children, the innovative blend of sacred and secular music, and the search for silence and slowness amidst the calendar. Before you throw rocks, attempt to build bridges.
9. Reflect on God’s gift of peace, in the person of the Prince of Pease, during these days. Recognize that many in your congregations are struggling with divisions within their own families of origina, and these spill over into workplaces and congregations. The holidays, unfortunately, are times when these divisions become more pronounced, and the result can become either displaced anger or an overwhelming despair. For a sense of this reality, glance at PostSecret during the season at Advent.
10. Resist the commercialization of the culture, insofar as you are able. Make agreements to give simpler presents; exchange gifts that benefit local economies or provide employment in your own community (music or art lessons, for example); and remember, as my friend Mike Slaughter insists, that “Christmas Is Not Your Birthday.”
11. Finally, spend a few minutes each day reflecting on the signs of Advent: the book of promises, the bread of heaven, the body of believers, the silent night, the light that shines in the darkness. The mystery of the incarnation – the word made flesh – is that a complex idea becomes simple. If we watch, if we are awake, we will know that God is with us.
Kenneth H. Carter, Jr. is resident bishop of the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church.
This series of "Yuletide Chats" by Bishop Carter was first published during Advent in 2012. Read the next yuletide chat.