I was listening to one of my favourite Christmas CDs in the car today: Annie Lennox’s Christmas Cornucopia. She has a beautiful voice and the arrangements of the carols and songs are lovely. I find it very uplifting and inspiring. (In the middle of the collection of songs is a French carol, sung in French. I will come back to that later.)
I don’t know if Annie Lennox has an active Christian faith. But at the very least in recording these Christmas carols she will have a greater awareness of the nativity and what Christians believe about who Jesus is. I wondered whether those recording the songs regarded them as something spiritually significant or simply as a variety of folk song.
Tonight I will be attending one of my favourite services of the year. (I am not sure I actually have a favourite, they are all special, but I think you know what I mean.) I love a traditional Carols by Candlelight service. This will be the first time for a number of years where I will be attending as a member of the congregation rather than being part of the planning and preparation and leading of the service. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea (he says ironically as a coffee-drinker). I know some people who don’t find it uplifting (including some Ministers). That’s okay. There will be other services that bless them more.
But it’s also the service that sees attendance at church increase significantly because there is still enough residual affection for the service within our society that attending the Carol Service is an important part of what makes up Christmas. There will be a number of people there whose church attendance is limited to once a year – regular if not frequent!
Churches get quite excited by this annual influx and will also work hard at helping people to feel welcome and inviting them to increase the frequency of their attendance or deepen the level of their engagement with the church. Messages will be preached that explain that it’s not just a nice story but really happened and has significance for us today, that Jesus can be incarnate in our lives as much as he was in the stable. Friends and relatives will be there and Christians who invited them will be pleased that they came and heard the message and sang the carols. But should we be that excited? Singing the words of a carol will not make people a Christian any more than singing in French makes Annie Lennox a Frenchwoman (I told you I’d come back to that). And going to church won’t do that either, no matter how frequently we attend.
There will be people there tonight who come to enjoy singing the Carols and who need to hear that message, but who will go away untouched by the message. They will have sung their lungs out, enjoyed the atmosphere, appreciated the welcome, nommed the mince pies and will go away mentally ticking that off their to do list for Christmas without it making any difference to them.
Before you think I have gone all ‘Bah Humbug!’ on you, let me say that I am delighted that people come regularly once a year. I think it is important that we can provide this part of their Christmas experience. I think it is right that we offer a different perspective on the festival and remind people what it’s really about. I hope and pray that it will make a difference.
But it’s not the church’s job to make that change happen. It’s not even up to us (although we have to do the inviting). That’s up to God and the people who come. Let’s come with expectation of a special service, expectation that we will enjoy ourselves, and expectation that we will experience a fresh encounter with God.
Be blessed, be a blessing