NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–On Christmas Eve, I attended a service at a Southern Baptist church that made me hope it was not representative of churches across our convention.
As the congregation sang “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and images of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer appeared on the screens above, I began to be miffed that a perfectly good opportunity to celebrate Jesus was being used to mention the secular parts of Christmas that we’ve all come to know.
Then the pastor led us on what he called an investigative journey to determine the real meaning of Christmas. Out came people dressed in costume as a gingerbread man, a toy soldier, Frosty the Snowman, the Christmas Mouse and a candy cane.
As each character paraded across the platform, the pastor asked whether they were the real meaning of Christmas. After much focus on the characters themselves, each time the pastor would conclude something like, “Christmas is not about the gingerbread man. It’s about our Jesus.” Soon the congregation caught on and began to recite “our Jesus” along with the pastor.
Since the pastor had promised the Christmas Eve service would last no longer than 44 minutes, it was soon time to wrap up. He told the congregation that the sound crew had attempted a satellite hookup with Santa Claus, and soon the jolly man in a sleigh flashed on the screens. The pastor tried to ask him questions like when he would arrive in their town, but the supposed connection was lost and Santa didn’t talk back.
At that point I thought at least the pastor had a chance to say, “Santa may not have time for us, but Jesus always does. Let’s go to Him in prayer.” But that didn’t happen. Instead, the pastor announced that the gingerbread man, Frosty and the others would be in the lobby after the service so that children could have their pictures made with their favorite Christmas characters. The pictures then would be posted to the church website for downloading.
I left the service thinking that anyone who was not a solid Christian would be confused about the point of the service. The pastor several times repeated that “our Jesus” is the real meaning of Christmas, but the gingerbread man and his friends got much more attention.
If I were a child, I might have left thinking Jesus was the guy who didn’t show up. Besides, who is Jesus anyway and why is Christmas about Him? There wasn’t a single mention of why Jesus was born or any semblance of the Gospel message. All I knew when I left was it’s not about Frosty, the Christmas Mouse or the candy cane. Or is it?
What frustrates me about this particular Christmas Eve service is that I’m afraid it wasn’t the only one of its kind among evangelical churches in America. Certainly the church I attended that night isn’t the only one that jettisons the Gospel message in favor of appealing to people’s cultural interests. It happens Sunday after Sunday in more and more congregations.
As Christians, I know part of our calling is to push back the culture. It’s not to open the door and welcome Frosty and his secular Christmas buddies onto the stage for our Christmas Eve service. I don’t have much against such characters as long as we see them in their proper secular perspective, but I sure don’t want to see them in place of Jesus at church.
The Bible says God will not share His name or His glory with another, and that night He was not only sharing but was pushed off the stage by those who supposedly were not the true meaning of Christmas. It was the time and place for Him to be glorified, but I left missing Him completely and longing to praise Him.
Later, I heard of another church where the youth minister led the teenagers in constructing gingerbread houses from graham crackers and icing during Sunday School instead of leading in Bible study.
I’d like to believe this kind of laziness and twisted thinking isn’t spreading, but I’m afraid it is. As believers who have been entrusted with the Gospel message, we have got to get back on track. Too many church leaders have become distracted by a desire to integrate the culture into the church in order to fill the seats, and it has gotten out of hand.
There was little difference in the Christmas Eve service I attended and what I might have seen at a local public school Christmas play. That cannot be. There is one thing evangelical churches can do better than anyone else, and that is proclaim the Gospel. If our goal is to entertain, thousands of people can do it better than us. But no one can preach the Gospel better than us, and that must be our focus.
I made gingerbread cookies at Christmas and shared them with my family, but I did not want to see a life-size gingerbread man on the stage at church. That’s where Jesus belongs, and no other. After all, He’s not just “our Jesus.” He can stand on His own and He will not be made into a weak no-show overshadowed by Frosty’s belly.
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.