O come all ye unfaithful

ChristmasSermonThe Washington Post's Jacqueline Salmon and Hamil Harris wrote up their Christmas story about the pressure pastors are under to hit a home run with their Christmas Eve sermons. I love the angle, particularly because I'm the daughter of a pastor and remember how difficult the Advent and Christmas seasons are for clergy. In the Lutheran Church we have increased services during the penitential season of Advent and the festive Christmas days. My pastor's wife loves it when people ask if she and her husband are going anywhere for Christmas. People don't seem to understand that pastors' families don't get to go anywhere for Christmas or Easter. They can barely keep up with all the services and events.

Pastors strive to make their Christmas sermons unique and relevant, Salmon and Harris argue:

Hundreds of ministers in the Washington region will face packed churches tonight when they preach one of their most important, and challenging, sermons of the year as Christians gather to celebrate Christmas.

With high-flown rhetoric or plain-spoken bluntness, brevity or long-winded oratory, ministers will try to make the centuries-old story of the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ relevant to today's worshipers.

It's not easy, ministers say. Most houses of worship draw double or triple the usual number of worshipers during the Christmas season. Churches are packed with restless children, stressed-out parents and unfamiliar faces making their annual appearance. Parking lots and nurseries are overflowing, and the proximity of holiday scarves and Christmas candles makes some folks nervous.

I have never attended a church that didn't see a noticeable contingent of visitors -- as well as a maximum of regular congregants -- on Christmas and Easter, but I would love to see a source for the claim that "most" draw twice or three times the usual number of worshipers during Christmas. I raise the point if only because I'm confident my pastor would preach more or less the exact same sermon if a few of us were there as if hundreds of visitors arrived.

There is a huge difference in American churches between those who use worship as a way to draw in seekers and those who don't. Those who don't see other avenues as more helpful for people interested in the church while worship is for believers and members of the church.

It would have been nice to see more mention of those in the latter category but if you accept the seeker-friendly bias, the article is fantastic. They quote one monsignor who says he aims his Christmas sermon at those who come to church only at Christmastime. And Episcopal Bishop John Bryson Chane says Christmas Eve services are some of the hardest to preach. I wish the reporters would have asked him about his 2003 Christmas sermon when he asked:

And what was God thinking ... when the Angel Gabriel was sent by God to reveal the sacred Quran to the prophet Muhammad?

Four years after the fact, I still wonder how that sermon went over. The reporters do give some of the content of other sermons preached this year, which provides a nice view across the Christian spectrum.

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