Brace yourself, religion-news consumers, because we are entering the days appointed for "Christmas stories," care of journalists at major magazines, newspapers and television networks.
"Christmas stories" are very similar to "Easter stories." The only requirements, in most cases, is that they have something to do with religion, provide colorful art (festive or tear-jerking) and, if at all possible, allow the use of the name of the season in the headline.
In newsrooms without religion-beat specialists, general-assignment reporters probably hide under their desks about two or three weeks before Dec. 25, trying not to catch the eye of the assignment editor who has been given the thankless task of finding this year's alleged "Christmas story" for A1.
The quest for a valid "Christmas" news story was the topic that "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I tackled in this week's podcast. Click here to tune that in.
You can end up with some really strange, usually shallow, stories this time of year. Our own Julia Duin recently took a look at one of these quickie stories, from The Denver Post.
Long ago, in a city that will not be named, I saw a classic example. One of the big weekly newsmags had a cover story on the whole "does prayer work" question. A week or so later, the daily newspaper had an A1 story -- literally with praying hands and a rosary, if I recall -- about trends in prayer.
You could tell, looking at the sources quoted, that an editor had seen the magazine cover and had walked into the newsroom, found a reporter who was looking the other way, tapped them on the shoulder and said, "We need a (insert holiday name here) story. It looks like prayer is in the news. Go write me a story about prayer."
The poor reporter, based on the sourcing in the story, walked out of the newspaper's front door, spotted three or four steeples -- several were fading oldline Protestant churches -- interviewed the pastor or someone on staff and produced a quickie "prayer story" with the holiday name in the lede.
The problem was that the city in question happened to be within an hour's drive -- give or take a few minutes -- of at least four internationally known centers dedicated, in large part, to prayer and prayer related ministries (evangelical, Catholic, charismatic and Buddhist).
Were these groups quoted in this "prayer feature"? Of course not. The editor and the unlucky reporter didn't know that they existed.
So I hear what you are thinking. What's an example of a VALID Christmas story?
Well, smart researchers go out of their way to release data linked to Christmas several weeks before Dec. 25, providing background that smart reporters can localize. Like what? Click here to see a new LifeWay study linked to church attendance at Christmas.
This led to quite a bit of discussion in the podcast. Long ago, the late church-growth expert Lyle Schaller made a really interesting observation about the "Christmas crowd." Here is the top of the column I wrote about him when he died last spring:
All pastors know that there are legions of "Easter Christians" who make it their tradition to dress up once a year and touch base with God.
What can pastors do? Not much, said the late, great church-management guru Lyle Schaller, while discussing these red-letter days on the calendar. Rather than worrying about that Easter crowd, he urged church leaders to look for new faces at Christmas.
The research he was reading said Christmas was when "people are in pain and may walk through your doors after years on the outside," he said, in a mid-1980s interview. Maybe they don't know, after a divorce, what to do with their kids on Christmas Eve. Maybe Christmas once had great meaning, but that got lost somehow. The big question: Would church regulars welcome these people?
"Most congregations say they want to reach out to new people, but don't act like it," said Schaller. Instead, church people see days like Easter and Christmas as "intimate, family affairs … for the folks who are already" there, he said, sadly. "They don't want to dilute the mood with strangers."
There are quite a few story hooks in there. Journalists might start by asking if there are congregations in their area that have strong ministries to the divorced and to single parents. What are these flocks doing at Christmas?
OK, I also hear you saying, "OK, tmatt, what did you write as a Christmas column this year?"
Well, I am trying to do two pieces this year. But the first focuses on a book about one of the great mysteries of the season -- the star of Bethlehem. A Cambridge University level New Testament scholar worked with some astronomers to propose a solution to the mystery. Click here to take a look at that.