So, it’s Sunday evening in the week before Christmas and the church building is packed. This is probably the largest gathering you are likely to see all year, even if you pastor a large congregation. There are lots of visitors. You recognise some friends and family of church members who have come with them. Then, there are others that have come in off of the street having received fliers. Some you recognise because they come every year for the Carol Service and then you won’t see them again until next year.
There’s been joyful singing of Christmas Carols and the story of Jesus’ first coming has been clearly told through the reading of Scripture. Now, it’s over to you as the designated preacher. So what do you do?
In one sense, things should be easy for you. The readings, the carols, a captive audience looking forward to mince pies and coffee, a level of goodwill. It’s as though everything has been set up for you like the striker who just has to put the ball away from ten yards out. Though, as we’ve seen in the World Cup, that can sometimes prove surprisingly difficult!
And actually, Carol services can prove tough audiences for the Gospel preacher. You see, people are there for the carols, perhaps to see their friend’s daughter play oboe in the orchestra, to enjoy the occasion. They can be so caught up in the atmosphere of sentimentality that it might dull spiritual hearing. In fact, intruding into their perception of this sweet family event about a little baby with talk of sin and death may well offend (especially if you’ve been foolish enough to charge them for the experience).
So how do you approach things as a preacher. Here’s some non-prescriptive thoughts from my own experience.
- Be closely involved in planning the service. Just as with a normal church service, you want things to be leading to a specific point (usually found in the sermon), so too here in the Carol Service. The carols and readings chosen, the structure of the service etc should build up to the application you want to make when you preach. As a minimum, I’ve usually identified a specific carol that I would like sung just before the talk because a line or two in the carol help to draw attention to our theme.
- This includes style/feel as well as content. There’s the risk if you are a preacher who prefers an informal conversational style and the service has been very formal with choirs and poems, that the change of style and tempo will jar. Incidentally, even though the type of music/songs may be different to what you normally sing if you are contemporary in style, you can keep the usual feel of your worship services.
- Spend time thinking about what you are going to say. It’s probably a bit late for this year to say this but I would advise you to have an idea of where you are going to land at the Carol Service way back in September/October or whenever it is that you plan the whole Christmas programme. You should have been building up to this over a period of time.
- Don’t write a script. I’ve mentioned before that sometimes I don’t even prepare the talk by writing notes. I do a lot of walking and thinking out loud. For me, this is one of those occasions.
- Focus in on one specific point. It may be the line of a carol you’ve sung. It may be one thing in one of the readings or it may be a particular question or misconception at this time of year.
- This is not the time to tell them off or berate their Christmas celebrations. That should seem obvious but apparently isn’t. I sometimes have surprised people by saying explicitly that the feasting, the presents, the family time are all great and good things. I don’t want to strip Christmas of all of these fantastic and good things, I want to give you more reason to celebrate better.
- The subtext is that this is about building a relationship, just like with cold-contact evangelism. This is not hit and run.
- Keep it short. I stick to ten minutes for a Carol Service Evangelistic talk.
- Give them something to take away. A freebie that will help them continue to learn about the Christ of Christmas. That might be a little book for example.
- Provide a means for them to follow up. Signpost what is coming up in the New Year including evangelistic courses and events.
I would love to pray for your Christmas opportunities. Please drop me a line to tell me what you are doing.