I’ve had a few seasons of extended absence from church. At various seasons in my life, I’ve needed to stay away for weeks or months at a time. It was a necessary respite.
It wasn’t until my return to church that I discovered how starved I’d been, how much I’d slowly slipped into some twisted version of truth about my life and the world. Even though I’d been engaged in personal practices of prayer and Scripture reading, there’s something uniquely powerful about having our story spoken over us publicly, as a gathered body.
I’ve come to expect now that a return to church after an extended time away will almost always bring me to tears of relief, not usually because I’ve learned something new, but because something twisted in me is made straight again, simply by remembering the same old story I’d forgotten.
Every Christmas our churches are visited by people who have been fasting all year long from this public, communal proclamation of truth. We may only have them for one or two services a year, so we want to do something remarkable. We know they’ve heard the Christmas story a million times before, so we feel pressure to do something new. If you have a great idea about fresh ways to tell the story, tell it in fresh ways—let the Spirit lead into all kinds of creativity. But don’t fall into the trap of new for the sake of new.
If you’re not seeing new ways to tell the story, let me give you this permission: Proclaim the old story. Even the exact sermon you preached last Christmas would fall on the same ears in an entirely new way twelve months later.
A Time for Remembering
Christmas is a time for remembering. We all have friends who have creative takes on Christmas—their silver trees, decked with purple pomegranates are stylish and striking, their deconstructed canapés and remixed carols might be innovative. But they don’t feel like Christmas.
Something feels like Christmas when it reminds us of something familiar. As hackneyed as Christmas traditions may seem, we all need to know that some things never change. This is not only true for trees and food and carols, this is true for Christmas sermons.
But this will stretch us, as preachers. It may stretch our unspoken desire to look impressive, to keep up with the churches around us. To simply retell the old story will test our own belief in the power of this story that we’ve been entrusted to tell.
Our world runs at an unsustainable pace: Headlines daily disrupt our equilibrium, the economy can change in a minute, trends switch with every refresh of social media feeds, and we’re still figuring out what pandemic means for our work and life.
Pastor and thought-leader, Mark Sayers, calls this current transitional moment of rapid change “a grey zone.” We’re losing everything we’ve known but haven’t yet figured out where we’re headed. Sayers says in his book, A Non-Anxious Presence, “A grey zone is confusing and contradictory, filled with change and conflict. Everything seems to be up in the air” (p. 22ff). Navigating all this transition in every facet of life takes physical, mental, and emotional energy.
So what will be truly refreshing is a presentation of something that never changes.
Looking Back to Look Forward
Human hearts and minds are meant to move at the pace of humans (or maybe of horses). We used to receive letters at the speed it took to handwrite and deliver a letter. But now we get letters at the speed of copy, paste, send (or worse still, at the pace of email bots).
In our ever-changing technological landscape and with all the disruption to life caused by the pandemic, we long for something familiar, unchanging. This nostalgia has prompted all kinds of trends towards vinyl records, old video games, and all things “retro.” From movies to fashion to music to food, we’re looking back to find the way forward.
For preachers the lesson from this trend is not: “Be nostalgic because it’s trendy.” Instead, this wave of nostalgia is a significant signpost of widespread exhaustion with newness for the sake of newness. It’s a reminder to us, as preachers, that the human heart needs to know where it belongs. Psychological Scientist, Clay Routledge, puts it: “At the core of it, [nostalgia] is seeking some wisdom from the past—that we’ve lost something that maybe we can rehabilitate. . . . nostalgia helps restore that feeling of stability. It gives people the confidence . . . to move forward.”
While overly-romanticized nostalgia can get us stuck in a dream world of imagined former perfection, healthy nostalgia has the potential to move us forward. The feeling of stability and the reminder of identity that it provides can help us press toward the future with confidence. Research has found that connecting to our past also helps us feel connected in the present.
The people of Israel had songs they sung every time they climbed the hill to worship in Jerusalem. Each festival had its own familiar food, music, and rituals (many of which were instituted by Yahweh himself). Gathering in the one place, with the same people, formed them through sensory, relational, and emotional experiences—memories in muscle and mind. Embedded in all that was the deep message, perhaps even unspoken: Belonging to this is belonging to God. That experience that you’re part of something, is itself God and it goes with you even when you’re not here, even when the world around you is crazy.
Preach the Old Story
Sadly, that kind of rich, shared faith experience is rarely ours. Like the rest of the world, the church is caught in the “grey zone” as we feel our old ways falling away and have not yet figured out what worship and church will be. We grieve as we watch churches dwindle, denominations divide, seminaries close. We grieve as we hear statistics of pastors burning out and young people walking away.
As much as we grieve the loss of stability, as much as we long to discover what comes next, there is one thing that has never changed. Our God is the same, yesterday, today, forever. As much as he is an instigator of change, he never changes.
So maybe the best thing we can do this Christmas is this: Preach the old story. Don’t veil it. Don’t defend it. Don’t overdress it. Proclaim it. In all its rawness and wonder, proclaim the Christmas hope of a God who still breaks into human life.
This Christmas in your congregation, there will be teachers and nurses who, all year long, have heard this sermon from their bosses: “There is no time for rest.” Preach a new sermon to them.
There will be young women who, all year long, have heard this sermon from their Instagram feed: “Your value is in your looks.” Preach a new sermon to them.
There will be lonely, discouraged hearts who, all year long, have heard this sermon from the culture: “You do not belong.” Preach a new sermon to them.
We may not know what God is doing in the life of every person who hears. We may not know what the new year will bring. But we can proclaim every way we believe that God is still moving, still active, still good, and still powerful.
We can tell the old story that God still does miracles, that giving is better than receiving, and that love is stronger than death. It will remind us who we are. And it will give us courage to move forward.
To hearts beaten down all year by a twisted version of truth, let us tell a new story. After a year of anxiety and despair, this truth—God is with us—will be new.
Originally from Australia, Mandy Smith is a pastor, author, and speaker. She has written two books: The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry (IVP) and Unfettered: Imagining a Childlike Faith Byond the Baggage of Western Culture (Brazos).