Chapter 7

Reaching the Secular Culture During Christmas

Editor's Note: Every preacher is aware that the Christmas season provides exceptional opportunities for reaching people with the gospel. But how do you reach people in an increasingly secular culture? We posed that question to Rico Tice, our preaching colleague from across the pond and the author of Honest Evangelism.

Preaching In your book Honest Evangelism you observe that England is about 20 years ahead of the U.S. in terms of the secularization process. So what do you think we're facing in the U.S.? Where is your culture and our culture headed?

Rico Tice : As London has become an increasingly secular city, I have come across three basic attitudes related to faith in Christ: Christians are weird, Christianity is untrue, and Christianity is irrelevant. Now, increasingly, I am also seeing a fourth attitude: Christianity is intolerant.

According to a recent survey carried out by Barna (please see, in my homeland, Great Britain, 67 percent of respondents to the survey said they have a Christian friend they like, but only 25 percent of those respondents classify themselves as "spiritually open." Great Britain may be slightly ahead of the United States in terms of secularization, but I believe both countries are in or are quickly moving towards the days described in 1 Peter 2:12—"Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us." This means Christians are called to live deeply sacrificial lives in front of their secular friends and neighbors. The good thing is that acts of kindness and goodness from believers are deeply appreciated, because the culture is so selfish. Non-Christians appreciate these surprising acts of goodness because in a deeply self-centered culture we take an opportunity to take an interest in others.

Of course as we step out in faith and start talking about Jesus, we have to realize we'll encounter both spiritual hostility and spiritual hunger. As I wrote in Honest Evangelism:

There may not be persecution, but we're in a culture of growing hostility to Christianity. It's not just apathy we face— it's antipathy. Many people really don't like the gospel. Sometimes they express that politely, sometimes not politely at all; but they don't like it. This shouldn't really surprise us. Think how incendiary much of what we believe is. We believe Jesus is the only way to know God. We believe the Cross is the only way to be forgiven. We believe that one day, everyone will be judged.
So if you are going to talk to people about Jesus, you are going to get hurt. It is going to sever some relationships. It is going to provoke people. Not every time … but we will face rejection enough of the time to give us second thoughts, because I don't know about you, but I don't particularly like getting hurt. We're wired to assume that if we're getting hit, something's gone wrong. And so whenever I tell someone the gospel message, and get hit (metaphorically speaking), there's a temptation either to stop saying anything, or to change what I'm saying.

But all this is only half of the story. There is also increased hunger in our culture, and this may be heightened around the Christmas season. The same rising tide of secularism and materialism that rejects truth claims and is offended by absolute moral standards is proving to be an empty and hollow way to live. And that means, excitingly, you're more and more likely to find people quietly hungering for the content of the gospel, even as our culture teaches them to be hostile towards it.

So as preachers we need to have a two-fold outlook as we prepare sermons during the holiday season: expect skepticism or even hostility, while also keeping in mind that millions of non-Christians are still spiritually hungry.

So how does this increasingly secular mindset change how you preach on any given Sunday morning?

In terms of what's happening to the culture, I find it very helpful for preachers to get very clear on five key words that seem to be at the center of our cultural drift from God and a biblical worldview: relativism, pluralism, individualism, consumerism, and gender. The way our culture is defining these words point to a profound self-centeredness and the idol of self-fulfillment. The good thing is that random acts of kindness are deeply appreciated, because the culture is so selfish.

In terms of preaching on a Sunday morning, we have to do two things: first, make sure people know that Jesus is the Rock, but we also must help them to see that the world is sinking sand. So secular people have to be able to read the underlying philosophy of this present age and not allow it to cause them to give their lives to self-fulfillment. For example, in education our people keep being told, "Your children must reach their potential," but that can easily lead to the sinking sand of an entitled but empty life. By contrast, we want to say, "Your children can find freedom in Christ—the true Rock for every human being—and therefore life a life of service to others."

So let's look at preaching evangelistically at Christmas. I assume you still get lots of folks checking out church or coming back to church during the Christmas season. As you've tried to reach these people who don't know Christ, what has connected with them? Is there any other advice you'd give preachers about what to do when it comes to reaching secular people at Christmas?

The best line that I've come across in the last 20 years for reaching secular people at Christmas comes straight from Luke 2:10—"But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.'" After reading that verse I usually say something along these lines, "So if Christ's coming at Christmas isn't the best news you've ever heard in your life you can be sure you've misunderstood it." You should see the quizzical looks I get when I say that. Then I add, "So what is this great news about? It's about a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. You have to understand that Christmas is a rescue operation."

You see, people in our culture are so focused with self-fulfillment that missing out on the best news they could ever hear is very frustrating. So I focus on the fact that they know the events of Christmas (like Luke 2:6-7, for instance), but they don't know the meaning—Luke 2:10-11. You can check out my sermon from Luke 2 here. Or here's another evangelistic sermon I preached at All Souls in London on Matthew 1:18-25. We've also I've published a booklet titled "A Very Different Christmas," looking at Christmas morning with you and the Trinity, and what presents to give.

What kind of expectations should preachers have about Christmas season preaching?

To be honest it is often discouraging because we seem to be glorifying God in judgment as people hardened their hearts and only come once a year. We are putting in this little study from Luke to encourage the congregation to do one-to-one work. So the conclusion of the sermon is, "Why not look at the Bible with the friend you've come with." So we give them an outline to look at with their friend that helps them move from Christmas to Christianity. This outline gives the congregation the courage to take that next step because we find it hard to move from Christmas straight to Christianity. But this does take some training of the congregation, and this is something I talk about in my book Honest Evangelism (specifically chapter 7).

What was the most effective Christmas sermon you've ever given? What was your text and main idea? What happened to help the sermon connect with unchurched people? What have you tried that definitely didn't work?

I think the most effective Christmas sermon I've given over the years was from 1 Thessalonians 1:10, under the title "What does God think of me?" (Titled on the website as "Bethlehem lights (Christmas Eve 2004).") People are very struck by the first point: "The coming wrath," because I believe you will never understand Christmas if you don't understand the coming wrath. This point then sets up point two, which is "Jesus who rescues us." Then I ask the question, "If you were to die tonight and God said why should I let you in to my heaven, what would you reply?" My hope is that makes grace clear. My last point is to repent—1:9, they turned from idols to serve the living and true God. I've found this passage to be one of the most faithful to the gospel, because it crosses the line of pain related to God's wrath. People aren't expecting it, but I hope crossing that line to properly understand God's justice is a very good thing.

Is there any other advice you'd give preachers about what to do when it comes to reaching secular people at Christmas?

We must believe the power is in God's Word, so keep teaching the Bible at Christmas. Do it winsomely, but don't try and do a talk that doesn't explain something about Jesus from a passage. We must keep modeling speaking from passages, because that's where the power is—in God's word explained. Let's keep doing 2 Corinthians 4:5-6, that we preach Christ and God opens blind eyes. That's true whether I'm a preacher or doing personal evangelism. As we speak of Jesus, let's be confident that God will do the miracle and open blind eyes.