We’ve all been there, staring at those same, few stories, and wondering how to to preach them differently this time. The Carol Service is a major event in our church calendars, and those of us who are going to preach at them have been thinking about them for months.
Maybe you started to think about visual aids, but quickly realised you were running through the same ones as every year, and that everyone else uses. A Giant Christmas card? A huge cracker? Presents? Nativity?
We feel stale before we’ve begun.
The dilemma is clear: this is the one service of the year, where people already know what we’re going to say. They expect certain truths, certain events, certain explanations. They feel cheated if they get anything else (if you don’t believe me, try continuing your expository series through Job instead, and see what happens).
But we preachers are pretty sure that most people turning up don’t understand what they know. If they did, they’d be changed and converted. But somehow the truth doesn’t get through.
So how do we give those Christmas truths a cutting edge? How can we be fresh, while still working with the familiar?
Well above all, pray.
This time of year we can be so busy getting Christmas ready for other people as well as for ourselves, that we forget our basics. God honours his preached Word – pray your sermon home.
Assuming your doing that all week, here are six items to cross off the list. My main gaol in these talk is brief clarity (I don’t want to go over 12 minutes’ and I don’t want to waste a second.
1 Choose one obvious passage.
An obvious passage is an obvious choice, right? But we have to fight against our inner ‘they’ve heard it all before’ instinct. That’s what tricks us into looking at something more unusual, and a little bit different.
Now there is a place for that. We have just finished a short series on the major prophecies that we tend to read in carol services, looking at Jacob’s blessing of Judah, Balaam’s blessing of Israel, Micah’s prophecy of the status of Bethlehem, and so on. Good, solid passages – but not quite mainline enough for the Carol service, where we need to be crisp and clear. Choose one of the old faithfuls, that requires minimum explanation of context and background.
2. Work on one obvious surprise.
The ‘surprise’ is what’s in the text that people haven’t seen or focussed on before. The ‘obvious surprise’ is one that you don’t have to have done a huge amount of textual archaeology to show. This is not the time to dig into the Greek in public, or produce an archeological rabbit from your hat. This is something that is hidden in plain sight, so simple and wonderful, and and yet people will say, ‘I’d never really noticed that before’.
3. Have one simple metaphor, that will work all the way through.
Sometimes we can let metaphors run away with themselves, and we have two or three that ‘kind of’ do the job. But there’s great power in returning time and again to the same simple idea, and letting it go deep.
Choose it, and walk around it. How can you make it memorable? Visual? How can you make it develop throughout the talk, rather than just sitting as an opening item and then being dropped?
4. Have one apologetic focus.
We have a larger number of non-Christians in our chest than any other time of year (at least, those of us in the northern hemisphere do). And the temptation is to deal with all their objections and questions. Did Jesus really exist? What about Mithras? What about Father Christmas? Was Jesus born in a stable? Did the wise men turn up at the same time as the shepherds? What about that bishop who said he didn’t believe in the virgin birth?
Again, we don’t want to confuse through too much information. Choose your one ‘defeater belief’ and ‘defeat’ it. The one that comes from reading this passage, and is the most obvious reason people won’t believe what you’re trying to say.
5. Have one ‘this week’ story
I’ve blogged recently about the need for our illustrations to be ‘fresh’, and this is the time to rise to that challenge. Stop surfing famous preachers’ Christmas sermons, and go for a ‘this week’ edge. What’s one the front page of the magazines today? Don’t know? Well grab a coat and go looking.
6. Plan the response
What are you praying and preaching for – conversions? Taking away a booklet? Signing up for a course? Whichever it is (and it might be several) think about it and be prepared.
For instance we have: a giveaway book, which has a cover we’ve used across all our publicity to give a united theme, and adverts for our next Life Explored course, advertised on the back of the service booklet, on the invitation cards for the service, and on a card tucked into the back cover of the giveaway. That also functions as a way for people to communicate via email if they’ve made a decision.
I know there’s nothing new here – but notice my repeated stress on ‘one’. Don’t clutter this talk. Simple and clear is the brief.
What have I missed? What’s your checklist? Pile in?