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Are We Building the Altar?

Are We Building the Altar?

In 1 Kings 18 we find one of the most dramatic Old Testament accounts. Elijah, the prophet of the one true God of Israel, challenges the prophets of the Canaanite god, Baal, to a contest to demonstrate whose God is real. 

 

The terms of the contest were simple. The prophets of Baal and Elijah would each prepare an altar and each would sacrifice a bull on the altar. But neither would set a fire on the altar. Instead, each would call on the name of their god and whichever god answered with fire, that god was the true God.

 

Tim Keller in his recent article “The Decline and Renewal of the American Church: Part 3 — The Path to Renewal” points out that many Christians have seen this Old Testament account as a helpful metaphor for how God brings about renewal in the church. Keller defines a revival or renewal this way: “Revivals are periods of great spiritual awakening and growth. In revivals, ‘sleepy’ and lukewarm Christians wake up, nominal Christians get converted, and many skeptical non-believers are drawn to faith.”

 

Only God can bring the “fire of renewal.” Human technique and effort alone cannot produce renewal. Nor can the church compel or manipulate the means or timing of God’s work. However, this does not mean there is nothing we can do as we long for a fresh work of God in our lives, churches, and culture. We can build the altar. As noted by Keller,  “Christians looking for revival, they are ‘building the altar,’ praying that God will use their efforts to bring a fire of renewal with a movement of his Spirit.” 

 

In the first two installments of his four-part series of articles, Keller gives an account of the decline of both mainline and evangelical Christianity. Both articles are lengthy and nuanced and well worth careful reading. Keller’s point in both articles is summed up this way: 

 

Virtually everyone agrees that something is radically wrong with the church. Inside, there is more polarization and conflict than ever, with all factions agreeing (for different reasons) that the church is in deep trouble. Outside the church, journalists, sociologists, and all other observers either bemoan or celebrate the church’s decline numerically, institutionally, and in influence.

 

While the church is always in need of reforming and refining, it seems like this moment in American Christianity is in need of something more than refining. This seems to be a moment when something like renewal or revival is needed.

 

Over 30 years ago Christ Community was founded with the longing and prayer that this local church would be a catalyst for spiritual renewal in Kansas City. That longing and prayer still endures today.  

 

How can Christ Community build the altar?

Keller suggests three altar-building practices. 

 

Recovery of the gospel

It is all too easy for pastors and congregation members alike to functionally forget the radical good news of grace. This is the news that in Jesus we are completely known and loved — not because of anything we have done — but because of what Jesus has done for us. 

 

Theologian Kelly Kapic in his wonderful book You’re Only Human invites his readers to consider two questions. First, do you believe God loves you? He suggests that most Christians would say of course, God loves me. But then he poses a second question: does God like you? How would you respond? He writes: 

 

Have you ever felt that your parents or spouse or your God loved you, and yet wondered if they actually liked you? Love is so loaded with obligations and duty that it often loses all emotive force, all sense of pleasure and satisfaction. Like can remind us of an aspect of God’s love we can all too easily forget. Forgetting God’s delight and joy in us stunts our ability to enjoy God’s love. Forgiveness, as beautiful and crucial as it is, is not enough unless it is understood to come from love and lead back to love. Unless we understand the gospel in terms of God’s fierce delight in us — not merely a wiping away of prior offenses. Unless we understand God’s battle for us as a dramatic, personal rescue and not merely a cold forensic process, we have ignored most of the Scriptures as well as the needs of the human condition.

 

It is this understanding of gospel love and grace that is the keystone in the rebuilding of the altar.

 

Corporate prayer

The second altar-building practice is corporate prayer. While private individual prayer is vital, a quick survey of the history of renewal moments shows a common thread: Christians gathering together to pray for God to work and move.

 

As we seek the renewal of our churches and communities, prayer is critical. And not just corporate prayer within Christ Community but with other like-minded Christians and churches, especially across racial and socio-economic dividing lines. 

 

Creativity

Finally, altar-building is marked by creativity. No two renewal moments have looked exactly the same. Building the altar isn’t a matter of simply trying to reproduce the methods from previous moments. It is about looking for fresh insights into this particular moment, discerning how the Spirit is working. A fantastic resource for understanding this cultural moment and sparking creativity is Mark Sayers book Reappearing Church: The Hope for Renewal in the Rise of Our Post-Christian Culture. Get a copy and read it with a group of other believers.

 

Conclusion

In the story of 1 Kings 18, not only does Elijah build the altar but he saturates it with water. The more soaked the altar is, the more dramatic the demonstration of God’s work and word. As we approach deeply contentious election seasons in 2022 and 2024, and face violence, war, and economic challenges in our nation and world, it is obvious; no mere human can light the fire. 

 

But we trust the resurrected King Jesus who, when He had ascended to the right hand of His Father in Heaven, sent the Holy Spirit. The Spirit in Acts 2 appeared as flames of fire above the heads of those gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost.

This is my prayer: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we pray, we ask, we plead: do it again! For your glory and our good, make yourself known to us, renew us, heal us. Make us faithful to build the altar. We trust you and your timing for the fire. Amen.

What Harvard Discovered About Kids and Church

What Harvard Discovered About Kids and Church

Getting kids to church can be a challenge — at any age. When they are infants it’s because it just takes so much work to pack them up. Kids at that age require so much gear! Later as toddlers, separation anxiety can make dropping them off at the Children’s Ministries area challenging to say the least. With elementary-age kids, sports and other activities can easily compete with and crowd out opportunities for kids to participate in church events. Then as pre-teens and teens, a normal and healthy burgeoning sense of autonomy can be challenging to parental suggestions or expectations for church involvement. 

So as a parent — at any stage — the question on any given weekend can understandably be Is it worth the effort and energy to help get my kids to church this week? 

Now I am a pastor so I know you’re probably not going to be shocked if I say, Yes! It’s worth it. (It feels a little like asking a personal trainer if working out is worth it. Of course they are going to say yes.) So I’m going to let someone else answer the question. 

Recently, Christianity Today magazine published a summary of findings about children’s health from researchers at Harvard’s (yes, that Harvard) T. H. Chan School of Public Health (i.e. not pastors). 

The researchers led by Tyler VanderWeele “…examined a large swath of data, collected over more than a decade, which tracked the development of 12,000 nurses’ children into their young adulthood. The longitudinal study surveyed social, physical, and mental health trends across the group—like substance abuse, anxiety/depression, community engagement, and sexual activity.”

The team was curious about how schooling choices and religious service attendance correlated to health outcomes. Here’s what they found:

In comparing key health indicators, the researchers found little difference between the long-term well-being of adolescents who attended public school and those who went to private school. (All of the kids who participated were between the ages of 9-14 when the study began.)  

So parents you can breathe a little sigh of relief there. But what about religious service attendance? How much does that matter? 

“What we found was that religious service attendance makes a bigger difference than religious schooling,” [VanderWeele] said. “Religious service attendance has beneficial effects across the different school types and has stronger effects than religious schooling.”

 

In other words, the kids who grew up attending church regularly rated far higher in overall well-being as young adults than those who went to a religious school but did not go to religious services during their formative years.

Did you catch that? If you take two kids — one who attends church once a week regularly and another who goes to a religious school five days a week but attends church only sporadically — it is the regular church attendee who fares better. The researchers concluded that “…religious service attendance in youth was clearly the more dominant force in shaping health and well-being, at least as this pertains to the data and experiences 20 years ago.” 

Here’s the bottom line from the Christianity Today summary: 

Furthermore, “regular service attendance helps shield children from the ‘big three’ dangers of adolescence: depression, substance abuse, and premature sexual activity,” VanderWeele writes in his latest article for Christianity Today. “People who attended church as children are also more likely to grow up happy, to be forgiving, to have a sense of mission and purpose, and to volunteer.”

 

“So regardless of school type,” VanderWeele says, “it’s beneficial to go to religious services, both as an adolescent and as an adult.”

These findings highlight the beauty and wisdom of God’s design for the local church. When parents dedicate their children at Christ Community, one of the questions they are asked is: Do you promise, before God and this congregation, that you will be faithful in worship, both in the home and in the church?

Those two spaces —the home and church — are vital to human health and flourishing. This is why Christ Community’s Children’s Ministries and Student Ministries staff and volunteers put so much effort into equipping parents. Parents play an outsized role in their children’s faith development. However, what the Harvard analysis shows  is clear. It isn’t enough to simply be faithful in worship at home if we want our children to truly flourish. It also requires being faithful in a worshiping community; a local church.

Four Lessons St. Patrick Has for the American Church

Four Lessons St. Patrick Has for the American Church

It is unfortunate that St. Patrick has become synonymous with wearing green to avoid being pinched, dyeing rivers green, and consuming large quantities of beer while pretending to be Irish. Little is widely known about the tremendous influence that this man had on the nation of Ireland and western Christianity. Patrick is easily one of the most successful Christian missionaries of all time. The indigenous Christian movement he started took root where missionaries had failed. Patrick’s influence grew to even re-evangelize much of western Europe in the centuries following the chaos of the Dark Ages and the decline of the institutional Roman church. His success is especially remarkable considering this was all done without any aid from other institutions of political or cultural power. As the current American church declines and we are in an increasingly post-Christendom world, we would do well to listen to voices like his.

The Life of Patrick

Patrick was born in roughly 389 AD to upper-middle-class parents in the British part of the Roman Empire. This was only a few years after Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the Empire and Christendom was established. Patrick’s father was a Christian deacon and a member of the city council, both highly respected roles. His grandfather was a priest, so it would be fitting to characterize his family as a pious one with high social standing. Despite this, Patrick described his own Christian upbringing as nominal at best.

A drastic change to this life of privilege happened when Patrick was 16. A band of Irish warriors raided his town, and he was taken away to Ireland, outside of the Empire, in captivity. He worked as a slave herding pigs for six years. Finally, apart from his complacent life where he tacitly accepted nominal Christianity, Patrick was forced to consider the ramifications of his faith. In his own words, “the Lord opened the sense of my unbelief.” He began to pray daily and call out to God to sustain and deliver him. His interaction with the religious beliefs of the Irish also strengthened his faith. Their belief in multiple gods and spirits that roamed throughout the land needing to be appeased aroused a deep sense of peace from the security he had in Christ.

After spending six years in Ireland, he received a vision that encouraged him to escape. While sleeping, he heard a voice tell him to rise and find a ship to take him home. He awoke, ran down to a nearby port, and found a ship that took him away from Ireland. He went to Gaul (modern day France) and spent some time learning and living at a monastery in Lerins. Although he felt called to live a life with common men, during this time he developed a strong appreciation for the monastic rule of life. When he left the monastery he returned to Britain to be reunited with his relatives. Later, at the age of 48, he received his version of the ‘Macedonian call’ (Acts 16:6-10). In a dream an angel brought him letters from his former captors in Ireland, and he heard their voices cry out “we appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.” After consulting with the bishops of the British Church, he was ordained a bishop and sent out to Ireland in a missionary band.

His method differed greatly from other Roman missionaries of his time. Instead of forcing conquered “barbarians’’ to convert or waiting for them to come to him as spiritual inquirers, Patrick and his companions would set up a community of faith in each village they visited. They would practice a monastic life of prayer and work, not in a cloister far from society but in the midst of the Irish. As they looked for receptive villagers, the band would pray for the sick, exorcize demons, and mediate conflicts. They were interested in the felt needs of the communities, even regularly praying for fish in the village river. In open-air settings, Patrick would speak about the gospel, using his vast knowledge of Irish culture to communicate the gospel in a way that would connect with them. Parables, symbols, drama, and other visuals were used because of the Irish people’s vivid imagination. Responsive villagers would join the monastic community and partake in their practices.

After a few months, a church would be officially born and the new converts would be baptized. Patrick’s group would leave behind a priest and a few others to continue instruction in Christian doctrine, but take some of the converted villagers with them as they moved on to the next village. It is estimated that Patrick started 700 churches, commissioned 1000 priests, and reached 40 out of the 150 tribes in Ireland, during his 28 year ministry.

Four Lessons for Us

1. The gospel is central.

Patrick’s ministry was rooted in a profound belief that humanity’s only hope was God’s intervention of grace through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. His personal experience of liberation from slavery by divine intervention no doubt made this truth a vivid reality for him. Each of his surviving writings begins with the words: “I, Patrick, a sinner.” This humility was not from self-loathing, but from an honest recognition of his need for a savior. Patrick was zealous to maintain that salvation is a result of God’s work of grace, in opposition to his contemporary fellow British monk, Pelagius, who taught human effort alone was enough to be saved. Patrick’s strong conviction that the unconverted would suffer damnation and had no hope apart from Christ motivated him to return to his former captors to share the good news with them.

The Church today should never grow weary of proclaiming the gospel and trusting in God’s grace. We should take care and not water down the biblical gospel. We must also be zealous like Patrick so that the good news does not become old hat.

2. The gospel changes everything.

Patrick’s missionary bands differed significantly from Roman missionary models by doing their Christian life in the midst of pagan communities. Patrick himself was deeply influenced by the Irish reverence for nature and so developed a sacramental vision of all of life, where the line between the natural and spiritual was paper-thin. Work was an integral part of their monastic life and not a distraction from it. Their concern for the economic realities of their Irish neighbors bolstered their witness.

One of the greatest dangers facing the church today is the unbiblical distortion that creates a sharp sacred-secular divide. This can lead us to believe our Monday work does not matter to a Sunday-focused God. As our culture becomes increasingly post-Christian and the influence of the institutional church wanes, we need to be faithful disciples of Jesus in the particular places He has us the majority of our week.

3. The gospel demands justice and reconciliation.

Similar to the previous lesson, the gospel Patrick preached did not only restore sinners to God but also led them to love one another and pursue justice and peace. In his writing, Epistola, he writes a letter rebuking a nominal-Christian warlord named Coroticus. He had raided some of Patrick’s converts and taken recently baptized women off as slaves. Patrick commands him to release them because he is compelled by “the zeal of God, the truth of Christ… (and) the love of (his) nearest neighbors.” His concern for justice and the flourishing of the Irish was also evident in how he ended the slave trade in that region. Patrick earned the respect of various Irish tribes by acting as a broker for peace to end conflict between clans. His evangelistic effectiveness was integral to his concern for the whole-life flourishing of the Irish.

The American Church would do well to follow Patrick’s footsteps. As we allow the gospel to speak to all of life, it will inevitably move us to work toward a society that is ordered by God’s justice and enables the flourishing of all.

4. The gospel is lived out together.

Though Patrick gets all the recognition and a holiday all to himself, we must never forget that he did not evangelize the Irish by himself. He was not a lone ranger, solo-climber, or solitary pioneer that set out on his own. Patrick owes much of its success to the many unknown members of his missionary bands that evangelized together. They demonstrated a different way of being in community among the Irish that became a compelling witness. Rather than requiring a profession of belief from ‘barbarians’ before partaking in Christian community like the Roman church, they recognized that belonging often precedes belief. Irish inquirers could join their monastic community, “tasting and seeing that the Lord is good” by experiencing the care of His people before making intellectual assent to Christian doctrine.

In a similar way, the American church will go nowhere relying on its celebrity leaders. It takes communities of extra-ordinary believers doing life together so that others can be drawn in to experience the reality that the gospel changes everything.

Let us take time this St. Patty’s day, in addition to any other celebration, to thank God for the work He did through St. Patrick and his friends. Let us also consider how we might emulate him by being a faithful, gospel-centered presence in our communities.

A Skeptic Goes to Church

A Skeptic Goes to Church

By Colman Murphey


I wasn’t raised in a church, but I decided to attend a year ago, and here I am a year later, still attending. I’ll try to sum up the reasons for that decision as concisely as I can, because I really could write a thousand-plus words about it.

Back in my college days, I listened to a lot of Jordan Peterson’s podcasts (I can maybe feel some eyes roll at this statement). He cracked the defenses I’d built up in my ignorant youth against all that is traditional. Suddenly, I became aware that the stories in the Bible contained powerful truths that pertain to the lives of all people, religious or secular. 

My memory isn’t perfect (probably due to the undergraduate alcohol culture) but I think it was after hearing many things that Jordan Peterson had to say that I started to notice a light emanating from the people of faith I encountered in random places. By light, I mean that their behavior resonated positively with me in some way. I did not literally see light around them.

I remember I felt particularly good when a stranger at the financial aid office said “God bless you” as thanks when I directed him to some other administrative office he was trying to find. I remember Anna and Nick, who were fellow counselors at the summer camp where I worked. They did not keep their faith a secret, and it seemed they were working with children for all the right reasons. I remember George, a history major studying at CUNY Hunter College in Manhattan whose coptic faith seemed to animate his passion for history. I felt these people were particularly admirable and I would remember them years later. 

During the pandemic, I moved to Kansas City and I had to start rebuilding my social life. I made a few friends through work, but I was also ready to try new things. Over the years, I had consumed a great deal of media produced by public intellectuals like Jordan Peterson and Glenn Loury. I found myself not as comfortable sharing my thoughts or being myself around the people I usually associated with through school and work. I hate confrontation, and I can be very timid when it comes to sharing contrarian views, so politics and religion were off the table most of the time, even though I was deeply interested in those topics. 

At the time, I was doing an online church with some friends back home, and I remember how those sermons empowered me to face the challenges of my job when other activities didn’t. They also provided me with validation for certain beliefs. The thought crossed my mind that maybe going to church in person would be a good idea.

Weirdly enough, I found a link to the Gospel Coalition’s website through a math pedagogy page I was exploring for work. 

I typed in my zip code and Christ Community’s Downtown Campus was the closest church to pop up. I emailed one of the pastors, who suggested we get coffee. When we met, I was relieved by his understanding demeanor. It made me feel relaxed, and I felt comfortable talking openly around him. He invited me to church on Sunday. 

Upon arrival at my first Sunday service, I was warmly greeted by a stranger my age who introduced me to his friends who were similarly welcoming. This receptive environment and the relationships I began to form kept me coming back. I eventually joined the men’s group where I got to meet and converse with guys from all walks of life about topics of masculinity and faith. This environment of a unified group which also contained so many diverse opinions was such a welcome change from others I inhabited in university and at work. Many of the people I met at church were admirable like those other Christians I’d encountered, which didn’t feel like a coincidence. Church has felt like an answer for a deep yearning for community and meaning that I sometimes forgot I had. 

While I’ve found community at church, I wouldn’t consider myself Christian in the colloquial sense. I’m not yet willing to concede that the miracles in the New Testament are historical or more than symbolic. After watching many hours of debates about the resurrection of Jesus on YouTube, I came to the conclusion that if I were to someday believe that Jesus really did rise from the dead, my belief wouldn’t come from rational arguments. Maybe rational arguments would play some role, but the belief would mostly come from something more akin to a feeling powerful enough to fend off the disbelief. 

That isn’t to say that scholarship on the historicity of the gospels hasn’t altered my views. It was interesting to learn from the Wikipedia page on the historicity of the gospels that John’s baptism of Jesus, and Jesus’ crucifixion at Calvary, are held to be historical facts. John’s baptism is supported by something called the criterion of embarrassment which essentially just says early Christians wouldn’t have made up that story since it might have been used to argue that John was in authority above Jesus. The writings of first century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus make reference to Jesus’s crucifixion at Calvary and therefore serve as strong evidence for the historicity of that event. Now that I’ve seen how some aspects of the gospels stand on historically solid ground, I am more open to the possibility that the gospels as a whole may be historically true. 

I also have yet to satisfy many questions before I’m willing to take next steps with Christ. There are other spiritual practices outside of Christianity that seem to produce positive changes in people. How is Christianity reconciled with cognitive behavioral therapy, Buddhist meditations, or reports of positive changes in behavior from therapy involving psychedelic drugs? What about the positive effects that MDMA therapy has reportedly had on people experiencing PTSD? How is Christianity reconciled with the findings of research where cancer patients had their death anxiety alleviated by doses of psilocybin? I want to understand how Christianity can incorporate these findings, and I feel confident there’s a way. I still have a lot of exploring to do, and, in the meantime, I’ll keep attending church.

Word Made Flesh

Word Made Flesh

Christmas is over. The season of joy, celebration, and anticipation has been replaced by bills, dirty dishes, and gloomy weather. It’s time to throw the tree to the curb, return the weird gifts you have no use for, and count down the days until the kids go back to school. Christmas music is finally done playing! And now the over/under date has been set for when you’ll break your New Year’s resolution (January 17 for me this year).

It’s the same thing every year – our eyes grow big with childish delight as we drive through the Christmas village. Our hearts flutter with excitement over the perfect gift we’ve found for a loved one. The Christmas season is full of anticipation, and then suddenly it’s over. Time to move on, because a new year is starting with new goals, new work projects, new classes, and on and on.

The Advent season is the time when we celebrate the coming of Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” But the Good News of “God with us” does not end with His birth story. We need to keep reading. “Emmanuel” is not about Christmas, it’s about an entire life. And now, as we enter what experts call “the most depressing time of year”, we need to remember that Jesus’ story is not over. 

The Gospel of John doesn’t have a story of Jesus’ birth. Instead, he summarizes in one phrase: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” (John 1:14). Jesus, God’s Word, who was also God himself (John 1:1) became human and dwelled among us. There were more than three decades between the first Christmas and the first Easter – that was a long time for Jesus to dwell among His people.

In the new year, our sermon series will transition from Jesus’ coming to His dwelling. We’re calling the series Word Made Flesh, which comes from John 1:14. We’ll be digging into the Gospel of John, to meet the God who became human. Who turned water into wine and drove out the money-changers in the temple. Who confronted “good” religious people like Nicodemus and immoral outsiders like the Samaritan woman at the well, telling them both that He alone is the source of eternal life.

As we wrap up this Christmas season and move into a new year, we hope that you will join us as we continue to read the story of the life of Jesus, the Word made flesh, the God who dwells with His people.

Ways to Avoid Becoming Terrible at Christmas

Ways to Avoid Becoming Terrible at Christmas

I love Christmas. But I hate how easily Christmas can deform us. What do I mean? 

I really love Christmas. I sing Christmas songs in July. Our family seems to have a thousand traditions jammed into December. We are one of those families who wear matching pajamas on Christmas Eve. I don’t think I’ve ever had the thought, “Well, that was too many Christmas carols in worship.” I love the smells, the bells, the sweaters, the peppermint everything…I could go on. 

But I find myself often disturbed by who we — Christians — become around this time of year. Children throwing tantrums because they didn’t get the toy they wanted. Adults throwing tantrums because they didn’t get…the toy they wanted. Debt skyrocketing. Patience running thin. Depression rates increase. Family fights are the norm. It’s the hap-happiest season of all…!

Why? Partly because we’ve replaced the shared longing for Christ in Advent with the materialistic lusts of Christmas. More than that, our rhythms and idols are heightened during holy days (aka holidays). In a culture with extravagant wealth when compared historically and globally, we tend to leverage that wealth toward meeting our deepest needs of security, safety, meaning, and belonging rather than looking to Christ. This time of year can easily become the heightened worship of materialism, and so it should be no surprise that at this time of year we get more of materialism’s fruits: hurry, selfishness, isolation, and loneliness. 

Now to the key question: how do we fight this? How do we recenter our longing for Christ and His desires in a way that brings change in us for the better this Advent? The answer lies not just in a surrender of the heart but also in a change of practice. The apostle Paul reminds us that grace propels us to walk into good works (Ephesians 2:10). So what do we do?

Here are three practices that the Holy Spirit can use to help reorient the Christmas holy day into being a day that makes us more whole. 

#1 Read the Christmas Story from the Bible and Talk about It. 

When Christmas morning rolls around, we can tell ourselves that we’ve outsourced the telling of the Christmas story to a movie or a previous sermon at some point in December so that we feel like we’ve checked that box. 

What’s Christmas morning about? Is it the shredding away of the wrapping paper to find our dreams met in the items around us? Or is it centering on the Christ child once again? 

What if we put away the phones, the apps, the slideshows, and just get out the good ol’ Bible. Grab coffee and open the book. Gather around it with others or alone and read of God come to us. 

Don’t rush it. Sit in it. Ask questions of this critical moment in history. Ask God to give you a deeper appreciation or a more rich understanding.

Remind yourself that God is the greatest gift given to humankind, and allow Him to relativize how much the gifts under the tree are to satisfy our deepest desires. 

Now, I hear the pushback. Gabe, that may be fine if you’re single or married without kids. But you don’t know my kids. You’re right. I’ve got three kids under the age of 8 as I write this. I know the questions that go through our minds as parents: What if they start to have a distaste for the Bible because I require them to sit through a reading and engage? What if it ruins the day? What if I lose my temper? Can’t we just relax on this day? Geez?! 

Materialism wants us to focus on instant gratification and avoid discipline. The gospel calls us to gracious parenting with our eyes set on who the children are becoming. I want us to call our children to know the Scriptures and know the Jesus who is at the center of all this. And just because they don’t look as engaged at first when reading the Christmas story as they do when they open presents, that doesn’t mean they won’t be more grateful for those times 10 years from now. 

Think about what you want your kids to say to their kids? What you want your spouse to say about you at your funeral? What if they said, “They always brought us back to God’s word. They didn’t want me to miss the greatest gift of all. I wasn’t always grateful for it, but they wouldn’t let me give my heart to stuff that wouldn’t fill my heart.” Can you imagine? 

So very practically, here are some of the traditional texts to engage with on Christmas:

  • Matthew 1:18-25. This is the passage of how the angel came to Joseph to tell him to stay with Mary even though she was pregnant with a child that wasn’t his. 
  • Luke 1:26-38. This is the passage where the angel comes to Mary and tells her she is to have a child. 
  • Luke 2:1-21. This is the classic passage of how Jesus was born and the shepherds came around the manger. 
  • Matthew 2. This is also a powerful passage of the foreigners (the Magi) who came to find Jesus, and how Jesus quickly became a refugee. A powerful reminder just how similar those early situations are to today.
  • Revelation 22:1-8. This is not as traditional in present day Christmas celebrations, but this text captures our advental longing for Christ’s second coming and the beauty of His coming presence. 

#2 Invite Others into Your Christmas Holy Day.

We can idolize the nuclear family in  western. In other cultures, extended family and even neighbors were included in holy day celebrations. Idols always destroy the vulnerable. Always. And some of the vulnerable in our culture are those who are single, whether young or older, and away from family. 

It’s fascinating that at the first Christmas, Mary and Joseph weren’t alone with Jesus. The shepherds joined them because God invited them (Luke 2:16). And throughout the gospel narrative we see again and again that Jesus himself defines the most important place of belonging not as the nuclear family but those who do the will of the Father (Matthew 12:50). Now this is in no way an excuse to exclude or avoid those who are related to us in a natural way (1 Timothy 5:8), but it is to expand our boundaries of belonging and inclusion. 

So on this Christmas, yes, call your grandma, but what about calling your Christian sister too? I’m not about making your Christmas day hectic, but maybe there’s one person you can reach out to who is in your life because you share Christ? Maybe they chose singleness like the apostle Paul encourages us to (1 Corinthians 7:7), or maybe singleness and isolation was a result of painful exclusion (James 1:27, 1 Corinthians 7:15). Regardless, we are made for community, and the church is to be the family of God in a very real sense. Who can you reach out to include this Christmas? 

Each Christmas there is someone Allie and I invite into our home that we hear is without a community on Christmas, and it is always better because of it. We don’t make any real adjustments. We just invite them into our lives to do Christmas with us, and it makes our Christmas day more beautiful. Try it out.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t add the importance of gathering with the church community around Christmas. It’s always fascinating to me that during a holiday centered on the beauty of Christ and His body, the Sunday after Christmas is one of the least attended Sundays in the year. I get there are reasons like travel and so on, but one important step in caring for the vulnerable around the holidays is to show up at church. We need each other, and if we don’t show up there – at our worship gatherings – we leave so many feeling even more alone when we need each other the most. 

#3 Be Radically Generous with Your Words. 

I don’t know how many times I have read the card on their presents for my kids, but they can’t even focus because their sights are set on the toy that is yet to be revealed under the wrapping paper. With such an emphasis on stuff during Christmas, we forget that some of the most powerful forms of generosity have to do with our words toward and for one another.

I recognize you need to figure out your rhythm with your family, but what if there was a part of Christmas day – maybe it’s even after the giving and receiving of the physical gifts – where each person shares something they are grateful for about the person sitting next to them? If you are a married couple, maybe you intentionally set time aside to speak your delight over one another?

I know, I know. Some folks are giving me the “you’re crazy” look right now. That just sounds hoaky, right? But why? We need to hear this from each other (1 Thessalonians 5:11). We need to hear from those closest to us that they are grateful for us. That’s even more important than whatever thing is under the tree. What if this year you did that for each person with you on Christmas morning? What if this year you just modeled the way? 

Let’s Become Better Together

Those are 3 practices that if we leaned into them during and around Christmas, the Holy Spirit would actually strengthen our bonds, encourage our faith, and train our mouths to anticipate Christ’s second coming. 

My hope is not that everyone does these exact three things. My hope is that this has given you a more biblical imagination for what God can do in and through you this holy day. It doesn’t have to be chaotic. It doesn’t have to be deforming. Christmas can be a time to give life, to form life, and to invite more into a shared life with Christ, if we are willing to allow our practices to communicate Christ at the center of Christmas once again. 

From all of us at Christ Community, Merry Christmas!