There are numerous benefits of preaching at Christmas.
- Carols services—normally attract many people who only come to church once a year. This presents us with a wonderful opportunity to preach the gospel to a willing audience of unsaved people.
- The Biblical Christmas narratives allow a great opportunity to present a clear gospel sermon :
- Matthew tells us about Jesus who will save his people from their sins.
- And then the magi—or wise men—who come and worship the King.
- In Luke’s account the angels announce that a Saviour is born, who is Christ the Lord.
- Christmas services are normally happy occasions, and so give the church an opportunity to present a good face to the world. An engaging sermon, and a well-organised service—in a warm and inviting context—can make a lasting good impression on people.
But Christmas preaching comes with particular challenges too. Here are some things to keep in mind:
Traps and Tips for Preaching at Christmas
1. Don’t Expect too Much Engagement
While more guests come to church at Christmas, they’re not usually in much of a frame of mind to be making important, life-changing decisions. They’ve come because it’s their family tradition—along with eating roast turkey and playing charades in the afternoon. Going to church is just one more tradition. Some family members go just to please the rest of the family. Some have come simply because they enjoy singing the familiar carols.
Along with that, because people have family commitments, people rarely hang around to talk after the service. If it’s a midnight Christmas Eve service, they all want to get home and go to bed. If it’s Christmas Day they want to get home for the Christmas celebrations. And so there is limited opportunity to engage with visitors.
In short, while many more people turn up at church—they’re usually not in the frame of mind to listen to the talk.
2. Try a Different Passage
One perennial problem for the pastor who has served in a church for some years, is finding something new to say at Christmas—given that only two gospels contain Christmas narratives.
But of course, there are numerous Old Testament texts that prophesy the coming of the Messiah—and other NT passages which speak of the incarnation like John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word…” or, Philippians 2:5-11—about Jesus making himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human appearance.
3. Set the Right Tone
What tone does one set in a Christmas sermon? Remember that Christmas Day is a joyful day, and people come in that frame of mind.
If they perceive the sermon to be condemning them—spoken with a stern face—that can reinforce the notion that the church to be an unfriendly place—full of people who are judgmental.
Remember too, that at such services (and this is also true of events like weddings and funerals) it’s often the preacher—or the tone that is set—that is remembered above what is said.
So, while we mustn’t compromise on the gospel, we do need to be like Paul in Acts 17 and show wisdom in both what we say and how we say it.
In the light of that, here are two things I keep in mind whenever I preach—and especially at Christmas.
4. Watch your Words
Watch the jargon—try and use words, language that both the insider and the outsider can understand. That’s not to say you can’t introduce new vocabulary from time to time (e.g. atonement, holiness, covenant etc.) But, generally speaking, try and use language accessible to anyone.
That’s one of the reasons I use a full text—I write my sermon out in full. And that’s why I leave time for editing my talk—so, I can check that my language works. We can so easily slip into ‘Christian speak.’
5. Delivery—Be Warm and Friendly
When I review sermons I spend time on delivery. I think about:
- My movement – how I move my hands, head and body
- My face:
- my expressions during the sermon
- whether I am remembering to smile when I welcome people
- My eye-contact It’s hard to be welcoming when you’re not looking at people You know what it’s like when you’re talking with someone and they never look at you and keep looking everywhere else. It makes you feel that you’re really not important to them.
- My voice Is it clear? Warm? Is my speaking well-paced?
6. How long?
Another question that needs to be thought about is, how long should the sermon be at a Christmas service?
This will vary from church to church. If your church is one that attracts very few outsiders on Christmas morning, then you’ll probably follow your normal practice for a Sunday sermon. On the other hand, if you can expect a significant number of guests then you may decide to keep it to 20 minutes or less.
Observations on Carols’ services
Over the years I’ve spoken at quite a few of these. Most are held in the church—this is less likely to attract as many outsiders, but those who do come expect a church service. Another alternative is a more neutral venue, like a Town Hall or Community Centre. These indoor venue provide fewer distractions—and people may feel more comfortable going there than a church..
Both these kinds of carols services (those held in a church or other indoor venue) allow for more gospel content in the service. It might be possible to have a testimony or a children’s talk as well as the sermon.
Then there are the ‘open air’ carols services. These will often draw a large crowd, but there will be lots of distractions: children running around, people talking, coming and going, perhaps eating. Outdoor services also require an enormous amount of work and preparation and can be quite expensive for the church hosting the event.
In these situations the preacher needs to keep the talk quite short. To be honest, if you want people to clearly hear the gospel explained, the open air carols service doesn’t have much to commend it.
Finally, as I talk with pastors, I note that the ‘take-up’ after any type of carols service is minimal. Churches add very few (if any) regular attenders through attendance at carols services.