Strange as it may sound to the novice, Christmas is probably not “the hap, happiest season of all” for pastors. There are at least three reasons for this. Let’s take a closer look at all three and see if we can get a firmer grasp on the holiday hub-bub.
Pastoring at Christmas time can be frustrating because there’s so much cultural hype and a lot of it is utterly inane. This affects both the folks in the congregation and the pastors themselves. Even the church program is sometimes unhelpful. Calendars buckle under an avalanche of exciting commitments at which “the pastor’s presence is appreciated.” This presses on the minister’s study time and often conflicts with his own family life. There’s an old saying that the only thing worse than no date on Saturday night is … two. An overabundance of good things to do creates emotional dilemmas and added stress. Also, people we’re trying to disciple can lose spiritual focus amid all the holiday bustle.
Pastoral work embraces a significant amount of grief at Christmas time, believe it or not. An article in Psychology Today not long ago reported an annual upturn in depression treatment during the holidays. Why? Well, it’s not the weather outside (which is frightful). It’s the stress inside (where the fire is not delightful). There is enormous internal pressure during Christmas to act happy, be a family (whether you are one or not), buy lots of stuff, and generally put on a show in an effort to imitate a Norman Rockwell painting. Research suggests that overly high expectations of fulfillment at Christmas contribute profoundly to the sorrow. American happiness is a heavy and expensive weight to bear for many.
Pastors sometimes feel repetitious at Christmas because they’ve preached on all the relevant passages so many times. Doesn’t everybody already know all they need to know about this? Well, probably not. I’m convinced this is more a pastoral perception than a congregational reality. Nevertheless the feeling has a dragging effect on the pulpit work. It’s hard to get excited about something you suspect your congregation already knows. I have delivered over fifty Christmas sermons in my thirty-four years in the pulpit (If the math sounds strange, remember that often we do an Advent series and all the sermons in it are Christmas messages more or less). Over that time I confess to offering (in my opinion) more than one “dud” message. On the other hand, research says it takes 27 repetitions of a new concept before the learner starts to “get it” intuitively. That’s job security for us. If we’re going to repeat something, it should be the story of Jesus.
The Gospel will Save
Having said all that however, let us be reminded that Christmas is a great time to preach the gospel and to represent Christ. Consider the advantages of the season: For one thing, more non-Christians and nominal believers come to hear the Word during this season than any other. It’s an opportunity to present the gospel to people who need to hear it afresh. Which is why you shouldn’t worry overmuch about repeating yourself right now. A wise old pastor when requested apologetically to repeat a sermon for another congregation, commented in his deep Southern drawl, “Son, if it don’t beah repeat’n, Ah should’ah nevah said it in the fust place.”
Note too that seasonal depression is best treated with worship and the Word. Here again, the very stress of living in our society can motivate people to come to where there is peace and a deeper meaning than the Mall offers. So the wise pastor crafts Christmas messages and worship times in a way that presents Christ as the answer to the deep need that people are trying to meet with their credit cards. But I advise strongly against being Reverand Grinch in an effort to counteract the commercial idols! Don’t vent about hedonism, materialism, or greed during Christmas. You’ll just make everybody feel guilty (temporarily) about stuff they already bought. Wait until mid-January for a treatment of these issues, when the bills come due and the post-holiday blues set in. It will resonate then. Remember that the wrath of pastors does not accomplish the righteousness of God. And throwing holy ice-water on the cultural feast will not open the ears of your listeners. They’ll just wince and pull their philosophical collars up to protect themselves.
It can be tough sledding for pastors at this time of the year. But if true spiritual shepherds are more impressed with the Lord than with either the foibles of the culture or the baubles of the season, there is real potential to bring the good news of the incarnation into fresh perspective. Stay calm, joyful, peaceful, Christ-centered, and grace-focused and you will offer the hope of the gospel to those who have ears to hear.
Blessings on your Christmas ministry,