Christmas Eve is a great opportunity for churches to share the good news of the gospel with many unbelievers — sometimes hearing it for the first time. Pastors should give a clear invitation to respond in faith to the message of the gospel.
I plan to do this. I can’t wait to do this!
But there are many church leaders who place far too much pressure on themselves at their Christmas Eve services to get a good response. Each year I receive emails essentially urging me not to “blow it” at this big “super bowl” service of the year. One email I received from a godly leader whom I admire said:
My heart breaks when we lead people right up to the line of faith and then leave them hanging there. They need your help, so boldly help them put their faith in Jesus this Christmas. Finally, make sure people know what their next steps are.
Yes, true, I hear you…but are we forgetting something, or Someone?
I believe this way of thinking betrays a woefully low view of God and an inadequate view of the Holy Spirit’s role in our worship and preaching. The truth is they need God’s help to cross the line of faith and put their faith in Jesus. They need the Holy Spirit to show them what their next steps are. I have confidence that God knows each person’s heart and will not “leave them hanging there.” (Pastors: God doesn’t need us as much as we like to think. He just graciously allows us to play a big role sometimes.)
With a big view of God and a belief in the active role of the Holy Spirit, I don’t need to lose sleep over whether I botched the invitation or fell short in my follow up with people. I trust God is at work in the hearts of my hearers. He can lead them to take the next steps. God will plant a longing in someone’s heart and the Holy Spirit will draw them back next week for more.
Again, I’m not arguing against bringing people to a point of decision, and offering clear follow up steps. I plan to. But I am arguing we need to relax, keep a proper perspective, and trust God more with the results.
To make my point, let’s have some fun and apply such thinking to the first Christmas sermon ever preached at that first Christmas Eve service unexpectedly held in that Judea field. Let’s look at the clear planning and follow-up work that first Christmas. Warning: Snarky satire ahead.
[Attendance: 2 or 3 shepherds, an Angelical Preacher who kept his sermon to less than a minute, and a kicking’ choir (really? sounds a bit traditional and boring…)]
The Christmas Story According to Some Overly Anxious Pastors
8 That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. 9 Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12 And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger….that is, if you’ll take the proper next steps found in the bottom of the bulletin you received when you walked into the field tonight.”
[It’s truly a miracle the Shepherds even heard the gospel that night since they had foolishly neglected to attend any of the scheduled worship services at any of the available synagogues in that region. Its hard to believe God could actually reach anybody outside the walls of an official place of worship. This is why all responsible heralds of the gospel will spend thousands of dollars on advertising, newspaper ads, hanging colorful banners by the road, and placing yard signs all over town making sure people know how to get to the one certain place where God is most likely to show up and “bring good tidings of great joy.” Or so we thought.]
13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”
15 When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Now what should we do? The Angels didn’t give us clear directions or next steps. Oh, well. I guess we’ll just stay here in the field tending our sheep. Dang it! I really thought I experienced something divine a few seconds ago. Bummer.”
[Fortunately, that wasn’t the end of the story.]
Miraculously, without further specific instructions from the angel one of the shepherds suggested th genius idea,“Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
Unfortunately, the Shepherds didn’t know how to get to Bethlehem because the Angelic preachers had failed to print out clear directions and recruit ushers to stand at all entrances to the field to hand them out as they left the pasture. So, they walked in circles scratching their heads until they got tired and decided to lie down and fell sleep. Tragically, they never made it to the Savior because the Angels failed to give them clear directions down the nearby Roman Road that would have led them to the stable in Bethlehem.
Or, did they somehow, against all odds, find their way to the Savior? Wow, no way!
16 They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. 17 After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. 18 All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished but, sadly, had no clue what to do next. The Shepherds didn’t invite them to pray the sinner’s prayer to receive Jesus as savior. They didn’t invite them to sign up for an inquirers class to begin in 2 weeks. They didn’t give them a pamphlet explaining the 4 spiritual laws. They didn’t even bother to invite them back to worship again the following week.
No, all who heard the shepherds’ story instead went home without being led across the line of faith. They heard the good news of the newborn Savior announced, but due to inadequate planning and follow up on the shepherd’s part, these folks all went home confused and without hope. Maybe next year the Shepherds will be better trained and get it right.
Unless, of course, God himself is able to stir up faith in their hearts, and the Holy Spirit himself is capable to help them take the next steps in their faith journey… But that’s asking a lot of God, isn’t it?
19 But Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. Yeah, that’s nice but we all know that Mary was a special, unique case. She had the rare ability to hear directly from God and she responded in faith to the Spirit’s guidance. Too bad God doesn’t deal with all Christians that way. Too bad the rest of us don’t have the Holy Spirit to guide us and need a pastor’s hand to guide us if we’re to ever come to faith.