Should we preach at Carol services?

carol singingA couple of years ago, David Walker, the bishop of Manchester, conducted some research on the distinctive needs of occasional attenders who might come to Christmas services, but don’t attend the rest of the year. This appears to be an important group; I have noticed each year how many people are reporting increased attendances at carol services, and we saw the same at St Nic’s in Nottingham.

Some things were slightly surprising about this group.

Typically, two-thirds positively believed in specific details of the Christmas story: the shepherds, stable, and Wise Men. All but a tiny proportion of the rest were unsure. Only 13 per cent, however, felt that the facts were more important than the mystery. Half felt closer to God at Christmas, and yet more thought Easter to be, for them, the more important festival.

But other things were less surprising.

They were noticeably pluralist: they were far more likely to agree that all world faiths lead to God than that Christianity is the only true religion…On moral issues they were progressive: only 28 per cent disagreed with ordaining gay men as bishops.

(I wonder why a bishop labels this view ‘progressive’—or even why this is an important question to ask occasional church-goers at all…?). In other words, this is what you would expect to find in a respectable fringe group who think positively about church.

Out of this, David offers some helpful advice.

  • Don’t update the words of well-known carols to fit your theology…
  • Be imaginative. Use poetry, prose, and art…
  • Welcome people, but respect their personal space…
  • Mention other special events coming up in the calendar…

But in amongst them is one extraordinary suggestion:

  • If there is to be a sermon (and at carol services, it really is not a good idea)…

Not a good idea? Really? Here is a group of people, open to Christian things (possibly because they have attended church in the past) but without regular commitment—and it is not a good idea to preach? This is a very odd suggestion, for several reasons. First, it is not very Anglican. If you look at the ordinal and the 39 Articles, it is clear that the Anglican understanding of ordained ministry is that it is one of both word and sacrament—that preaching is as important as mystery, explanation as important as experience. (That is why, as Andrew Atherstone points out, it is historically odd that we are very happy with the delegation of preaching to lay ministers, but feel uncomfortable with delegation of eucharistic presidency to lay ministers.)

It is a particularly odd suggestion in relation to Christmas. The Christmas story itself is full of announcement and proclamation—indeed, if there is one thread running through every aspect of this multi-faceted story, it is that of proclamation. Gabriel to Zechariah, Elizabeth and Mary, the dreams of Joseph, the angels appearing to shepherds, the Magi to Herod—how odd it would be to have no proclamation regarding a story of successive proclamations.

And what a story we have to proclaim. Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005—and is an atheist. Yet he loves to celebrate the Christmas story:

Nothing draws me more to religion than Christmas. That is not because I lose my atheist faith but because I intensely dislike all the commercial baggage and babble that surrounds the festival. So, in a spirit of protest, I shall try to attend at least one carol service and possibly a midnight Mass, too, as well as listening at 3pm sharp on Christmas Eve to the Radio 4 broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge.

All religions have stories at their heart. Christianity, to my mind, has the best: an omnipotent God who chooses to be incarnated as a human, born in the most humble circumstances imaginable. Whether or not we are believers, we should all celebrate that story in the coming days and ponder its meaning.

Pondering the meaning of this remarkable story is going to be a lot harder for occasional visitors unless there is some explanation or exposition of the story itself. The carols on their own will not do this.

So why would anyone resist this? There are, perhaps, two clues in David Walker’s article. The first comes early on with the only other reference to preaching.

There has always been a type of mission that ignores context, and simply struts its stuff. It is best illustrated by those who stand in city-centre streets, clutching microphones and tracts, and harangue shoppers and commuters with their favourite Bible verses.

Screen Shot 2015-12-20 at 09.46.39If this is your understanding of preaching, then you probably should avoid it—it is certainly the kind of preaching I would want to avoid! But the best response to bad use is not no use—it is good use. There was a brief but wonderful example of this in a Christmas episode of the One Show. The final scene came from carol singing in All Soul’s, Langham Place, and Matt was talking to the Rector, Hugh Palmer.

HP: Giving appeals to our common humanity—I suspect the people who gave came from all faiths and none.

Matt: And that’s at the heart of the Christmas message that you would like to give…?

HP: Well, we often talk about charity beginning at home. But I think that charity begins with God, the good God, who is highlighted at Christmas. He looks and doesn’t just see children in need, but a world with all kinds of needs, and gives extravagantly, and not with a cheque, but gives himself, Jesus, and that’s the heartbeat of Christian giving. We don’t give so that God will give to us. We give, we love, because he first loved us—and that’s Christmas.

Matt: Well, thank you for that message…

It was a superb example of a concise, contextual and clear exposition of the Christmas story—to someone who came with rather different assumptions but some sympathy and openness.

The second clue about this reluctance to preach arises from the research questions. Although the attenders have been asked about the details of the Christmas story, and some broader questions about belief in God, they don’t appear to have been asked about the meaning of this story. Again, this is curious, since the New Testament stories themselves are laden with meaning and significance. As we can quickly tell, they are no mere recounting of facts. This tells us something important about this kind of research: the assumptions you put in are going to be the assumptions you get out. So if you don’t think that explaining and understanding the Christmas story is a priority as you start the research, your conclusions might just miraculously confirm this!

(Something similar has happened with the research into ‘ordinary theology’. It turns out that the majority of ordinary Anglicans don’t have a particularly orthodox understanding of either who Jesus is or what he achieved. And apparently, to take this seriously we don’t need to teach about orthodox Christian faith—we need to redefine it to include these views!)

Underlying this appears to be a lack of confidence that the story itself is compelling and attractive. If the Star Wars phenomenon tells us anything, it is that people love a good story. And there is no story as engaging and compelling as the story of the Word made flesh.

So, this Christmas, do preach. Make it contextually appropriate. Make sure it sounds like good news to those who might not have heard it before. Make sure you hold out the compelling truth of the story, and how it promises so much more. Make sure you focus, not so much on what people did or what we should do, but what God has done.

But whatever else you do—preach!

(A version of this was first published in December 2015)

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18 thoughts on “Should we preach at Carol services?”

  1. Thanks Ian, a great corrective and encouragement. Really loved the All Souls example. Isn’t this a case of someone who has spent time thinking about how they will answer a question so they are able to do it naturally? Good tip for all, not just preacher’s.

    Chris Green has some good tips on his Ministry Nuts and Bolts blog worth a look

    • Hugh did very well in his reply. In the last few years that The One Show have been “popping in” to All Souls, the questions to him have seemingly been very carefully spun to try and elicit an inclusive response.

  2. I’m reminded of a Mystery Worshipper/Ship of Fools comment (from many years ago) about a church local to us. The service was Parish Communion and Christmas Toy Service.
    In answer to the question “Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?”, the mystery worshipper’s reply was “A very difficult question. Yes, it was reassuring to find a service that was genuinely cheerful without manipulating the emotions. And no, because it did nothing at all to reassure me that the Christian faith is not based on outmoded superstition.”
    If ‘outmoded superstition’ is a possibility in this type of service, then preaching is very definitely needed.

  3. I have always preached at Carol services & will continue to do so.

    But I have discovered that introducing each Bible Reading with a very short & pithy statement is much appreciated. I do not normally write out my sermons but on these occasions I stick too a few well prepared sentences. There is then no need for the traditional but longer sermon. I try to make people understand and think.

    • Excellent idea!

      Fit the preaching to the structure of the traditional nine lessons and carols, & it’s much likelier to sink in than suspending proceedings for an hour.

      • Not being Anglican, we tend not to use the ‘traditional’ nine lessons and carols, but I have found that a carefully structured service, including Scripture readings, carols, choir items, sometimes a video clip or readings from sources other than Scripture, linked together with brief intoductory comments and concluding with a five minute summary seems to work. Proclamation is not just limited to the ‘sermon’, but is woven throughout as the story is told and explained in various ways.

  4. Preach! The scriptures don’t ‘explain themselves’ to non-believers especially using only the small extracts read in church.

    If you think your gifting and ability do not match that which is needed then get out of the way and ask someone else to do it. 🙂

    Don’t accept the loss of trust in what God can do through preaching his word.

    Probably, being retired, it’s the one occasion I miss preaching at most of all. A happy, engaged congregation singing the familiar and enjoying something new (in lesser measure) is so open to listening it’s amazing. It was also the time when I would never read a sermon… eye to eye, trying to read reactions and react to them, looking for and trusting in the work of the Holy Spirit….. presenting Jesus. It’s far more than a monologue.

    What could be more demanding, exciting and wonderful?

  5. I totally agree with you, Ian, although it’s also important to emphasise that conciseness is important, as the One Show clearly demonstrated.

  6. I agree that there is a place for preaching at carol services but +David Walker still has a point. I doubt that he means never preach at them but rather that we should stop and think carefully why we are preaching and what we aim to achieve. Too often occasions such as carol services, weddings and civic services, etc. are marred by poorly judged preaching which is a) too long, b) too ‘preachy’ and c) focused on the cross and atonement instead of other aspects of Christian teaching more appropriate to the context. For example, I have been to more than one wedding at which a 20 minute sermon has been used as an opportunity to explain substitutionary atonement. It’s as though every possible occasion must be used if we have a captive audience of people who rarely attend church otherwise.
    I suspect it is this type of preaching that the bishop is warning against, not short ones which take the people, the context and the gospel accounts seriously and joyfully.

    • I can’t think of any theme on any occasion in the church when preaching the ‘cross & atonement’ aren’t of central relevance – especially relevant at a carol service and a wedding sermon and a civic service.

      • Exactly – the Feast of the Nativity marks the birth of the Saviour – not the Moral Teacher. You don’t need an incarnation of God to communicate a message; a prophet will do just as well.
        Which is exactly Islam’s problem with the Cross.

        I suspect David Walker’s problems with preaching are really problems with historic Christianity. Scratch a liberal and you will find an adoptionist Unitarian; and for such, ‘Christianity’ (reconfigured and ‘demythologised’) is really elaborate moral paraenesis, not a power that saves you from the wrath of God. The very idea is absurd, as Andrew Godsall has said.

  7. Using something along the lines of the Glen Scribner meet the Nativity clips and his clips from previous years can be useful. Nb my practice is to preach but as with others, it will be diff to normal. Our week in week out approach is expository preaching 20 -25 mins at 930 and 30-40 mins at 1115. In our Carol services, similar to an all age service, I will pick up on one key evangelistic application. I also try to respond to the themes and the mood running through the service,

    Re the comment above from Tim, I think the Cross should naturally have central focus, and the events of Christmas need to go through the Cross exactly to avoid a sentimental or moralistic message. Similarly, marriage, it’s hard to go to the meaning of marriage and avoid the Cross ” husband love your wives as Christ loved the church.”

    I suspect the issue is more in the “explain” bit we are not there to explain a doctrine but to preach Christ.

  8. Have been having this debate each year particularly with one of the churches here, but it comes up with other services to. The visitors like the tradition so thats what we should stick to, I have recently taken to pointing out that they don’t like it enough to come back (until the next big traditional service) so maybe we should give them something that gets them thinking, that challenges them, just a little to think that maybe Christianity has something to offer (even if the local church isn’t always very good at reflecting that!)

  9. Just s short response to the comments on my post, which I must confess rather took me by surprise. I first heard the view that at Christmas sermons should focus on the Incarnation not the cross from the vice princiapl of my (fairly conservative) evangelical theological college over 30 years ago. I’ve no problem with preaching about the cross or the sacrifice of Jesus in obedience to the Father, but if a liturgical or pastoral occasion offers the opportunity to preach about another aspect of Christian teaching – the Incarnation, the gift of the Spirit, the sacraments, etc. – why not take it? I simply don’t think that we need to preach about the cross on every occasion, just as we don’t need to preach about the resurrection on every occasion, but that doesn’t meant that the resurrection isn’t at the centre of the faith. Since doctrine is an inter-connected whole it is possible to link every aspect to every other aspect, but that would make for very poor preaching.
    Anyway, let’s celebrate the joy of the Christ who reaveals the presence of God among us, both then and now.


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