If you have followed this blog for a while, you will know our church building is in the middle of an overwhelmingly South Asian Muslim area of Oldham. You will also know that we don’t find Christmas the slam dunk, open goal cultural evangelistic opportunity that a lot of others do. You may also know that, despite that fact, we will still do stuff for Christmas. The obvious question is, why?
The truth is, we don’t expect lots of people to turn up to our Christmas events. Those that do come are more likely to be indigenous Brits looking for their fix of carols, religion and tradition for the year. We sometimes pick up a few of those. The majority who come will really be those who have received an invite from someone in the congregation. They are really coming because they would rather get their bit of Christmas religious tradition with their friend who asked than somewhere else that might be that bit more traditional and Christmassy. The fact is, if you’re mainly bothered about traditional Christmas jazz, you’re probably not going to pick our 70s-built dissenting church for a carol sing-a-long over the parish church, with its lovely building, choir and whatnot. Even the traditions aren’t quite enough to pull people in to us of themselves.
More to the point, whilst we will certainly invite them, we don’t expect to see all that many of our Muslim friends and neighbours. It’s possible we might get one or two who are particularly interested in seeing what Christians do at Christmas, but for the most part, they will no more be flooding through our church doors than we tend to file into the mosque in great numbers at Ramadan. It’s just not a thing for them.
And the truth is, as a hardcore strict Baptist – whilst I love Christmas – it has almost zero religious significance for me. It is, as far as I’m concerned, a nice secular festival to be enjoyed. I acknowledge that, culturally, there is (usually) an opportunity to be had and am more than willing to piggy back on the culture and take it. But as far as the church goes, Christmas isn’t in the Bible, and it is, to all intents and purposes, a secular holiday that provides a nice opportunity for us to think particularly about the incarnation and give thanks for the coming of Jesus into the world, beyond whenever we might otherwise do that. Again, don’t get me wrong. I love Christmas. I just don’t think it has the religious significance many of us think it does. It is an extra-biblical invention that has crossed into general culture that we can celebrate of not if we want. I choose to celebrate because it’s fun and we like it and why not think about Jesus a bit more like we do all the time anyway? But there’s no compulsion.
Given that, you might be wondering why on earth we bother doing anything for Christmas at all? Not only do we do stuff on that ground, I would still do all this church stuff even if we knew nobody from the community was going to turn up at all. Not because I think Jesus demands it; he doesn’t. But because of the implicit message we send if we don’t.
Every year, the local Muslim popular march past our church (usually when I’m midway through my sermon) to celebrate the birth of Mohammad. They make a big noise and ensure that everyone knows they’re happy Mohammad was born. It is an important thing for them.
By the same token, though it’s not in the Bible, they do look to see what we do at Christmas. Even though they don’t necessarily come in, to not have the lights on in the building on the culturally appointed day everyone expects us to be celebrating the birth of Jesus, sends its own message. Not a very good message at that. It suggests to our community that we simply do not care that Jesus came into the world. Which makes our message that Jesus coming into the world being the greatest news anyone could hear seem a bit hollow when we try to share the gospel with them.
And so, I believe it is really important that we are seen to be celebrating Christmas in our community. Not because Jesus demands that we do it. Not because I think we are more godly if we do it. But because we are free to do it and the message we send if we don’t do it will be particularly terrible. What does it say to our community if, on the day they expect us to be celebrating the birth of Christ, our church is shut, the lights are off and nobody seems to be bothered? For that reason, even if nobody came, we will celebrate Christmas anyway.