As a young minister in 1963, I felt it was my duty to put things right at Christmas time. The holiday was a Holy Day, a time to focus on the central fact of redemptive history, the Birth of Jesus Christ, the moment when God personally entered human history for the salvation of a lost humanity. Everything else about Christmas celebrations was the Devil’s way of distracting us from the only message God wanted us to hear. I think I preached a couple of “Bah, Humbug!” sermons my first year in the pulpit, criticizing all the Christmas stories, lights, symbols and traditions that obscured the profound Christmas truth.
The people of that congregation were patient with me and let me get that out of my system. Then, during the next few years, they helped me to see how just about every aspect of Christmas celebration in our society can be a prism through which we can see some aspect of the love God expressed in the birth of the Baby Jesus. I found I could use Santa, Rudolph, the Little Drummer Boy and even the Grinch as doorways into the true Christmas story.
I think there’s an example of this approach in the preaching of the Apostle Paul during his second missionary journey, as recorded in Acts 17:16-34. We read about how he found himself in the great Greek city of Athens, the center of secular philosophy, science and pagan religion. The Apostle Paul used this opportunity to speak about his Christian beliefs to a very sophisticated and diverse group, at the famous oratorical center on Mars Hill. We can learn a lot about sharing our faith by adopting his way of communicating to this difficult audience.
He looked around the awesome center of Greek culture, philosophy and religion, and what struck him was that “the city was full of idols” (verse 16). However, instead of frontally attacking or ridiculing their false beliefs, here’s how Paul approached it:
- He COMPLIMENTED them for their belief: “I see how extremely spiritual you are in every way” (vs. 22).
- He showed GENUINE INTEREST in their beliefs: “I looked carefully at the objects of your worship” (vs. 23).
- He made a CONNECTION between their beliefs and his: “The ‘Unknown God’ you worship is the God I worship” (vs. 23).
- He emphasized the AGREEMENT among all beliefs in God: “The one Lord of heaven and earth, of all peoples” (vv. 24-26).
- Then, he pointed out the DISTINCTIVE TRUTH that made his belief unique: “The appointed Savior, raised from the dead” (vs. 31).
- In the end, there was still an OPEN DOOR FOR FURTHER DISCUSSION “We will hear you again about this” (v. 32).
This Christmas, you may be gathering with family members, work associates or other friendship groups. You may very much want to share your faith in Jesus, but hold off, go slow. First listen to what’s on their minds. Gifts? Lights? Decorations? Favorite holiday movies? Let the discussion begin there. Honor their values and beliefs. Then, without forcing the conversation, share the original Christmas truth when and if it seems natural. Trust God to create the opportunity.
– – Pastor George Van Alstine