Increased churchgoing at Christmas might be problematic

Carl Laferton | December 3rd 2018

Numbers attending Christmas services is at its highest in more than a decade, according to the Church of England. We may be an increasingly post-Christian society, but it seems we’re also an increasingly go-to-church-at-Christmas society.

Which is great, I think… and problematic, I worry.

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The Problem

Problematic, because it could lull us into a false sense of security, and of evangelistic commitment. Put on a good carol service (especially if you have a picturesque church building), and they will come. Put on a Christingle or a nativity service (particularly in the late-afternoon Christmas Eve slot, when every parent in the land needs a break), and they will come. Invite your neighbours and friends to such events, and they may well come—and they will certainly not think it weird to be asked.
And so, lo! The churches of the United Kingdom (especially those with previously mentioned picturesque buildings) did discover that a great multitude didst come and hear the gospel in December, and they felt good, and rested upon their laurels/door wreaths.

And then in January, everything went back to normal. And the ‘long term trends’ of decline in church attendance (which you will find mentioned in the seventh paragraph of the Church of England’s article which headlined with the Christmas attendance figures) continued.

No one in heaven is rejoicing about church attendance at Christmas

The Opportunity

Yet, here’s why it’s great. Because it shows that at Christmas, Christianity and culture still touch. We can grow cynical about committed ‘C and E’ church attenders (Christmas and Easter, every year). We can see the negatives about the way the baby Jesus is inserted into the great festival of Xmas, laid gently between Santa Claus and the John Lewis advert and never allowed to grow up into a man who said quite a few things that would challenge both institutional religion and pagan culture.

But at the same time, tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of people will come under the sound of the gospel over the next month. What an opportunity!

So the question needs to be: how do you get people from December to January? How do you get the neighbour who comes to the carol service or the toddler-group friends who come to a Christingle to then turn up at church on a standard rainy Sunday in the middle of January?

It is, of course, pretty much my job to suggest you could make sure they have something to read over Christmas, and through that bit between Christmas and New Year when no one knows quite what to do. And there’s mileage in giving people a gospel or an evangelistic book to have lying around in their house for those emptier hours.

But honestly, I think there’s something far better. It’s you. And me.

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Up to Us

The British evangelist Rico Tice said recently that one of the big changes in the past 5-10 years is that it used to be the ordinary Christian’s ‘job’ to get their friend to come to church. Then church took over. Good preaching, quality music, a warm invite to an evangelistic course… the church staff could take it from there. But no longer. Now, Rico says, we bring someone to church, the church staff preach the gospel well, hopefully chat to them afterwards… and then hand them back to us. And the follow-up is our job, because it’s going to take more than a carol service once a year to get someone raised in post-Christendom to sign up for a course like Christianity Explored or fill out a form asking to know more.

No, it’s up to us. Up to us to arrange a meal or a playdate or a pint early in the New Year. Up to us to ask what they made of the message of the service, or which line of a carol they sang particularly made them think. Up to us to ask them what they make of the idea that that baby was God himself, and up to us to ask whether they’ve ever considered the claims made by the baby once he’d grown up.

If we allow ourselves to think that our neighbours coming to the carol service and enjoying it will do for our evangelistic efforts this winter (or, let’s face it, this year), then lo! Our churches will once more be at normal numbers (or slightly down) in the New Year. But if we remember that our neighbours coming to the carol service and enjoying it is just the start and that it’s up to us to make the running in continuing the conversations, then it may just be that the Church of England—at least with regards to your church—can next year skip the paragraph about long-term decline that they buried half-way down the article.

Because no one in heaven is rejoicing about church attendance at Christmas. The Son of God was not born a human so that we could sing carols by candlelight. Heaven rejoices at a sinner who repents. The Son of God was born a human so that we could be saved and surround his throne in eternity.  

Carl Laferton

Carl is Editorial Director at The Good Book Company and is a member of Grace Church Worcester Park, London. He is the best-selling author of The Garden, the Curtain and the Cross and God's Big Promises Bible Storybook, and also serves as series editor of the God's Word for You series. Before joining TGBC, he worked as a journalist and then as a teacher, and pastored a congregation in Hull. Carl is married to Lizzie, and they have two children. He studied history at Oxford University.

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