New research suggests both that trust in the church is rapidly declining and that millennials (roughly those in their 20’s and early 30’s) have trouble connecting to church today because they don’t feel free to ask REAL questions and express REAL doubt in our faith communities. In addition, the youngest generations in our pews don’t bring the same familiarity with the Bible and basic Christian beliefs that we could expect from earlier generations.
I happen to be at the upper limit of the millennial generation, so when people are talking about millennials, they’re talking about me, my friends, and people I grew up with and went to school with.
Christmas is an especially challenging time for the church to connect with my friends because so many of us have known the basic truths of the Christmas story since we were toddlers. So when my friends are searching for truth at Christmas and are sometimes grappling with what the Christmas story really means for the first time, we don’t quite know how to approach them.
But what my friends really want from us is honesty, transparency, and a willingness to speak openly about both our doubts and our faith experiences. They want the freedom to creatively and safely explore the mystical nature of God in our world. They need the space to discover for themselves that the stories of our faith don’t always make rational sense, but that there’s good reason to believe them anyway.
So here’s the truth about Christmas.
- No, we do not have an eyewitness account of Jesus’ birth. Two of the four gospels (Mark and John) don’t even mention it, unless you count John 1:14 (The word became flesh and dwelt among us).
- Yes, the only surviving accounts of Jesus’ birth were written long after Jesus died by people with a bias toward the faith and with a particular audience, perspective and end point in mind.
- No, we don’t know exactly when Jesus was born, although it almost certainly was not on December 25th.
- No, the wise men didn’t show up at the manger with the angels and the shepherds. In fact, in the only account that mentions them (Matthew), the star they were following led them to Jerusalem, not Bethlehem, and they actually ended up tipping off Herod to the threat that Jesus might pose, leading Mary and Joseph to have to flee to Egypt.
- Yes, the virgin birth (that is, that Jesus is the son of Mary and the son of God, not the son of Joseph) is central to the gospel message and church tradition. Yes, it’s hard to understand and hard to believe. We get that.
- Yes, it’s okay to have doubts.
- No, how, when and where Jesus was born and who was or was not surrounding the manger at the time are not the central components of our faith.
- And no, the gospel accounts were not written as historical narratives. They wouldn’t pass modern critical scrutiny for historical accuracy and consistency, and we’re okay with that.
BUT…Christmas and the gospel narratives of Jesus’ birth are important to us and to the Christian story because they teach us several truths about God.
- God has a plan for our salvation, and God intends to take an active role in it. The story of our redemption begins at Christmas with God’s action, not our own.
- God is alive and active in our world. The incarnation, God in skin and bones, teaches that God is near and present and tactile and active and caring and with us.
- God understands the human condition. In Jesus, God knows what it’s like to walk around down here on earth, to love and hurt and laugh and cry. To be lonely and sad. To be overflowing with energy and hope and excitement. To disagree with friends and family. To lose someone you love.
- Jesus is for everyone. He’s for shepherds in Judea, scholars from the east, and everyone in between. God is willing to be born into a feeding trough to communicate that everyone has a place in the story. No one is too humble and lowly or great and exalted for God.
- God gives himself to us as a gift. In Jesus, God was born to us. And everyone who heard about it was excited and amazed.
- God is love. In the gift of Jesus as Teacher, Savior, Messiah and Lord, we have new evidence of God’s love and great reason to celebrate.
So what do we tell my friends about Christmas? We tell them the truths in the story. And we tell them we don’t believe the truths of Christmas only because we know the Christmas story. We believe because the truths of Christmas are born out in the rest of the story. What we learn about God at Christmas is confirmed and reinforced through Jesus’ life and ministry, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, and through the individual experiences of Christians across the centuries and all over the world.
AND, we tell them, the truth about Christmas is confirmed through our own experiences. We say, “What I learn about God at Christmas is reinforced by God’s personal activity in my life.”
-I believe that God has a plan for my salvation because God has changed me.
-I believe that God is alive and active in your world because I’ve experienced God’s activity in mine.
-I believe God understands the human condition because from time to time I’ve experienced the fleeting oneness with God that leaves no doubt He understands me.
-I believe that Jesus is for everyone, not because the angels said it to the shepherds, but because if God can change a sinner like me, He can change anybody.
-I believe God in Jesus Christ is the best gift the world could ever receive because it brings hope and joy and comfort to my life, even among the doubt and struggle and heartache I still experience.
-I believe God is love because I’ve experienced unconditional love in scripture, prayer and Christian community in a way I never have anywhere else.
I guess that’s what I’d like to tell my friends. But I also know that sometimes, when my friends walk into church with all kinds of questions and doubts swirling in their heads, they don’t want a thousand word essay on the topic. They just want someone to smile at them and say Merry Christmas.
So Merry Christmas. And may God bless us, every one.