Yesterday was Christmas Day and I thought I’d go to a church service close to where I’m holidaying in Brisbane, Australia. Responding to a text message from my 16-year-old son giving me the start time, I turned up to Unnamed Baptist Church on time, alone, in a car emblazoned with bright yellow interstate number plates, and parked under the trees near the main entrance.
It’s what I would call a medium-sized church. It has good air conditioning, seats that enable audience members to endure the most snooze-worthy sermon, a large stage area recently painted matt black – presumably to resemble the stage areas of most contemporary Pentecostal churches – and, importantly, a spacious covered area outside the front entrance that shouts “Welcome!”
There were about 30 cars parked under the trees (there was no sealed or curbed parking, although the dusty areas had been covered in new bark chip), and people were heading to the door in family groups. I followed them. Since it was summer in Australia, and these were bayside Queenslanders, I dressed in an open-necked short-sleeved shirt, neat casual shorts, and thongs. I guessed the dress code well. I didn’t look out of place.
At the door, a dad about my own age and two teenage children stopped to receive an eight-page church bulletin, a large glossy copy of the QB (the Queensland Baptist, which to its credit has in the past published one or two articles by me), and a small white envelope. The usher, a woman about 50, chatted for a moment, suggesting that the three ahead of me were locals, and then it was my turn.
I received a warm smile, a bulletin, and ten words. Perhaps they had run out of QBs. I went in and sat in about the middle of the auditorium with a good view of the stage, and stood as the first of many Christmas carols began to be sung. On stage, the worship leader (dressed just like me, but with more grey hair and a relaxed attitude which suited the atmosphere) was accompanied by three backing vocalists, keyboard, drums and guitar. The large screen above them didn’t dominate (the inky blackness of the walls and ceiling did that), and there were none of the usual blunders with data projection progression – possibly due to the fact that carols don’t generally have bridges and repeat repeat repeat choruses. The audience joined in well.
There was a Bible reading from Matthew’s nativity story, a rather long children’s talk, and two excellent video clips (one, “They won’t be expecting that!” telling the Christmas story in a beautifully executed children’s drama from St Paul’s, Auckland, New Zealand; the other an ABC news clip summarising the shocking tragedy of refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria). There was an offering to support Christian aid agencies working among Syrian refugees and among victims of super-typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, and then the children were called back for the sermon.
It was a topical sermon on managing unmet expectations, detailed, warm and didactic. There were good graphics on the screen backing up points made and moves taken. There was a third video clip, which I wouldn’t have used, featuring parents’ videos of children receiving unexpected and unpalatable Christmas gifts and responding with tears, humour and rage. I confess to looking at my phone to check the time (never a good sign, but it was still under an hour since we started), and even posting a Facebook update in true maverick style.
The preacher, the senior pastor, addressed the crowd sitting on the stage steps with script in one hand and data projector remote control in the other. Meanwhile, children all around him sketched and coloured pictures of what they wanted for Christmas, what heaven is like, and what Christmas is about. At least, I think that’s what they were doing. It wouldn’t have hurt to get the adults doing the same.
And then it was over, with the singing of the carol, “Joy to the world,” a great foot-tapping finale that I’ve used many times to conclude a Christmas Day service.
But I was left with a nagging dissatisfaction. Christmas Day is an excellent opportunity for local churches to connect with occasional church-goers, holiday makers, people looking for a new church home, and genuine (occasionally desperate) spiritual seekers. We want them to walk away feeling positive, affirmed, perhaps challenged. Above all, we want to reduce the negative image and stereotyping that often attends people’s expectations of that mysterious and confronting experience we call “church.”
At yesterday’s service, the crowd was engaged; the Bible was preached, the story of God’s love and grace was told; the links between manger and cross, divine love and judgment, heaven and hell, were clearly evident; the opportunity to respond individually and personally to God’s grace in salvation was given; and it appeared that connecting with children, and through them with parents, was a high priority of Unnamed Baptist Church.
But this was a suburban church in a large metropolitan area, and I was a stranger, alone, male, 40-something, casually dressed, who knew the songs and stood/sat/gave/clapped at all the right moments. Hey, I even closed my eyes for the prayers.
I don’t think I was particularly intimidating or outlandish. And I might even have had a partner, and children, and a job that could contribute to the church’s bottom line. Or I might have needed to meet Jesus there, perhaps for the first time, through conversation with a living, breathing human being who took the time to say hello, or asked me about my life or what I thought of the service, or even what I was doing for Christmas lunch.
But at Unnamed Baptist Church yesterday, all I received by way of personal communication during the 75 minutes I was on the church property was those ten words from the usher at the door as I arrived.
And those ten words? “Do you want an envelope to put your money in?”
Rod Benson is an ordained Baptist minister and serves as Ethicist and Public Theologian at the Tinsley Institute, Morling College, Sydney.